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Americans Throw Away Their Weight in Food Every Year

<p>A new report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization finds that one-third of food produced for human consumption each year is wasted. The impacts of this, from human health to environmental issues, are staggering.</p>

253 pounds. Let's face it, the number is daunting whether it's staring up at you from the scale or from under the lid of the garbage can. And disturbingly enough, 253 pounds is the amount of food that each of us helps to go to waste every single year.

On average, each of us sends our own body weight's worth of food to the trash each year.

According to a staggering report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a division of the United Nations, nearly one-third of food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted every year. That translates to 1.3 billion tons of food -- the weight of 3,400 Golden Gate Bridges -- going to waste each year. And with that comes all the wasted energy, water, chemicals, and labor that go into producing, transporting, and storing the ill-fated food.

The FAO accurately points out that the amount of food wasted, and the reasons why, differ greatly between rich and poor countries.

In developing countries, on average, 13-24 pounds of food (6-11 kg) are wasted per person each year. How about in industrialized countries? With our supersized portions come supersized amounts of waste. In North America and Europe, we annually waste 209-253 pounds of food (95-115 kg) per capita.

And while in developing countries, a large portion of this waste happens in the early and middle stages of the food supply chain -- due to things like limited harvesting technologies, storage capacity, and cooling infrastructure -- the story takes a turn here at home.

In wealthy countries, this food waste is much more likely to be due to us, the consumers. While loss takes place along the entire food supply chain, the FAO explains that consumers contribute to waste "due to quality standards, which reject food items not in perfect shape or appearance… Insufficient purchase planning and expiring 'best-before-dates' also cause large amounts of waste, in combination with the careless attitude of those consumers who can afford to waste food."

This is waste we can avoid: the misshapen apple that's still perfectly suitable for eating. Cereal bought in excessive bulk and allowed to go stale. Yogurt or meat thrown away because of a "best if used by" date -- a labeling system that's not regulated by the FDA and conveys nothing about safety (yes, it's true).

So with this newfound garbage guilt, what are we to do?

Luckily, a national movement is underway to revitalize a fresh food culture, helping us rediscover the joys and benefits that come along with purchasing fresh, healthy food from local farmers and reducing our waste. By shopping locally, we can purchase responsibly, buying from individuals and operations that we know are doing their best to produce nutritious food that doesn't harm the environment.

Urban farms are cropping up throughout cities, giving low-income communities greater access to consistent sources of fresh food. Young farmers are entering the field, and spreading knowledge to their neighbors about how to grow food themselves -- reducing the damage done to food and wasted energy that comes with transporting our meals thousands of miles to our plates. And new technologies like ecologically friendly biopesticides are helping farmers reduce waste in their fields while reducing risks to workers and the environment.

As your mind turns to shedding a little weight before summer, let's instead think about trimming a different figure -- those 253 pounds. Be conscious of the food you're buying, and whether you'll use it in time. Buy more frequently from local farmers if you can and look into growing your own food. Read up on food labels, and try to avoid tossing food unnecessarily. Eat smart and fresh, and it won't only be your waistline that will thank you.

Watch the stories of some amazing food heroes, NRDC's 2011 Growing Green Award winners, who are transforming the future of our food system:


Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogThis article originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission.

Photo of food waste courtesy of Flickr user petrr.

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