In the U.S., up to 40 percent of all food goes uneaten each year, at an annual cost of $218 billion. It’s a problem that costs the average family of four at least $1,500 per year. And it results in massive amounts of wasted water, landfill use, climate pollution and other environmental damage. At the same time, one in eight Americans lacks a steady supply of food.

According to several recent reports, more than two-thirds of all food discarded in people’s homes in three major U.S. cities was potentially edible, and up to 68 million additional meals annually could potentially be donated to people in need in those cities. The reports were released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with support from The Rockefeller Foundation. 

For the first time in the U.S., the reports offer a look at the amount and kinds of food wasted in Denver, Nashville and New York, providing a detailed look at this waste in people’s homes. They also estimate how much the cities could increase donation of food to people in need. In addition to providing local insights in each place, the reports identify patterns that emerged across the three cities that suggest how these problems and opportunities could be tackled at a city level nationwide.

Alongside the reports, NRDC also released a collection of case studies from across the country that highlight innovations by government agencies, nonprofits and private companies seeking to address hunger, reduce waste and create jobs and career development opportunities for low-income and at-risk individuals. 

“An outrageous amount of food is wasted in our cities, yet at the same time many residents are in need,” said Dana Gunders, senior scientist at NRDC. “Making the most of our food supply has wide-reaching benefits—helping to feed people and save money, water and energy in one fell swoop. These reports offer cities a critical first step.”

“We know that individual families, up to entire companies and governments, have a part to play in the fight against food waste. But until now, we didn’t fully understand what, how, and how much we waste,” said Devon Klatell, Associate Director at The Rockefeller Foundation. “With this important new research, cities like Denver, Nashville, and NYC can better rescue surplus, wholesome food; they have the data they need to set policy and feed more people in their cities. Everyone wins.”

These reports highlight the role cities can play in identifying what and where food is going to waste as a critical first step toward wasting less food and better meeting the need for food donation in their communities.

Key findings from one report include:

  • An average of 3.5 pounds of food per person was wasted at home every week across the three cities, and more than two-thirds (68 percent) of that could have been eaten. The most common reason given for wasting edible food was that the food was moldy or spoiled, followed by residents not wanting to eat leftovers.
  • Six of the top ten most commonly wasted edible foods in households were the same in all three cities: coffee, milk, apples, bread, potatoes and pasta.
  • In Denver and New York, the residential sector was estimated to produce the most food waste, followed by restaurants and caterers. In Nashville, the residential and restaurant sectors were virtually tied for the top two generators of food waste. Other substantial contributors included food wholesalers and distributors, food manufacturing and processing, grocers and markets, and hospitality.

“The best way to keep food from going to waste is to prevent it from the start,” said Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist in NRDC’s food and agriculture program. “When cities look to reduce food waste, they often focus solely on recycling methods—such as composting—but prevention is where environmental and cost benefits are greatest. By assessing how much, where and why food is going uneaten, we can help cities take stronger, more effective action to waste less food.”

A second report quantifies how much surplus food in these cities, beyond current donations, could potentially be directed to people in need, rather than discarded. It revealed substantial potential to increase food donation in all three cities. Specifically:

  • Up to 68 million additional meals annually could be donated across all three cities, beyond current donations, under optimal conditions—up to 7.1 million meals in Denver, 9.3 million in Nashville and 51.9 million in New York.
  • Denver and Nashville could meet as much as an additional 46 percent to 48 percent of their cities’ unmet food needs, respectively, by maximizing food donation from retailers, institutions and other consumer-facing businesses located in their community. Similarly, New York could meet an additional 23 percent of its unmet food needs, beyond current donations.
  • Across all three cities, the retail grocery sector demonstrated the largest untapped potential for increased food donation among the sectors reviewed, mainly through expanded donation of nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and deli items. Institutions like hotels, healthcare, universities and K-12 schools also have strong potential, followed by restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses.

“Cities across the country have enormous potential to get more food into the hands of residents who need it most,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate in NRDC’s food and agriculture program. “Our analysis provides insight that can help cities do just that. Food businesses, including grocery stores, institutional food service and restaurants, have the opportunity to become a much bigger part of the solution.”

NRDC and Ad Council are in the midst of a public service campaign aimed at doing just that. Save The Food seeks to help cut food waste from consumers, who are the largest single source of food waste—more than grocery stores, restaurants or any other part of the production chain. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.