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New Report Highlights Concerns Over Food Waste During Crisis


Tuesday, July 28, 2020   

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Even before the pandemic, Americans wasted about 40% of the food we produced - $218 billion worth each year. Now a report from the nonprofit ReFED shows the pandemic has worsened the problem of food waste - but may also lead to a smarter, more nimble food supply.

The COVID-19 US Food System Review found farms were devastated when demand from restaurants, cruise ships and airlines evaporated overnight. Jackie Suggitt, stakeholder engagement director with ReFED, said thousands of tons of excess food had to be destroyed.

"The inconsistencies in that supply and demand drive a lot of uncertainty in decision-making," Suggitt said. "And uncertainty almost always leads to waste."

The report also noted big shifts in where people get their food - with demand skyrocketing for food pantries, grocery stores and boxed meal kits. Also, in an effort to go out less often, many consumers began hoarding food, buying more than they could eat right away, which led to more food going to waste.

Prior to the pandemic, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimated 20% of the state's trash consisted of food waste.

Meanwhile, the ReFED report also found when food labels say "best by" a certain date, it can encourage waste, because people think food has spoiled when it's still perfectly edible a few days past peak freshness.

Suggitt said standardized labels that emphasize food quality as opposed to food safety could promote less waste.

"For example, if my cereal box or my yogurt was three days past, old me would have thrown that away," she said. "As I have become educated about the issue, I now know I can do things like smell my yogurt and taste my cereal, and if it tastes OK, I can consume that."

She added disruptions in the food chain caused by the pandemic have made people place more value on locally sourced food. And it has encouraged farms and distributors to innovate new best practices for sales channels, inventory controls and packaging.

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