Food for Thought: We Throw Out Nearly 40% of Our Food in the U.S.

Food for Thought: We Throw Out Nearly 40% of Our Food in the U.S.

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Every Friday afternoon, thousands of elementary school students across the country take home a backpack filled with food provided by organizations like Feeding America. Without it, many children wouldn’t get enough to eat over the weekend.

And yet, even while many families struggle to put dinner on the table, nearly 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. is thrown away—the equivalent of one pound per person every day.

Brookfield Elementary School in Oakland, California, became concerned that its cafeteria was wasting food, even while many of its students were not getting enough nutrition at home. They contacted the organization Food Shift for a solution.

“The school is required to provide milk for every student,” says Dana Frasz, the founder of Food Shift. “If only half the kids drink milk that day, the rest comes back to the kitchen. It’s still consumable. But the kitchen is not legally allowed to serve [those unopened cartons] again or to give it away.”

But as an outside, nonprofit organization, Food Shift could redistribute that food to the students and their families. Frasz organized a team of parent volunteers to move the surplus to a special chiller. Now, three mornings a week, parents in need can pick up bags of milk, fruit, and packaged food for their families.

Restaurants are also finding ways to get healthy meals to children. Thanks to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, food services can donate surplus goods instead of throwing them away.

Darden Restaurants—the parent company of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and other national chains—“harvests” unused shrimp, lobster, steak, chicken, pasta, soups, and vegetables from its 2,100 restaurants. “We have a system built into our operational procedures,” says Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers. “Uneaten, prepared meals and leftover food are bagged, tagged, and frozen.” The company has donated 66 million pounds of food over the past 10 years.

The nonprofit Food Donation Connection helps facilitate the transfer of meals and produce for many restaurants, grocery stores, and other venues. Especially prized, says Steve Dietz, FDC’s business development director, are fresh, high-quality products—like the prepackaged sandwiches, salads, and fruit cups supplied by HMSHost and Whole Foods to after-school programs.

“Children in all areas of the country benefit from this food,” he says, “but some donors have an even bigger impact because of the types of food they donate.”

One out of every five American children live with food insecurity, meaning they do not always know where they will find their next meal.

What you can do

If You Have a Minute…

Search your pantry for foods kids love—peanut butter, canned tuna and chicken, chicken noodle soup, oatmeal—and donate them to a backpack program or food bank. Find one in your community at

If You Have an Hour…

Ask your grocer what happens to the leftover but still edible food at your local market. If it is wasted, research food redistribution programs in your area and put them in touch with your grocery store.

If You Have a Month…

Work with your school district to create a program to save and redistribute surplus food. Visit for inspiration and ideas.

If You Have $100…

Skip the grocery store for one week and feed yourself from your pantry. Donate the money you budgeted for food to a local food bank. Food banks can multiply your donation exponentially because they can buy fresh produce, meat, and other commodities for cents on the pound.

You Gonna Eat That?

Food waste costs more than just money—it also saps land, water, energy, labor, and other resources, and the U.S. spends more than $1 billion each year to dispose of wasted food, according to the food-salvage nonprofit Society of St. Andrew.

That problem helped inspire Tara Duggan, an award-winning food writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, to write Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable.

“Not only are we wasting food that could be feeding someone, we’re wasting an astounding amount of natural resources, too,” she says.

Duggan set out to learn which often-ignored produce parts are edible, and how home cooks could transform them into dinner-party-worthy dishes. Take celery leaves, which most of us toss out. “When sliced and blended with lemon juice, they make a tasty slaw,” she says. Leek greens and broccoli leaves, also typically destined for compost, add flavor to a stir-fry or salad. Leftover herbs can be blended with olive oil and garlic to make an easy sauce.

“People don’t want to waste the money they spend on food,” Duggan says. “When you get nice, organic produce, you don’t want to throw away any precious parts of these vegetables.” Read the S&H review of her book here.

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