Trash Talk: The Multimillion-Dollar Price Tag of Food Waste in Cities

Amidst every city’s hustle, glitz, and glamor lies a costly secret hidden in plain sight- food waste.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food waste accounts for 30-40 percent of the nation’s food supply. To put that into perspective, this amounted to an astonishing 133 billion pounds of food, valued at nearly $161 billion, lost in 2010 alone.  In relation to food waste costs within urban settings, dealing with issues ranging from spoilage to transportation and food processing has both indirect and direct impacts on a community’s economy. The costs associated with food waste in urban settings are both direct and indirect when it comes to spoilage, transportation, and the processing of food.

Food loss is a multifaceted issue rooted in various causes, encompassing distinct forms of loss, such as spoilage, that manifest throughout the entire production and supply chain. Spanning from the point of harvest to the retail stage, food loss can materialize due to challenges encountered during processes like drying, milling, transportation, and processing, which make food susceptible to damage inflicted by insects, rodents, birds, molds, and bacteria. Retail food loss may stem from equipment malfunctions, such as faulty cold storage facilities, excessive ordering practices, and the discarding of imperfect produce. Additionally, consumers play a role in contributing to food loss when they purchase or cook more than necessary and opt to dispose of surplus items.

Similarly, when we waste food, we are discarding edible resources and squandering the significant energy investments that go into its transportation. According to a study conducted by Columbia University, the journey from farms to consumers’ homes accounts for a significant portion of the overall energy consumption in the United States, nearly 10 percent of the nation’s energy budget. This staggering statistic underscores the interconnectedness of food production and energy consumption. Every scrap that ends up in the trash reflects a missed opportunity to nourish someone and embodies the vast amounts of fossil fuels, electricity, and human effort expended in cultivating, harvesting, processing, packaging, and delivering that food to our tables. Therefore, minimizing food waste isn’t just about reducing the environmental impact; it’s also a crucial step in conserving energy resources and mitigating the broader ecological footprint of our food system.

In addition, processing errors at the retail level significantly contribute to food loss, impacting both businesses and the environment. One error can be found in equipment malfunctions, such as when refrigeration units fail in cold storage facilities, causing perishable goods to spoil and resulting in significant food wastage. Moreover, over-ordering products in anticipation of customer demand can lead to excess inventory, which remains unused and ultimately discarded. Another contributing factor is the rejection of imperfect produce; retailers often discard fruits and vegetables that do not meet strict cosmetic standards. According to Columbia University, this facet of food waste constitutes nearly 40% of unconsumed food. Collectively, these practices underscore the pressing issue of food loss and emphasize the crucial need for the implementation of sustainable and efficient strategies within the retail sector to address this problem.

While the allure of cities is undeniable, behind the scenes, millions of dollars are silently slipping through the cracks due to food waste. To combat this, we must adopt a holistic approach. Educating consumers about responsible purchasing and portion control, encouraging retailers to revise strict cosmetic standards, and investing in better storage and transportation systems are essential. Additionally, supporting food recovery programs and embracing technology to track and manage inventory can make a substantial impact. By working together, we can transform our urban landscapes and build a more sustainable future.

By Maha Qureshi
O2I Volunteer

Re-use Food Waste the SUV Way

Food waste has reached epidemic proportions across the nation. Dumpsters located outside of every supermarket, restaurant, farmer’s market or any other place that sells food is filled with usable food. Sustainable Urban Village (SUV) has a proven plan that will educate the population on ways to reduce (prevent) and re-use (recover, recycle) food waste.

What is food waste? It’s food that could have been eaten but wasn’t for various reasons. Produce that is not ‘pretty’ becomes food waste because no one wants to buy a “Wonky” apple or an oddly shaped tomato. Leftover food from restaurants becomes food waste and excess produce from farms are thrown as there are no buyers for them. Households produce food waste because we buy more fresh food than we can consume before it goes bad.

Making people aware of the food waste problem is a step towards correcting the problem. SUV has an Awareness Center that will help people understand the food waste problem and learn ways to prevent it. Self-Awareness, Community Awareness, and Corporate Awareness are all a part of the program to educate people on all levels of things they can do to prevent food waste from occurring.  

Reducing the amount of food, we purchase is one step everyone can take towards preventing food waste. Instead of purchasing 4 bananas and tossing out 1 at the end of the week because it became over-ripe, just buy 3 bananas.
Using the same banana example, when you notice 1 of the bananas is becoming over-ripe, put it in the freezer for future use in a smoothie or banana bread. That’s called ‘re-purposing’ food and it will reduce food waste.

A compost center included in the SUV will convert the manure from the animals on the farm as well as waste from yards, gardens and food using a converter, so it can decompose and be used to improve soil fertility. The compost will enable the soil to produce more food, so the sustainable cycle can continue for everyone living in the Sustainable Urban Village.

SUV has an animal farm included in its plan to reduce food waste. Both good and bad food will be collected from those living in the neighborhood and used to feed the farm animals. What was once wasted food will become food with a purpose and feed livestock. Animals, like chickens, goats, and cows, will be fed with this nutrient-rich food waste and in turn, will provide fresh food like milk for those living in the Sustainable Urban Village.