How much food is the average household waste in the US?

New findings are the first to measure the amount of food in individual households which goes uneaten. This waste has a direct impact on the economy and on our health and the environment.

New research points out how much food is wasted in U.S. homes and speculates why.
New research points out how much food is wasted in U.S. homes and speculates why.

Scientists have had a vague idea for many years about how much food is being wasted in the United States.

As the team behind this investigation states, earlier studies have found that 30–40 percent of U.S. food supply goes uneaten, resulting in a loss of over $160 billion.

But researchers struggled to estimate food waste from individual households, due to a lack of broad-based, up-to-date information. However, new investigations appear to have found the answer.

Professor Edward Jaenicke and doctoral candidate Yang Yu — from Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education — used a development economy approach to find that U.S. households are wasting about a third of the food they purchase.

In addition to costing the economy $240 billion each year, this loss reaches individual families with a cost of $1,866 per annum.

Thus, the current level of waste has consequences for our health, food production and the environment.

In the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Prof Jaenicke and Yu report their findings.

A novel calculation

Information from the study were collected from 4,000 households that participated in the U.S. National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), Department of Agriculture.

The height, weight, age and gender of each person was used to assess the metabolic energy requirements needed to sustain their body weight.

Prof. Jaenicke and Yu used a production economics method in their investigation which represents the efficiency of a production process using input and output.

The survey data concerning the consumption of food became the “input,” and the energy needed to maintain body weight became the “output.”

Figuring out the quantity of food left unfilled was simply a matter of measuring the difference between the food purchased and the quantity needed to sustain body weight.

Waste across the board

The two researchers found that the average household in the United States wastes 31.9 percent of the food that its members receive.

“More than two-thirds of households in our study have food waste estimates of between 20% and 50%. However, even the least wasteful household wastes 8.7% of the food it acquires.”

– Prof. Edward Jaenicke

Prof. Jaenicke and Yu were also able to determine differences in waste between households of different demographics, due to the amount of data available.

Members tended to have more healthy diets and higher incomes in households that created more food waste.

“Programs promoting healthy diets that inadvertently contribute to more waste,” explains Prof. Jaenicke, due to the perishable nature of fruits and vegetables.

Researchers observed lower levels of waste in households with higher levels of food insecurity, households further away from their main grocery store, and households where members drew up lists of shopping.

Families with more members had less waste too. Prof. Jaenicke believes the explanation for this is obvious.

“In larger families people have more choices for preparing meals,” he says. “More people are more likely to eat leftover food.”

Food and portion size may also play a role. “A household of two may not eat a whole head of cauliflower, so some could be lost, while a larger household is more likely to eat it all, perhaps at a single meal,” Prof. Jaenicke says.

The climate change effect

The results could promote less wasteful policies— especially if healthy eating programs actually lead to more unfilled food.

Prof. Jaenicke says politicians will understand how to “fine-tune these systems to reduce potential waste.” The effects of food waste on the environment are another major concern. As Prof. Jaenicke points out, not only food is wasteful.

“Ressources used for the production of unfed food, including land, power, water and labor, are also wasted.”

“According to the[ Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations], food waste is responsible for approximately 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas annually,” he continues, “which would be, if seen as a nation, the third largest carbon emitter after the United States and China.” Now that researchers know roughly how much food the average household waste is, they can start digging deeper into the reasons for this.

“We hope our methodology will provide a new lens for analyzing food waste from individual households,” concludes Prof. Jaenicke.

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