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Thanksgiving food
Image credit: Unsplash.

Sizing up America’s Thanksgiving food waste problem

November 25, 2021

’Tis the season for wasting food. In America, that season usually starts with the Thanksgiving holiday.

Food waste may be extra pronounced this year as this is the first Thanksgiving many families are getting together since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and travel is expected to skyrocket and with it, greenhouse gas emissions. So too is the amount of Thanksgiving food waste thrown out.

Food waste think tank and nonprofit ReFed estimates that 305 million pounds of food from Thanksgiving dinner will be thrown out this year. Production of this food generates more than 1.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is the same as driving 169,000 cars for a full year. More than 1 billion gallons of water go into producing this amount of food; the same amount of water used by everyone in New York City for three and a half months.

“Much of the waste that occurs around the holidays is due to us, in our homes, hosting people and overindulging,” food waste expert and ReFed executive director Dana Gunders tells AFN

Echoing those points, the Center for Biological Diversity breaks down Thanksgiving food waste as follows: 200 million pounds of turkey thrown out alongside more than 150 million pounds of side dishes like veggies and potatoes and 14 million pounds of dinner rolls. All of this Thanksgiving food waste totals to around half a million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, about the equivalent of driving 1.1 billion miles in a standard passenger vehicle.   

All of this comes at a time when food insecurity in America is on the rise. About 38.3 million people, or 10.5% of all US households, are food insecure. Inflation and supply chain issues in 2021 only amplify the problem.

ReFed notes that the average family’s Thanksgiving food waste could feed people in need for an entire weekend, though the organization didn’t say exactly how many people.

The average consumer needs to play at least some role in curbing waste. “We won’t be able to make the progress we need on this issue without consumers changing,” Gunders tells AFN.

She suggests more careful meal planning, freezing leftovers or giving them to food banks, and “eating down” one’s fridge before heading out on vacation.

For example, calculating how much food each dinner guest will likely eat and purchasing ingredients accordingly can limit the amount leftover at the end of the meal. Digital tools like Save the Food campaign’s Guest-imator exist to help consumers with such calculations. ReFed also suggests creating a leftovers strategy that includes asking guests ahead of time if they plan to take leftovers home.

However, consumer behavior is notoriously difficult to change when people are left to their own devices. Rather, Gunders says we will need “policies, tech, and other changes that can help nudge them towards different behaviors.”

Grocery stores play an important role when it comes to influencing what we buy in the first place. Supermarkets encourage over-buying and what Gunders has in the past referred to as “aspirational shopping.”

Your local Publix may not be able to control how much food the family throws out at home after the big meal, but it can focus on prevention strategies that include how holiday shopping gets marketed to customers in the first place. There is also increasing pressure on large supermarkets to double down on reporting more food waste at the store level as a means of helping the US meet its goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030.

“Reporting on food waste is the best way that businesses can demonstrate they are truly making progress,” says Gunders. “Some businesses, such as Tesco in the UK, have even moved to third party audits of their reported food waste numbers. Measurement and reporting is not only a way to be accountable, but it’s also a way to identify opportunity areas and evaluate how successful initiatives are.”

As 2030 approaches fast, Americans will need to leverage this entire mix of solutions in order to realistically and effectively fight food waste and scale solutions that make that waste less possible in the first place.

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