As I returned home from a farm interview the other day, I happened to hear the National Press Club's lunch hour session on the radio with USDA secretary Tom Vilsack.
The ag secretary talked about the "complex environmental challenges" that U.S. farmers face and how climate change is at the heart of them all. Whether you believe that premise or not, Vilsack made some solid points about the impacts seen thus far—winters not cold enough to kill pests, such as the pine bark beetle that is decimating Western forests; growing seasons changing due to warmer weather, up to two weeks longer just in the Midwest.
It was later in his talk that I thought he made an interest point and it got me to thinking about the subtleness of his statement. Vilsack talked about food security and how blessed we are in the U.S. to have the diversity of production and availability of choice. It is something we all know we take for granted.
And that is obvious, too, by how much we eat and how much we waste.
The secretary implied that all Americans should be taking ownership in helping with food security and safeguarding food supplies.
And then he started talking about food waste in the U.S.
The statistics he shared were really embarrassing. As much as 40% of American food supply is wasted. Food waste is the single largest type of waste entering landfills.
USDA noted in a recent press release that in 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food from U.S. retail food stores, restaurants and homes was tossed. And the amount of uneaten food—just in homes and restaurants—was valued at almost $390 per U.S. consumer in 2008—more than an average month's worth of food expenditures.
That's a lot of land, labor, water, pesticides, fertilizers wasted. All the effort to produce and market the food could have been channeled elsewhere, other than tossed.
Vilsack also shared some information about a new effort on the part of USDA and EPA to reduce this waste called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. The agencies want to partner with businesses to help lead a shift in consumer thinking and habits about food waste. They hope to get 400 business partners on board with the program by 2015 and by 2020, 1,000 involved.
I found it refreshing to hold consumers accountable when it comes to food supply and food security. Consumers want choice and in America, they get it. The over-abundance we have is taken for granted, mainly because our food is so cheap when compared to rest of the world. Americans only spend 6%-10% of their paychecks on food.
In order to keep our food supply safe, reliable and affordable, it will take effort on everyone's part to plan ahead for responsible food consumption. I know I must get on board with this. Vegetables in our refrigerator drawer usually stay there longer than they should and end up in the trash. And sometimes leftovers reside too long on the back shelf.
Individually, food waste might not seem like much of a big deal. Collectively, however, it is.
Let's try to remember that next time we load our grocery carts and fill our plates.