Chicagoans waste 55 million pounds of food each month

By Sarah Kramer

Picture your fridge – the leftovers from last night’s dinner, the half-finished meal from the corner deli, the bag of avocados trucked in from California, the loaf of multigrain bread slowly getting stale.

How much of the food in your fridge and the rest of your kitchen at this moment will you eat before you throw it out? If you’re anything like most Americans, you throw out at least a quarter of everything that comes through your kitchen.

This can add up to over $1,000 that’s wasted away each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Waste the size of aircraft carriers

On average, every American throws out approximately 20 pounds of food waste a month, according to the USDA. That means the food waste of all Chicago residents for a single month amounts to about 55 million pounds,  more over a year’s time than the combined weight of  six aircraft carriers.

Sarah Kramer/Medill
(Sarah Kramer/Medill)

Of all the food produced in the United States, up to 40 percent is thrown away as it moves through the supply chain, from farms, to grocery store shelves and then onto plates in restaurants and homes, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But the problem spreads beyond your pocketbook. When food is discarded, 25 percent of U.S freshwater consumption and 4 percent of oil use is wasted with it.  These numbers don’t take into account the environmental and cost impacts of landfills or garbage disposal.

In 2010, the greenhouse gas emissions from producing food destined for the garbage can was equivalent to the greenhouse gases emitted annually by 33 million cars, or three times the number of vehicles registered by the state of Illinois.

Greenhouse gas emissions generated in the production of food that is discarded, represented by passenger vehicles. Each car represents one million cars. In the U.S., the greenhouse gas emissions from wasted food was equivalent to the annual emissions from 33 million cars.
Each car represents 1 million cars. In the U.S., greenhouse gas emissions from producing food that is wasted equals the annual emissions of 33 million cars. (Sarah  Kramer/Medill)

Hunger touches one in six

Amid the waste, there is profound hunger. An estimated 49.1 million people are food insecure, meaning they live in households have limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the USDA. The Greater Chicago Food Depository estimates that 1 in 6 people in Cook County suffer from food insecurity.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Hanh Pham, sustainability projects manager at Loyola University’s Edgewater campus in Chicago. “The key to our success here is starting small,” she said. “Let’s just do one thing and do it really well, and then let’s build on that.”

Pham is among a growing cohort of activists, non-profits and businesses that are joining forces to combat food waste in the Chicago area. Her own efforts have mostly been directed toward waste-reduction initiatives at Loyola, including introducing a compost program to Loyola’s dining halls, as well as collaborating with the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition to create the We Compost program, a decal that helps consumers recognize establishments that commit to composting.

Pham emphasized that while the compost pile is a better destination for food waste than the landfill, it’s far from an ideal solution.

A 30 percent reduction in waste could feed all of America’s hungry,
according to Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the 2012 issue paper “Wasted,” a detailed account of waste in the food supply chain.

Need versus waste. Each basket represents one percent of the food bought in the U.S. last year. Green, black and red baskets signify all food. Green represents food that is eaten. Black and red baskets represent the percentage thrown out, and red baskets alone show the amount needed to feed 49 million Americans who are food insecure. Sarah Kramer/Medill
Need versus waste. Each basket represents one percent of the food bought in the U.S. last year. Green, black and red baskets signify all food. Green represents food that is eaten. Black and red baskets represent the percentage thrown out, and red baskets alone show the amount needed to feed 49 million Americans who are food insecure. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)

“It’s a pretty significant shift,” Gunders said. “But not impossible.”

The Food Recovery Hierarchy outlined by the EPA prioritizes feeding people above all other potential solutions for food waste, other than reducing avoidable waste at its source.

Feast and famine

Gunders points to the U.K.’s success in reducing food waste through its Love Food, Hate Waste campaign. It its first five years, the government-funded program was estimated to have reduced food waste by 21 percent.

“I’m very optimistic that we could do something similar here,” Gunders said.

Many Chicago businesses are already trying to alleviate hunger by donating food that was prepared, but not served to diners, at the end of each day. According to James Conwell, communications director of the nonprofit Greater Chicago Food Depository, nearly every major grocery chain donates at least some food. His organization mostly receives food donations from grocery stores and distributors, which in turn to go food banks. (The food depository also accepts shelf-stable food donations from the public.)

“The retail sector is one of the greatest possibilities to rescue food,” Conwell said. He also said that while donations are on the rise, so is the need for Chicago’s most vulnerable residents.

“It’s almost overwhelming how much need there is, “ said Sarina Gambino, director of partnerships at Zero Percent in Chicago. Gambino described Zero Percent as “a matchmaking service” that allows subscribing restaurants, groceries and caterers to announce that they have food available for donation via mobile app. Zero Waste can then pick up the food and deliver it to the non-profits for a by-the-pound fee, or the nonprofit can pick up the donations itself for free.

For restaurant owners, committing to food donation “seems like a daunting thing,” said Gambino. “But once donors get I the swing of it, they see how easy and convenient it really is.”

Sarah Hidder of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition stressed that the law protects food service businesses that donate food in good faith from liability. Still, she said, a significant portion of the waste that comes from restaurants has already made it onto a customer’s plate, ruining its candidacy for donation.

Closing the loop

After helping alleviate hunger, the EPA recommends feeding animals, then turning to industrial uses. At Loyola, Pham said, scraps go to feed fish living in the aquaculture labs of the Institute of Environmental Sustainability. As much waste as possible is then converted into fuel for Loyola’s shuttle busses.

Most places, of course, don’t have living fish or rendering facilities to use to dispose of the waste. Often, the solution for plate waste, food scraps and other food items that simply cannot feed people is the compost pile.

When you compost, Hidder said, “you really are closing the loop. Compost is an extremely nutrient-dense material and an instrumental part of growing more nutritious food.”

According to Pham, agriculture can leave soil stripped of nutrients. “Soil’s like a bank,” she explained. “If you’re always taking stuff out then you’re going to be in depletion mode, which is basically where we are with our soil.”

Soil, however, is only part of the compost picture. When food is sent to a landfill, surrounded by plastic and piled into huge piles, organic material decomposes in an oxygen-free environment, releasing methane and carbon dioxide, both potent greenhouse gases.

When organic waste is processed at a commercial compost facility, however, the waste is combined with heat and moisture to encourage microbial growth. The decomposition process will heat the pile to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, killing any lingering pathogens and turning food scraps into nutrient-dense plant food.

Backyard compost piles, while an excellent option for those who garden, usually don’t’ get hot enough to break down animal products. Portable compost buckets are growing in popularity for eco-minded homeowners and apartment-dwellers.

Landfills account for 18 percent of methane emissions in the U.S. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide, and is a major contributor to global climate change.

Lizz Giordano/Medill
(Lizz Giordano/Medill)

Putting it all together

“To produce food, it takes energy,” said Gunders, who is releasing a book this summer telling consumers how to reduce food waste in their homes. “It takes water. It takes pesticides. It takes fertilizers.”

Pham goes a step further: “It’s so much water, so much energy, so much people power from the growing of food to the harvesting of the food to the ones that don’t make in and then in the transportation process.”

Food in stores gets wasted because of pressure to keep shelves fully stocked with perfect produce.

“And then purchase happens—great, it’s destined to get eaten. It wants to get eaten,” Pham continued. “And it does not get eaten because you forget about. It’s an innocent thing.”

Going forward, Pham envisioned technologies that might help people sort out their food waste problem: mobile apps that reminded you to eat your groceries before they spoil; ways to calculate the impact of half-eaten vegetables.

“We’re seeing a lot of innovation around this,” said Gunders. She points to startups, technologies and sustainability’s next generation of students as promising areas of research and development. The USDA and EPA jointly launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, which encourages institutions to reduce the source of food waste, donate to hunger relief organization and compost.

Pham and Hidder agreed that businesses are starting to realize that if consumers care about the eco-friendliness of their goods and services, food waste will soon GO on their radar—if it isn’t already.

“Right now, it’s really the early adopters. Once these early adopters create a bandwagon, then if 10 percent of the people on the fence hop on the bandwagon,” Pham said, “That’s huge.”

Chicago area food weight adds up to 55 million pounds a month. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)