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Sustainable Management of Food Basics
On this page:
- What is Sustainable Management of Food?
- Why is Sustainable Management of Food Important?
- What is Food Waste and Where Does it Come From?
- Sources of Statistics
Sustainable Management of Food is a systematic approach that seeks to reduce wasted food and its associated environmental impacts over the entire life cycle, starting with extraction of natural resources and manufacturing, sales and consumption and ending with decisions on recycling or final disposal. Through a Sustainable Management of Food approach, EPA is helping change the way our society protects the environment and conserves resources for future generations. Building on the familiar concept of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle", this approach changes how we think about environmental protection and recognizes the impacts of the food we waste.
Wasted food is a growing problem in our modern society. The amount of food Americans throw away each year is staggering. In 2013 alone, more than 37 million tons of food waste was generated, with only five percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting. EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash, constituting 21 percent of discarded municipal solid waste. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that Americans wasted over one third of the vegetables and fruit bought in 2010.1
Worldwide the story isn't much different. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated in 2011 that approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.2 While this may seem like a problem that is too large to handle, taking simple steps in your everyday life can make a difference in reducing this issue. Reducing wasted food is a triple win; it's good for the environment, for communities, and for the economy.
Reducing wasted food does great things for the environment:
- Save resources – Wasted food wastes the water, gasoline, energy, labor, pesticides, land, and fertilizers used to make the food. When we throw food in the trash, we’re throwing away much more than food.
- Reduce methane from landfills - When food goes to the landfill, it’s similar to tying food in a plastic bag. The nutrients in the food never return to the soil. The wasted food rots and produces methane gas. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas with more than 25 times the global warming potential compared to carbon dioxide.
- Return nutrients to the soil – If you can’t prevent, reduce or donate wasted food, you can compost. By sending food scraps to a composting facility instead of to a landfill or composting at home, you’re helping make healthy soils. Adding compost to gardens, highway construction sites, and poor soils makes great things happen. Properly composted organics (wasted food and yard waste) improve soil health and structure, improve water retention, support more native plants, and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides.
Preventing wasted food and recovering safe, healthy food can help people in your community:
- Feed the world – According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, from 2012 to 2014 there were about 805 million hungry people on earth. They predict that by eliminating food loss and wasted food we would have enough food to feed all the chronically undernourished. They also expect that we wouldn’t have to increase food production or put additional pressure on our natural resources to do so.3
- Feed people, not landfills – Instead of feeding landfills, we should be feeding people. You can donate different types of food to many different types of organizations. Contact Feeding AmericaExit or your local food rescue organizations for information about locations and types of food donations.
- Feed children – In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program provided nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day.4 By reducing wasted food nationwide, in homes and schools, we can help feed our country’s children.
Keeping food out of landfills can save money:
- Waste less and spend less – If you or your organization can find ways to prevent waste in the first place, you can spend less by buying only the food you will use. Preventing wasted food can also reduce energy and labor costs associated with throwing away good food.
- Pay less for trash pickup – Organizations might pay less for trash pickup by keeping wasted food out of the garbage. Some haulers lower fees if wasted food is separated from the trash and sent to a compost facility instead of the landfill.
- Receive tax benefits by donating – If you donate healthy, safe, and edible food to hungry people, your organization can claim tax benefits. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act (PDF)Exit(2 pp, 206K) protects food donors from legal liability.
“Wasted food” is a term used to describe wholesome, nutritious food that is lost or sent for disposal. It isn’t spoiled food, but rather it may include unsold food from retail stores, untouched prepared food or trimmings from restaurants, grocery stores, cafeterias or industrial processing. The term “wasted food” is often used when discussing food recovery for donation to feed people.
The term “food waste” is commonly used to describe food unfit for human consumption that is sent for disposal. Food waste may be sent to feed animals, for composting or to an anaerobic digester.
The Food Recovery Hierarchy should be followed by anybody managing food waste. When the higher levels of the hierarchy are no longer feasible, then the food waste left over should be put to beneficial use such as composted or sent to be broken down through anaerobic digestion.
- Food that has spoiled;
- Uneaten plate-scrapings from served food;
- Fats, oils and greases (FOG) used to cook food;
- By-products of the food and beverage processing industries unfit for human consumption.
Sources of wasted food include:
- Residences (single and multi-family);
- Food-service entities (restaurants, cafeterias, etc.);
- Institutions (hospitals, universities, prisons, etc.);
- Grocery and retail stores;
- Hospitality and Entertainment (hotels, sports venues, etc.);
- Food processing industry; and
- Agricultural sources.
- United States Department of Agriculture. The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States (PDF) Exit(39 pp, 3.56 MB, 2014, About PDF).
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations "Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes, and prevention" (PDF) Exit(38 pp, 1.6 MB, 2011, About PDF).
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agriculture Development and the World Food Programme, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014. Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition (PDF) Exit (57 pp, 3 MB, 2014).
- United States Department of Agriculture, National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet (PDF) Exit(3pp, 75K, 2013).