In a community where too many must worry too frequently where the next meal is coming from, it’s particularly galling to learn from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist that almost half of all food in this country goes to waste.

Not all of that comes from children who hate green beans.

In the U.S., Australia, Canada and New Zealand, about 20 percent of food is lost at the source, where it’s picked and sorted for sale, according to figures from National Geographic Magazine. That’s low — only China, South Korea and Japan lose less at that point. Another 3 percent is lost in storage and shipping; 2 percent is lost in production and 9 percent is discarded by wholesalers and supermarkets.

Worse — and here, rather than being among the most efficient countries in the world, the U.S., Australia and others are the least efficient — American families bring home and later toss out 19 percent of all the food they buy. In effect, they waste 19 dollars out of every $100 they spend for food because so much winds up in the trash or compost heap.

Even if no one in the world ever lacked for enough to eat, that’s an appalling number. Food waste is tough on the environment, as well. Worldwide, the water used to grow what will be lost or wasted food equals the amount the Volga River, Europe’s largest by volume, discharges into the Caspian Sea for a year. In the U.S., meanwhile, the water it takes to grow the 133 billion pounds of food wasted annually is more than 70 times the amount of oil lost (210 million gallons) in the Deepwater Horizon accident. Moreover, if wasted food were a country, National Geographic says, it would be the world’s third-largest producer of greenhouse gases.

Then there’s this: The world likely will have 9 billion more mouths to feed in 2050 than there are today. Doing so, according to National Geographic, could require a doubling of agricultural output. Or, with changes to the way we eat and a major reduction in waste, we might be close to growing enough food for 2050 right now.

All of that is enough to give one pause. Money spent on wasted food could be a motivator for those on limited budgets to do better. Doing something that could make a difference in climate change might change the habits of others. Either way, the world could come out a winner.

So what can individuals and their families do? One big thing is to buy what you know you’ll use. That can be difficult, I know, particularly in a community where several grocery stores prewrap produce, forcing you to buy more than you otherwise might. We can get over the idea that only produce that looks perfect — no blemishes or deformities — is worth paying for. We can ask grocers to give us access, perhaps for less money, for stuff that isn’t perfect.

We can make it a point to use up leftovers, too. My mother used to have what she called a smorgasbord night periodically, which we all knew meant she was emptying the fridge of leftovers for our dinner. Some items — rice is a good one — can be reused in other dishes, including soups and casseroles.

In restaurants, we can ask servers to leave the chips behind if we know we won’t eat them, share side dishes and take leftovers home, where, of course, we’ll eat them. We can also push schools to join the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Waste Challenge or become involved in the Campus Kitchens Project (campuskitchens.org.)

That latter is a nationwide project that gets student volunteers in high schools and colleges involved in the fight against hunger in a variety of ways, from raising money to gleaning, teaching nutrition and recovering food to preparing and delivering meals to those in need. No Oregon schools are currently involved, according to the organization’s website, and it would be nice if Central Oregon students could change that.

Too often huge problems demand huge solutions, and an individual or community can do little to help. Food waste is different. Families can cut waste and save money in the process; communities can work to see that what is saved gets to those in need.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821 or jstevens@bendbulletin.com.

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