By Bridget Washburn

Before throwing out food a bit past its “use by” date, take a closer look. If it appears and smells fresh, eating it will leave the consumer with no regrets – and support a healthier environment. According to the USDA, “foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled date”. With the exception of infant formula, which is federally regulated, “use by” dates are determined by product manufacturers as guidelines indicating when food is of best quality. The absence of federal, science-based regulations determining “use by” dates, paired with the common misconception that these dates signify a spoiled product, all contribute to the global issue of food waste.

Worldwide, 1.4 billion tons of food go uneaten every year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. The USDA reports that US residents waste nearly a pound of food per person every day – that’s about 30 percent of the national food supply, adding up to over 75 billion pounds of food, representing 22 percent of total municipal solid waste. This quantity of wasted food is comparable to buying 5 bags of groceries and leaving 2 in the parking lot.

Reducing household food waste offers an immediate opportunity to support positive climate action. Saving one quarter pound hamburger from the landfill means not wasting the resources used for its production and transport, including water, land, grain (for animal products) fertilizer and fuel, which together adds up to about 4 pounds of greenhouse gases, according to Business Insider. In total, emissions generated by the production of wasted food in the United States is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of 32.6 million cars.

“Reducing food waste would cut greenhouse gas emissions, slow the destruction of nature through land conversion and pollution, enhance the availability of food and thus reduce hunger and save money at a time of global recession,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of United Nations Environment Program.

Outside the purview of individual homes, food waste occurs:

  • On farms, where unharvested produce is left when low market prices cannot cover the cost of labor, packing and shipping of a product;
  • During shipping, especially in developing nations without the luxury of reliable transportation;
  • At the manufacturing company, upon finding contamination or packaging errors; and
  • At retail stores, which often overbuy for aesthetic reasons and thus generate about 16 billion pounds of food waste every year.

Successfully harvesting, processing and distributing the food produced today could end world hunger. Yet, flaws within the current system, mean that over 800 million people remain chronically undernourished. Action can stem from policy reform. Several states now restrict the amount of food waste going to landfills. In July of 2020, Vermont’s “Universal Recycling Law” banned food scrap waste entirely. Since then, food donations statewide have increased 40 percent. At the federal level, the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency convened in 2015 to set federal targets to cut food waste in the United States by 50 percent by 2030.

Everyday opportunities to tackle the food waste challenge at a personal level include:

  • Before tossing out food slightly past its “use by” date, notice its appearance and smell. Milk and meat usually last up to 5 days after sell the by date.
  • Refrigerate food at 41 degrees F or less.
  • Create weekly meal plans and grocery lists to go with them.
  • Clean the fridge weekly and move what you need to eat to the front of the shelves.
  • Purchase smaller amounts and beware of bogos!
  • Substitute ingredients to use older items up and eat before you shop!
  • Store food efficiently – Keep root veggies in a cool dark place, set herbs in a glass of water (even better if it’s in the fridge),
  • Portion out and freeze leftovers, label frozen food with the date, freeze sprouts and fruits and veggies that are about to go bad.
  • Repurpose food: Freeze overripe bananas to make banana bread, be creative by hanging herbs upside down to dry, candy leftover citrus peels, make pesto from carrot and beetroot tops, and make fruit popsicles with ripened fruit.

Make the most of your mealtime and take a minute to appreciate the food on your plate.