May 2016 Issue

Reducing Food Waste
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 18 No. 5 P. 38

Throwing away food that could feed the hungry worldwide is an astronomical problem, but there are strategies dietitians can practice and share with clients to help bring this to an end.

Everyone, it seems, is talking about food waste. John Oliver of HBO's Last Week Tonight, the president of China, and even the pope have touched on the subject. Food waste is a growing problem that affects corporations, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and individual households. It's overburdening landfills and is, therefore, having an increasingly negative impact on the global environment. The problem has become urgent and is drawing the attention of food companies, trade organizations, and entrepreneurs looking for new and innovative ways to deal with the challenge. Food waste isn't a new issue, as posters on this theme were circulating around the time of World War I, but it is a growing one. That's why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a target date for reducing food waste by 50% by the year 2030.

According to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an initiative of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), and the National Restaurant Association, food waste is defined as any food that's discarded during processing, handling, storage, sale, preparation, cooking, and serving. Defining food waste is simple. Reducing food waste is the more difficult part.

Know the Facts
According to the following statistics, the amount of food wasted in the United States and worldwide is staggering.

  • Between 1973 and 2003, there was a 50% increase in the amount of food waste in the United States.1
  • In the United States, the food Americans waste every day is enough to fill the Rose Bowl Stadium.1,2
  • Twenty-five percent to 40% of food grown and processed in and transported to the United States will never be consumed.3
  • It's estimated that in 2010, 60 million tons of food waste were generated in the United States alone.3 Of the 60 million tons, nearly 40 million ended up in landfills.1,3
  • Food waste is responsible for about 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions.1 By comparison, in the United States, electric power plants are responsible for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions.1,4
  • Worldwide food waste adds up to 2 billion tons per year.1
  • Globally, food that's currently lost or wasted would be sufficient to feed 2 billion people without additional impact on the environment.5

What the Numbers Mean
Moreover, it's not just the food that's being wasted. Andrew Shakman, CEO and cofounder of LeanPath, a company that educates foodservice supervisors and helps them prevent and minimize food waste by providing automated food-tracking systems, says that when food is wasted, the energy that went into growing, harvesting, transporting, and receiving goods is wasted, as well as the energy and water used to prepare the food, and the labor for prepping, serving, and cleaning. And there are disposal costs. Someone has to be paid to haul the waste away. Add to that lost sales and profit because an item didn't sell and the costs mount exponentially.

"It's a behavior problem," Shakman says. In foodservice, he says, it can't be fixed by management edict or better information technology. "It has to be addressed on an individual behavioral level." And, he says, "We must put food waste on the foodservice scoreboard, right up there with sanitation, safety, customer satisfaction, and quality." Those may be strong words, but Shakman experiences firsthand what he's talking about. His company, LeanPath, uses an automated system to track food waste and helps identify those who are taking positive steps toward that goal.

Why Now?
Why is there a surge in interest in and concern about the food being thrown away? According to Dana Gunders, senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental action organization based in Washington, D.C., "I think it's a convergence of interest in food and sustainability. The question of how we are going to feed our future population of 9 billion is being raised a lot these days. The most obvious place to turn first is to the food we are already producing that's going to waste."

To address the growing concern, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organized a symposium on food waste in 2013 because "urgent collaboration along the entire food chain is needed if the world is to address the problem of food waste and losses," according to a news article on FAO's website.5

Food insecurity and hunger also are driving the conversation, says Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, FAND, agricultural chair of the Food & Culinary Professionals Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vice president of the National Dairy Council, and health and wellness advisor to the Independent Grocers Alliance. "It's contributing to a broader conversation about how to better manage the food we have as the population continues to grow."

Root Causes of Food Waste
There are many reasons why food is wasted all along the food chain, from farm to fork, such as oversized portions at restaurants; greater grocery store purchases than what's needed among consumers; low food cost, which can cause consumers to devalue food; and perfectionism, in which people want only perfect food. The following reasons for food waste are some of the major causes.

Producing too much food is a major cause of food waste. No one wants to run out of food, whether it's a grocery store, a school cafeteria, hospital foodservice establishment, an upscale restaurant, or a family at dinnertime. The solution often is to purchase or make more than is needed as insurance against running out or even running low. In addition, consumers are less likely to buy that last lonely apple or a single head of Romaine lettuce sitting on a supermarket shelf than to purchase such items from a display overflowing with fresh produce. But just because it's the last one doesn't mean it's unworthy. Still, it's likely to end up in the trash.

Confusion Around Policies
Food safety is a critical factor, and everyone involved in foodservice or preparing food for their families wants to be certain that the food being served is safe to eat. To ensure safe food, the margins of safety have become so large that the philosophy of "when in doubt, throw it out" has become the cause of a great deal of food waste. In fact, because of this philosophy, most foodservice operations throw away 4% to 10% of the food they purchase before it even makes it to the plate.1 To reduce waste, foodservice managers and employees must be educated about the real meaning of the dates on food packages, which often are arbitrary and associated with what the manufacturer deems as a window of top quality, rather than safety (see sidebar, "Defining Food Package Dates"). There's no uniform or universally accepted system for food dating in the United States, though it's required by more than 20 states. Except for infant formula, product dating isn't required by federal regulations.6

Reluctance to Broach the Subject
Foodservice operation executives believe that if they expose the problem of food waste it will shine a negative light on the chef, the employees, and the operation as a whole. However, food waste isn't an indicator of an individual's performance, Shakman says. It's simply a part of a business that needs to be managed. Even the best operations waste food. Shakman suggests foodservice operators, grocery store chains, and even upscale restaurants motivate employees to reduce food waste by offering bonuses and team celebrations when it's reduced. Programs such as LeanPath not only track food waste but also identify individuals who are doing the most to reduce it.

Mishandling of Logistics
Donating excess food to food banks may seem like the perfect answer for making use of food that would otherwise be thrown out. But there are sometimes insurmountable logistics to handle. According to David Fikes, vice president of consumer/community affairs and communication at FMI, "There's a small window of donation, especially with perishable items like fruits and vegetables. We're learning ways to take better advantage of that window. But it's often a lack of adequate refrigeration or storage facilities at food banks. FMI is doing a lot with food banks, trying to ease logistics and donating equipment." In addition, several tax incentives to encourage food donations were passed as part of the omnibus budget in December 2015 to encourage and reward companies for food donations.

Myths About Reducing Food Waste
Despite the fact that food waste cuts costs, lessens the damage to the environment, and has the potential to feed the hungry, misconceptions abound. One of the top myths is that composting can take care of the problem. The EPA created a Food Recovery Hierarchy pyramid ranking the most effective ways to reduce food waste,7 the results of which may surprise many people. According to Shakman, composting only scratches the surface of the problem and helps little if it's done to the exclusion of other more impactful steps. The majority of greenhouse gasses that result from food waste occur well before the point of disposal. Yet, a survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University on US awareness, attitudes, and behaviors found that 41% of respondents said that discarding food didn't bother them because they compost.8 But composting ranks second to last in the pyramid of methods for reducing food waste, above only landfills.7

Another myth about food waste is that keeping track of it takes too much time and, in the case of foodservice operations, too much labor. LeanPath has found that in foodservice operations using an automated system, it takes, on average, less than one minute per employee to track food waste and about 15 minutes per week to review data and communicate the findings and solutions to the team. The EPA also offers free tools for manually tracking food waste. Once the problem areas have been identified, production can be adjusted.

Tips for Foodservice Operations
Educating foodservice management and employees about food waste is key to effecting change. The following tips can help reduce food waste in a foodservice environment:

  • Compare purchasing inventory with customer ordering.
  • Modify menus to increase customer satisfaction to prevent and reduce uneaten food.
  • Examine production and handling practices to avoid and decrease preparation waste.
  • Ensure proper storage techniques.
  • Be creative with excess food in the kitchen. Extra food and ingredients can be used in new recipes. For example, stale bread can become croutons, fruit can become a dessert topping, and vegetable trimmings can be used in soups, sauces, and stocks.
  • Reduce serving sizes as appropriate and avoid the use of garnishes that don't get eaten.
  • For colleges, don't use trays in the dining halls. A trayless operation removes the tendency to overload trays with foods that look good but aren't eaten.

Strategies for Consumers
An estimated 40% of all food waste occurs in the home.1 This number is shocking, but dietitians can counsel clients on simple ways to decrease that number. "If I had to choose one thing, it would be to plan meals and snacks," Kirchherr says. "With a little thought, everything from shopping to food storage to meal prep can help us become more efficient in using what we buy." Dietitians can share the following tips with clients to help them decrease food waste in their homes.

  • Shop smart. Use shopping lists, and avoid impulse buys that look good but are unlikely to be used before they spoil.
  • Buy imperfect products. Purchasing fruits and vegetables with less-than-perfect shapes, sizes, or colors (aka ugly produce) supports more complete use of produce resources.
  • Freeze foods that aren't used today for another time.
  • Serve smaller portions to reduce the risk of the remaining serving going into the garbage.
  • Download an app. The FoodKeeper app, created through collaboration among FMI, Cornell University's department of food science, and the USDA, provides food storage advice to help consumers maintain the freshness and quality of foods to reduce waste. For more information and to download the app, visit
  • Keep favorite recipes on a smartphone to be retrieved and used as a shopping list for ingredients.
  • Snap a picture of what's in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry before shopping, so items already at home aren't purchased again.

Whether it's a foodservice operation or a home kitchen, tracking food waste is one of the best ways to become aware of the problem and its sources and find long-lasting solutions.

— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.


  • Sell by date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. The product should be used before the date expires.
  • Best if used by (or before) date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It isn't a purchase or safety date.
  • Use by date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The manufacturer of the product determines this date.
According to the USDA, with the exception of "sell by" dates, a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality regardless of the date if established food safety guidelines are practiced.

— DW


  • Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders
  • Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 2012
  • The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America by the NRDC, 2013
  • American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) by Jonathan Bloom
  • Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story ( is a documentary film about food waste in America. Dietitians and clients can host a screening of the film in their communities.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) information for the home:
  • EPA information for institutions:

1. 5 food waste myths to debunk — now! LeanPath website.

2. Bloom J. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books; 2011.

3. Food Waste Reduction Alliance website.

4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food wastage footprint impacts on natural resources — summary report. Published 2013.

5. Urgent collaboration required on food wastage. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website. Published October 16, 2013.

6. Food product dating. USDA website. Updated March 24, 2015.

7. Food recovery hierarchy. Environmental Protection Agency website. Updated February 29, 2016.

8. Americans may be wasting more food than they think. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health website. Published June 10, 2015.