Food Shift has launched ads educating people about how much of the pie is being thrown away. Photo: Food Shift
Food Shift has launched ads educating people about how much of the pie is being thrown away. Photo: Food Shift

The next time you decide to toss out that apple that you never got around to eating or the yogurt past its expiration date think about how much of your food goes into the garbage. Is it 40%?

That’s how much food that’s produced in the U.S. gets tossed out every year. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council that’s $165 billion worth of uneaten and wasted food.

“It doesn’t matter how sustainable, organic, local your food is if you’re throwing away 40%,” said Dana Frasz, executive director of Food Shift. All that wasted food means a lot of wasted resources — water, land, fuel — producing the food and transporting it, just so it can be thrown out!

Considering nearly 15% of households in the U.S. are food insecure — meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from — all that wasted food seems like it ought to go to all those hungry people. That’s what Frasz thought when she started a volunteer food recovery program while still in college. The program worked like most food waste recovery programs — volunteers drive around and collect unused food about to be thrown out from restaurants and cafeterias and deliver it to food banks. In the Bay Area, there are dozens of food recovery organizations.

But, Frasz had another idea.

“The food recovery space is deeply flawed,” she said. “We want to create a food recovery sector” — like recycling, which runs off its own revenue.

That’s what Food Shift is hoping to do, but it’s not quite there yet. Right now, the organization has a number of programs to recover unused food that otherwise would go in the trash. They operate a pilot program with two schools in East Oakland where extra cafeteria food — unopened milks and uneaten apples, for example — are collected and then given back out to families at the school who need the food.

They also work with restaurants to have them offer smaller portions, so less food is thrown away off of plates. Once food is on someone’s plate it’s nearly impossible to re-use or donate. They’ve launched an education campaign too to “try to shift the culture,” said Frasz, and educate people and get them to sign a pledge.

Educating people about food waste is one of the most important steps in recovering the wasted food. Photo: Food Shift
Educating people about food waste is one of the most important steps in recovering the wasted food. Photo: Food Shift

The last piece of their puzzle is a program with Andronico’s. The grocery store pays them to pick up extra, unused food every day. The store, then, is able to pay less in disposal and dumping fees to get rid of the food. With that money, Food Shift hires people to drive trucks to pick up the food and deliver it to St. Vincent de Paul’s, which runs a number of poverty alleviation programs including free dining halls, and to other organizations that runs food banks and provide meals. As an added bonus, Food Shift hires people who have been clients at St. Vincent’s, giving them money to buy their own food and closing the hunger circle. It’s a win-win — and it’s a first step in creating a green economy around food recovery.

Plenty of volunteer organizations around the Bay Area are also picking up excess food and delivering it to food shelters. Last year, Food Runners in San Francisco picked up 10 tons of wasted food/week. This year, said Mary Risley, the founder of Food Runners, they’re picking up 15 tons/week.

Most of the food comes from grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Risley said that when Whole Foods opened in San Francisco twenty years ago, Food Runners bought a refrigerated truck to collect all the food. Otherwise, they rely on 200 volunteers who scurry around the city.

The second biggest donors are the new start-ups and tech companies, where food is catered or served everyday. Many of those places will donate the unused food to Food Runners.

The organization, though, will pick up from anywhere: hotel buffets, hospital lunches, catered events. Last week, said Risley, they got hundreds of boxed lunches from the Oracle convention.

On the Peninsula, there’s Peninsula Food Runners, which collects about two tons of food/week. In the East Bay, a number of groups glean food that’s left over in the fields — fruit that isn’t picked or tomatoes that fall on the ground after the harvester comes through — and donate that to food shelters too.

Although all these organizations are hard at work, most of the wasted food still ends up in landfills. According to the EPA, of the 36 million tons of food waste that was generated in 2011, 96% was thrown into landfills or incinerators.

How does food get wasted?

  • Portion sizes have increased: The average pizza slice doubled in calories from 1982 to 2002 and the average dinner plate increased two inches in diameter, according to the NRDC.
  • Expiration dates: Without a national standard on expiration dates, there’s often confusion about what they mean and, often, people throw out food without realizing it can still be good.
  • Overproduction: Many bakeries and restaurants produce more than they’ll sell for fear of running out or because full shelves make people more likely to buy.
  • Attitudes: The U.S. has a different attitude than many countries about food: we tend to believe there’s plenty. But, there’s not.

But, Risley is optimistic that the Bay Area is on the right track. In San Francisco, she said, “I don’t believe it’s 40% [being wasted]. I’d guess maybe 20%.”

QUEST has also created this video to show you all about the food you’re wasting and why you should stop wasting it:

In the Trash: The Wasted 40% of Food 15 October,2013Kelly O'Mara

  • Matthew K

    While the intent behind these food recovery programs are admirable, it seems that poverty reduction programs would be more effective in improving access to food for all. Expanding SNAP and improving WIC and similar programs would mean better access to food, and without the inefficiency of collecting and redistributing marginal food.

    • Food Shift

      I agree that SNAP is an important program but it’s not solving the overall issue of food waste. The article mentions that Food Runners redistributes 15 tons of food per week. I personally do not view this as a marginal statistic. This is just one organization, in one city.

      Think about the amount of “expired” food that grocery stores discard. Why not set up a recycling-type program that saves this food from landfills, and redistribute it to people in need? This process would create jobs, which also addresses your concern about “poverty reduction programs”.

      The system that we currently have in place is broken. It’s imperative that we begin connecting the dots.

  • EndGroceryWaste

    The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, retailers and the struggling families in today’s tough economy. The excess inventory of perishable food items close to their expiration in supermarkets causes waste.
    Why not let the consumer perform the perishables rotation in the supermarket by offering him purchasing incentives for perishables approaching their expiration dates? There is a new GS1 DataBar global standard that enables an automatic incentive offering application for fresh food close to its expiration.
    The EndGroceryWaste application, which is based on GS1 DataBar standard, encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue and makes fresh food affordable for all families while effectively reducing the global carbon footprint. You can look this application up at EndGroceryWaste site.
    Chicago, IL

  • St. Vincent de Paul of A.C.

    Thank you for writing such an interesting and important topic! We here at St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County are grateful to receive donated food and feed those in need in our community.

  • Yvonne Melissa

    Hi, I work at a New York chain supermarket, and prepare cooked meals that are sold buffet-style, which is especially popular around lunch-time when local business people are on their breaks. However, I end up throwing out pounds of food each day – an average that could fill about two huge garbage cans full of food each night. Twenty people could easily be fed.

    I made a petition on to urge those in power of the company I work for to consider donating left over food to charity and to cut back on waste. I leave work disgusted with myself for having to throw away what some people are desperate for – it’s a pretty big burden that a 20 year old part-timer shouldn’t have to deal with just to make pocket money to get me through school.

    I would appreciate anyone who would support the cause my signing the petition – and hopefully the store I work for can become less wasteful and more inclined to helping those in need.
    Thank you 🙂


Kelly O'Mara

Kelly O’Mara is a writer and reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about food, health, sports, travel, business and California news. Her work has appeared on KQED, online for Outside Magazine, epsnW, VICE and in Competitor Magazine, among others. Follow Kelly on Twitter @kellydomara.

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