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What a waste: Americans throw away massive amounts of food

A recent study revealed that American families throw away a high percentage of the food they buy. [Adobestock photo]

The average American family wastes nearly a third of the food that it buys, according to recently published research by Pennsylvania State University scientists. Uneaten leftovers, spoiled produce and other food waste costs the typical household about $1,900 per year, which adds up to $240 billion for the economy as a whole, they say.

The study’s data came from 4,000 households participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey. The Penn State research team used an “input and output” method of production economics, based on the number of people in each household, to determine the amount of food each one threw away.

They found that the average U.S. household wastes 31.9% of the food that its members bring in. More than two-thirds of the households they studied had food waste estimates of between 20% and 50%, with the least wasteful of households throwing away nearly 9% of the food they obtained during the study period.

Interestingly, households that produced more food waste tended to have fewer members, higher incomes, and healthier eating habits.

“It’s possible that … healthy diets may unintentionally lead to more waste, due to the perishable nature of fruits and vegetables,” said Professor Edward Jaenicke, the study’s co-author. “[For example] a household of two may not eat an entire head of cauliflower, so some could be wasted, whereas a larger household is more likely to eat all of it at a single meal.”

By contrast, they also found that larger families had less wasted food, as did those with lower incomes, those whose members tended to shop with a list and those located farther away from a grocery store.

The current high level of waste has implications for Americans’ health, food production, the economy and the environment, Jaenicke said, emphasizing that it’s about much more than just the food that ends up in the trash.

“Resources used to produce the uneaten food, including land, energy, water and labor, are wasted as well.”

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