The Healthy and the Wealthy Waste the Most Food in the US

©. Anna Hoychuk

A new study is the first to identify and analyze the level of food waste for actual households.

Imagine buying three bag of groceries, coming home, and immediately throwing one of those bags of groceries in the trash. It would be unheard of, right? But that is essentially what's going on in American households, according to a new study from Penn State.

We have heard similar figures before – that roughly one-third of the total food supply is wasted – but this new research looks at the numbers for individual households, which has been more difficult to determine.

"Our findings are consistent with previous studies, which have shown that 30% to 40% of the total food supply in the United States goes uneaten -- and that means that resources used to produce the uneaten food, including land, energy, water and labor, are wasted as well," says Edward Jaenicke, professor of agricultural economics, College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State. "But this study is the first to identify and analyze the level of food waste for individual households, which has been nearly impossible to estimate because comprehensive, current data on uneaten food at the household level do not exist."

This has implications for health, food security, food marketing and climate change, not to mention one's bank account. This wasted food has an estimated value of $240 billion per year, say the researchers, costing the average household an estimated $1,866 annually.

To arrive at these numbers, the researchers used a novel approach of combining methodology from production economics and nutritional science. Jaenicke and Yang Yu, doctoral candidate in agricultural, environmental and regional economics, analyzed data from 4,000 households that participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS).

Food purchases were analyzed in comparison to the biological measures of participants, "enabling the researchers to apply formulas from nutritional science to determine basal metabolic rates and calculate the energy required for household members to maintain body weight," notes Penn State. Adding,

"The difference between the amount of food acquired and the amount needed to maintain body weight represents the production inefficiency in the model, which translates to uneaten, and therefore wasted, food."

"Based on our estimation, the average American household wastes 31.9% of the food it acquires," Jaenicke says. "More than two-thirds of households in our study have food-waste estimates of between 20% and 50%. However, even the least wasteful household wastes 8.7% of the food it acquires."

The team also looked at the survey's demographic data to see if there were trends in food waste. Sure enough, they found that wealthier households generated more waste, as did households with healthier diets. According to the researchers.

...households with higher income generate more waste, and those with healthier diets that include more perishable fruits and vegetables also waste more food.

"It's possible that programs encouraging healthy diets may unintentionally lead to more waste," Jaenicke says. "That may be something to think about from a policy perspective -- how can we fine-tune these programs to reduce potential waste."

Households that wasted less food include:

  • Those with greater food insecurity, particularly ones that participate in the federal SNAP food assistance program.
  • Households with a larger number of members. "People in larger households have more meal-management options," Jaenicke says. "More people means leftover food is more likely to be eaten."
  • Households that use a shopping list and those who must travel farther to the supermarket. "This suggests that planning and food management are factors that influence the amount of wasted food," Jaenicke says.
The thing about food waste that always surprises me the most is its impact on climate change. By some accounts, reducing food waste is one of the most important things we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the researchers confirm that, noting

"According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, food waste is responsible for about 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas annually, which would be, if regarded as a country, the third-largest emitter of carbon after the U.S. and China."

The research was published in American Journal of Agricultural Economics.