Dear Wasted Food Dude–Waste Audits

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude, which also runs on BioCycle‘s site and their e-bulletin, BioCycle Food Recycling News

Related: send questions! All food-waste-related queries are welcome–big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or @wastedfood.

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
I’m preparing to do a home waste audit as part of an NRDC initiative where I live. Not sure exactly what my family and I will find, but I’m curious if we’re normal. How much food does the average family waste?
—Rod G., Nashville, TN

Hey Rod,
I’m taking a leap here, but I doubt you’re all that normal. I mean, you did just volunteer your family to log all food discards and have a researcher inspect your trash as part of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Nashville Food Waste Initiative.* That’s commendable and it puts you firmly in the forefront of food waste awareness, but doesn’t make you mayor of Normal Town. Then again, who cares? Normal is overrated (and quite wasteful)!

But of course, you were asking whether the amount of food your family wastes is normal. So how wasteful are most people? Here’s a good measuring stick: according to U.S. EPA data, the average person wastes about 20 pounds of food per month. That figure — more specifically 0.64 pounds per day — is slightly different than what you’re asking. It represents per capita U.S. food waste, or the total food waste generated in the U.S. food system (not including farms) divided by the number of Americans. But it provides a good ballpark estimate.

For a family, you can’t just multiply that amount by the number of family members. And that’s good news — there are economies of scale at play here. A United Kingdom study found that the amount of food wasted per person in a three or more person household is less than half of what it is in a single person household! (See page 12 of the study.)

That’s why, for families, I’d recommend using this ballpark estimate: we don’t use 20 percent of food we buy. So get out your supermarket receipts!

Speaking of normal, you know what’s not normal? Most people think that they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to wasting food. A whopping 75 percent of survey respondents think they waste less than the average American. Think about that for a second. But because you’re participating in the NRDC food waste study, you’ll soon have a fairly accurate idea.

Of course, knowing that your wasted food is being measured will undoubtedly alter your behavior in certain ways. But in the name of science — and normalcy! — try to shop, cook and eat like nobody’s watching.

And in the end, all that matters is that you learn from this measurement. As the adage goes, we manage what we measure. Seeing all of that embedded money, water, energy, soil nutrients, and pesticides going for naught should provide ample motivation to improve your food usage habits.

One final word of warning: if you’re planning do something about your food waste, that will likely put you squarely in the non-normal category, for better or worse. Yet, I think it’s well worth being unusual here.

Measure Twice, Cut (wasted food) Once!
—WFD

*NRDC is conducting a pilot in Nashville, Tennessee to test strategies to prevent, recover and recycle food waste at key points along the supply chain, including households. As part of that initiative, NRDC is assessing the amounts and types of food generated in Nashville. Assessments also will be conducted in other cities.

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