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The numbers are as shocking as they are appalling.

At a time when one in eight families in America struggles to put dinner on the table, a whopping 40 percent of the food produced in the country never gets eaten.

Some of it rots in the field before it can get harvested or gets lost or damaged during processing and packaging; other food items get tossed on the way to market because they’re too ugly to be displayed in the grocery store. Thousands of pounds of leftovers end up in the trash because by the time we remember they’re in the fridge, they’re moldy.

Confusion over food labels only adds to the problem.

If you don’t know the difference between “best by,” an advisory that simply means the product will taste best up until that date, but is still edible a few days after, and “sell by,” a date that helps stores keep track of inventory that needs to be bought by a certain time, you are not alone. Labels can be tricky to negotiate — they vary from state-to-state or even manufacturer-to-manufacturer — that 90 percent of Americans throw away food that’s perfectly edible. Twenty percent of the food we buy never gets eaten.

“People assume food labels are federally mandated, but they’re not, other than for baby food,” notes JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate in the Food & Agriculture Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental activist organization. “They also widely assume the dates means the food is no longer safe to eat, and that is almost uniformly untrue. They just indicate when the food is at its freshest.”

All told, we toss more than 23 pounds of food per person per month at home and in restaurants, or 35 pounds per person if you add in food retail. That’s more than 45 bananas or two whole turkeys per capita, and that doesn’t even reflect the additional losses in distribution, food manufacturing and farming, Berkenkamp notes.

America hasn’t always been so wasteful. In the 1970s, we threw away half as much food. But as more people entered the workforce, lifestyles began to change. Americans began eating out more as schedules became busier, and instead of one big meal shared by all, families prepared multiple meals, increasing the amount of food purchased and wasted.

Portion sizes also have steadily increased over the past decades, and it’s become more socially acceptable to throw out food. “And we love BOGOs and big packages,” says Berkenkamp — even if it’s totally unrealistic that we’ll actually consume it.

As a result, the average family of four throws out $1,500 of food each year, to the combined annual tune of $165 billion.

In home kitchens, fruits and vegetables get wasted the most (52 percent) because they’re perishable and “are not the most convenient foods to cook,” Berkenkamp says. We also toss half of all seafood, and close to 40 percent of grain products. When it comes to meat and dairy products, we are a little more careful, wasting about 20 percent of each. To put this in perspective, it’s enough food to feed 25 million Americans, according to a 2012 NRDC issue paper — or the entire population of Texas.

“Consumers aren’t great planners,” says Beth Vallen, an associate professor for marketing and business law at Villanova University. “We over-buy for a lot of reasons, and then are optimistic we’ll eat the foods we buy.”

People don’t realize how much money they’re wasting because food goes in the trash a little here, a little there. But when you quantify the number to people, Vallen says, “they’re shocked.”

Many also don’t understand the vast amount of natural resources that are required to produce the food we’re wasting: Getting food on the table eats up 50 percent of all our country’s land, 80 percent of its freshwater, and accounts for 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget.


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