One July morning in 2016, in the predawn quiet of a Nashville suburb, Laura Moreno and her team of assistants looked more like investigators on a clandestine raid than scientists. With goggles, gloves, and coordinated efficiency, they removed garbage bags from every bin on the block, just barely beating the garbage truck to the spoils. They spent the next several weeks in an unventilated facility where they sorted and tallied everything from unpeeled bananas and sprouting russet potatoes to half-eaten take-out and sealed boxes of cereal. It was all done in the name of research.
Moreno’s resulting study, which surveyed Nashville, Denver, and New York City, was the first of its kind, capturing, in granular detail, American food waste. According to her research, Americans throw out the equivalent of around $218 billion of food every year year (worldwide, it adds up to $990 billion), 68 percent of which is potentially edible, a third of which is compostable, and almost all of which is consigned to landfills where it rots, releasing harmful greenhouse gases. The Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that the average American family spends $7,700 on food annually, $1,500 of which, Moreno says, is discarded. “The most wasted foods are fruits, veggies, and then leftovers and prepared foods,” she says.
Now, a decade into her research, Moreno—who completed her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group—has spent countless hours digging through and cataloguing garbage. For her, the staggering reality of food waste raises two key questions: What behaviors lead to excessive waste, and what can be done to prevent it?
Moreno grew up on a ranch in the Central Valley of California with three older brothers. She saw her first chicken beheaded when she was five and spent her earliest years playing with horses and eating plums off the ground in her family’s orchard. She studied at UC Berkeley and planned to become a research scientist. But, on a whim, she volunteered to help her residence hall reduce its waste. Digging through a classmate’s trash for the first time she thought, “Oh, this is it for me.”
Sorting through food garbage, Moreno knows, is a grubby and oddly intimate undertaking. But, like scanning someone’s internet search history, digging through discarded food also provides an unfiltered window into people’s private behavior: their eating habits, their failed diets, their splurges and skimps. “You start to see into people’s lives,” Moreno says about her Nashville household study. “You can build a story about how people live and how it might result in wasted food.”
Importantly, it’s not just the food that goes to waste but also all the resources that went into producing that food, such as fresh water, seeds, fertilizer, as well as the human labor and fossil fuels to plant, harvest, and transport it. Plus, food in landfills decomposes and releases methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide. According to the World Resources Institute, “If food loss and waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter—surpassed only by China and the United States.”
But despite efforts from actors in the food supply chain—whether commercial giants like General Mills or governmental agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture—to standardize how food waste is measured, set aggressive reduction goals, and divert food from landfills, there’s still a staggering disparity between our actual and aspirational food habits.
In 2014, Moreno joined Bay Area residents for a behind-the-scenes tour of their kitchens to see why we toss what we intend to consume. During one visit, a woman proudly walked over to her massive, double-door refrigerator and swung open the doors to reveal a solid wall of food. “I could not believe how full to the brim and well-organized her fridge was,” Moreno recalls. “And the fact that she called her method ‘shopping for Armageddon.’”
The family was engaging in “stockpiling,” a behavior that has become increasingly common in many parts of the world since the pandemic. The problem, Moreno says, is that stockpiling often results in improperly stored and inefficiently eaten food. With the Armageddon family, she noticed many of their perishable items had expired, and, that with its shelves packed to the brim, the fridge worked less efficiently.
What really intrigued Moreno, though, was the comfort the woman got from her stockpile. For her, it was about being a good mother and provider for her friends and family. “This is where it gets difficult,” Moreno says. “We don’t talk about it this way, but if I told her to buy less, I’m also kind of telling her to be less comfortable.”
Over the course of her field research, Moreno observed other common behaviors that might help explain our wastefulness. Some people, for example, use their refrigerators aspirationally. “People feel way less bad when they throw away leftovers after they store them,” she says. The freezer seems to be a particular agent of delusion. One study participant, for example, had dutifully transferred five pounds of frozen chicken during three different apartment moves. “She was so convinced she was going to eat it,” Moreno says. “But from a food safety perspective, I had to tell her that it was not a great idea.”
One night last fall, she and I met at a Berkeley market during grocery rush hour. According to Moreno, unhealthy food behaviors often begin at the local source—the supermarket—and she wanted to show me what that looks like. She was shopping for a party at the time and was already wary of over-buying to please the diverse palettes of her guests. “Oh, this is a classic problem,” she said. “When you’re hosting, you try to make something for everybody.”
The vegetarians, she said as we walked to the leafy greens, would be getting spinach-stuffed mushrooms. She gathered two heaping bunches of spinach and pointed their stems at me. “Some people cut these off, but I like them.”
Across from us were the bananas, cheery and upturned. Moreno’s surveys have shown that bananas, chicken, and coffee are the most commonly discarded edible foods in American households. “I’ve talked to people who are like, ‘If there’s a brown spot, I’m done.’”
Pointing out the pyramids of fruit and walls of chips, she described what she calls a “zone of high expectations,” meaning that shoppers respond to the aesthetic of pristine abundance. Most produce is large, colorful, and scrubbed to perfection. These theatrics, Moreno believes, manipulate our desires and encourage impulse purchases. And she notes that buying food (especially perishable items) without a plan can lead to waste.
Expiration and “best by” dates on packaging, too, can lead to unnecessary waste by making food appear spoiled before it actually is. Retailers face a dilemma: date a product too early, and people might not buy it; push it out too far and risk quality degradation and unhappy customers. One fix, Moreno believes, could be posting informational signs above certain foods. We were standing in the herb section, and she picked up a thick cilantro bundle. “We all know that most recipes do not call for a whole thing of cilantro,” she says. “So why not have cards that say: ‘Getting more cilantro than you need? Here are tips for storing it and some quick recipe ideas to use it up.’”
The trouble is that stores don’t necessarily want to put up signs that encourage that kind of reflection. It could, after all, make you buy less. “We have built a system where wasting food is essentially inevitable,” Moreno says.
But there might be some good news, too.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be changing many people’s grocery shopping habits, which Moreno sees as an opportunity. Perhaps the economic impact of the global recession, or simply the fear of the supermarket, will spur people to look more closely at their food budgets and, in turn, their food waste. “I’ve heard anecdotally from people that they are trying new parts of fruits or vegetables because they don’t want to go to the store,” Moreno says. “Right now is a great time to break old habits and create new ones.”