Our sometimes wasteful culture can feel downright anemic. Almost half of all food in America ends up in the trash before having the chance to reach a single, hungry mouth.
The average American throws away between 1,200 and 1,400 calories daily in discarded food. And a new study, which measured the nutritional value of the stuff we toss, suggests the food we waste would be enough to provide a 2,000-calorie diet to an unbelievable 84 percent of the population.
The study was performed by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and is the first to measure the nutrient level of our food waste. Of the data collected, here’s the most shocking: what we waste amounts to about half of the average adult’s recommended daily iron amount. Other nutrition wasted: 43 percent of recommended vitamin C allotments, and 29 percent of the calcium the average person needs in a day. Included in that food are vital nutrients many Americans aren't getting daily.
Researchers from the study noted the irony that a staggering number of Americans face significant nutrient deficiencies in the same categories as the nutrition that winds up in landfills. Another example: We throw away enough dietary fiber for 74 million women and 48 million men—even as the average American doesn’t get enough of it.
"Wasted food is a very serious issue at this point," Dr. Roni Neff, the Johns Hopkins University researcher leading the study, told USA Today. "We're throwing away so much money and so many resources and so much potential nutrients that can make our lives better."
In 2015, 42 million Americans were estimated by hunger-relief organization Feeding America to be living in food-insecure households. A food-insecure household is one classified as having a lack of access to enough nutrition and food to maintain a healthy life.
The Johns Hopkins Center For a Livable Future explores the interrelation between public health, diet, food production and the environment. Its workers and researchers collaborate with advocacy organizations, communities, educators, students and policymakers to work toward a more resilient, equitable food system.
Part of that research shows most Americans throw food away because they believe it to be expired. But as a 2013 report (colloquially titled “The Dating Game”) by Harvard University and the National Resources Defense Council found, Americans have deep confusion over what food-expiration dates actually mean. Upwards of 90 percent of Americans, the study concluded, needlessly throw out food that’s perfectly edible because of misunderstood expiration dates printed on packaging.
Food dating started in the 1970s, but only to demonstrate when an item was at its peak. Foods like eggs, however are “good” for up to five weeks after the “use by” date, CNN reports; dried foods like mac and cheese may be good for years.
Neff told USA Today that consumers ought to educate themselves on what food labels and expiration dates actually mean. He noted that often, a not-quite-fresh food is far from garbage. Even produce that won’t quite work on its own can be turned into other things: like bananas into bread, or kale into smoothies.
We can also do our part to actually eat our leftovers, or incorporate them into new meals. The federal government, meanwhile, is doing its part, having established a national goal to cut food waste in half by 2030.