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In the U.S., 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted. California aims to change that

In the U.S., 30 to 40 percent of food produced never makes it to a dining table. Much of that waste ends up in landfills. But some companies are pursuing new techniques to reduce and redistribute surplus -- plus process discarded food in environmentally friendly, sustainable ways that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. NPR’s Allison Aubrey reports from California, which is leading the charge.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For many of us, the Thanksgiving meal is one of the most beloved culinary traditions of the year.

    But that feast usually ends with plentiful leftovers, and then some. That extra some, so to speak, often ends up in the garbage and adds to the much larger problem of food waste in this country.

    That makes it a good time to look at the burgeoning movement to rethink our attitudes and approach about all of this.

    Special correspondent Allison Aubrey of NPR showed us the depth of the problem in previous reports. And she's back for a special series this week.

    Allison, welcome.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Hi there. Good to be here, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's good to have you back.

    So, the numbers are staggering. Something like 30 to 40 percent of the food we produce never makes it to the table.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    That's right.

    And when these numbers were first documented several years ago, the reaction was, how could this be? This is insane, right? Now, two years later, there are all kinds of solutions being tried all over the country.

    For instance, we visited farmers in Massachusetts. They are taking food waste, streams of food that can't be eaten, and turning it into electricity, into renewable energy.

    Now, we start the series in California. That's because the state is really leading the way. I traveled with producer Mary Beth Durkin around the state.

    And here's what we found.

    When we first came to Salinas Valley four years ago, we saw walls of leafy greens being tossed away. And it's still happening. On peak days, up to 200 tons of produce is headed to this dump.

    It's all surplus from nearby farms and packaging facilities. One reason these greens end up here is because they weren't shipped in time to give grocers enough shelf time to sell them.

    But it was these plastic bags that really frustrated Cesar Zuniga. He's the facility's waste manager.

  • Cesar Zuniga:

    It's sad to receive all this material and not put it to better use. The plastic makes, it hard to compost as well, because you shred the plastic with the organics, it contaminates the compost.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    All this used to be tossed in a landfill, where it would rot and emit methane, a greenhouse gas.

    But Cesar Zuniga says there's a new solution.

    Look at all that lettuce. And it's all in plastic.

  • Cesar Zuniga:

    Yes, it's all film plastic. This is the same stuff we saw four years ago. Now we have this machine, the debagger, which separates that film plastic from the lettuce.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    All of that bagged lettuce goes in here.

  • Cesar Zuniga:

    As you can see, it's being separated.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Oh, yes.

  • Cesar Zuniga:

    The plastic is coming out here.

    And if you walk around the corner here, you will see the organic materials coming out on this side into this container here.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Whoa. Look at that. It's like a slurry.

  • Cesar Zuniga:

    We call it a salsa.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Oh, so a salsa of wasted lettuce.

    So here is where you take all that lettuce slurry and turn it into something more valuable?

  • Cesar Zuniga:

    After we debag the material and get the slurry out of it, we will mix it with the material that's behind us and compost it.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    So, you're turning into compost and then selling it back to farmers?

  • Cesar Zuniga:

    Yes. We sell it back to farmers, and they place it back on the agricultural lands to grow more produce for us.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    So it's a real reuse, recycle.

    And composting can reduce or prevent the release of methane as these greens break down. This is beneficial because methane is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a factor in climate change.

    In addition to composting, recovering edible food before it makes it to a landfill is another effective way to prevent food waste. In the coming year, California will roll out new regulations that require food businesses, like grocery stores and wholesale distributors, to donate their edible food waste. By 2022, if they don't comply, businesses could be fined.

  • Dana Gunders:

    Right now, the easiest thing to do is to just throw whatever food you have out. So, with this new law, it's forcing people to take that extra effort. And that exercise, in itself, helps people to reduce the amount of surplus they're creating.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    That's Dana Gunders, who helped put the issue of food waste on the map back in 2012 with a report that documented just how much goes to waste.

    The state of California is also expanding grants to nonprofits to recover all of this surplus food that may have just gone to waste, in order to feed hungry people.

  • Rich Nahmias:

    Millions of pounds of produce a year.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    One group leading the way is called Food Forward. It's run by Rich Nahmias.

    Collecting food donations is nothing new, but what you see here is taking it to a whole new level.

  • Rick Nahmias:

    It's the quantity that's kind of amazing. We have got melons, kale, watermelon, corn in the back. It's like a supermarket.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the state, Nahmias bought this warehouse equipped with a refrigerator that can hold up to 150,000 pounds of produce. All of this will double the amount of food he can recover.

  • Rick Nahmias:

    People just don't understand the scale of overproduction. And there is no one in, let's say, fruit and veggie land control tower figuring out exactly where the stuff should be going and coming from. So, the result is waste.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    He's out to change this. Food Forward has developed a sophisticated system to match the wholesalers who have surplus produce to give away with the people who need it. And, this year, they will distribute food to 1,800 hunger relief agencies in Southern California.

    A lot of the surplus comes from farms, farmers markets and right here, the L.A. Wholesale Food Market. We woke up at 5:00 a.m. to check it out.

    Do you have any deals yet this morning?

  • Luis Yepiz:

    Yes. Right now, we just got offered eight pallets of peaches, 14,000 to 15,000 pounds of peaches.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Whoa. That's a lot.

  • Luis Yepiz:

    Yes.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Luis Yepiz is part of the Food Forward operation team. And his job is to nag vendors who are getting ready to toss stuff out.

  • By 6:

    00 a.m., Yepiz has recovered close to 80,000 pounds of produce.

    So, why would any of these vendors be offering you donations? What's wrong with this produce?

  • Luis Yepiz:

    A lot of the produce that gets donated gets donated mostly because there's minor imperfections.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    And that's not the only reason.

  • Luis Yepiz:

    They told me it was these pallets right here, that pallet, this pallet, all these pallets right here.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Wow. All going to waste?

  • Luis Yepiz:

    They haven't been sold yet. And they have a new shipment of peaches coming in. So they want to get rid of them before they have to throw them away.

    The issue with this particular box of peaches, that there is some decay.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    But some of them are good, so you don't want to throw away the whole box.

  • Luis Yepiz:

    Unfortunately, this particular company is short on refrigerated space. They want to donate them.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    By 10:00 a.m., these peaches and all the other produce are loaded onto this truck. First stop, Resurrection Church in East L.A. Families are lined up waiting.

    Back at the wholesale market, I asked Yepiz if he's worried about not having enough food.

  • Luis Yepiz:

    There is definitely enough food in Los Angeles and in the local food systems that we are definitely able to feed everyone in Southern California. The issue is not necessarily with the food being available. It's a distribution problem.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Getting it to the people in need.

  • Luis Yepiz:

    Yes. It's just a logistics problem. So, you got to create the bridges between the abundance and the people in need.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    A logistics problem that Nahmias has a fix for. He's got new software to help track the enormous amounts of produce they're moving in and out.

  • Rick Nahmias:

    We're able to track food in real time, we're able to see where the trucks are at, what is on each truck, where it's coming from, where it's going. And it's allowed us to scale.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    And that scale is what's needed.

    California is not the only state taking action. Five states and five cities have restrictions aimed at diverting food waste from landfills.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News in Los Angeles.

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