Food waste in America: What you need to know

Between 30 and 40% of the American food supply goes to waste


When it comes to wasting food, no country, city, town, or household can escape a share of the blame. In the United States, much like the rest of the world, at least one-third of what’s produced goes to waste. On a per-capita basis, Americans waste more than 304 pounds annually, which is around 1,250 calories per person every single day.12 Not only does that mean food rotting in landfills, but it also means wasted land, energy, money, and other resources used to produce it along the way.

How much food is wasted in the United States?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 31% of the American food supply goes to waste at the retail and consumer levels. That’s equal to about 133 billion pounds, worth $161 billion.3 According to ReFED, a nonprofit focused on food waste solutions, the entire food system—including farming and production—wasted 38% of the total food supply in 2022.4

The majority of food waste in the U.S. happens at the household level. According to a 2020 study, the average American household wastes 31.9% of the food that it buys.5 On the higher end, families waste more than 60% of what they stock on their shelves. The least wasteful households still tossed about 8.7% of their food. Around 70% of American households fall in the middle, wasting between 20 and 50% of their grub.

“There are certain factors that lead households to waste an awful lot of food,” study author and Penn State agricultural economics professor Edward Jaenicke says. Of those links, the strongest is income: the more expendable cash, the more food that ends up in the trash. Other factors also include household size and diet choices. 

Food waste by state

According to a survey of more than 9,000 people by Gallup and nonprofit MITRE Corporation,6 households in the following states wasted the most food (excluding inedible scraps, like bones):

  1. Arkansas (about 10.21 cups weekly)
  2. Maryland (about 9.79 cups weekly)
  3. Illinois (about 8.82 cups weekly)
  4. Tennessee (about 8.69 cups weekly)
  5. Georgia (about 8.41 cups weekly)

Households in the following states wasted the least (excluding inedible scraps), according to that same survey:

  1. Wyoming (about 6.14 cups weekly)
  2. Maine (about 6.26 cups weekly)
  3. Idaho (about 6.42 cups weekly)
  4. Delaware (about 6.59 cups weekly)
  5. Missouri (about 6.61 cups weekly)

This comprehensive survey data, however, only includes estimates from American households. Other sectors, such as farms, manufacturing, and retail markets waste millions of tons of food every year. 

Food waste distribution

Together, non-residential sectors accounted for about 46 million tons of the total 88.7 million tons of food wasted in America in 2022, according to ReFED. American households discarded about 43 million tons of food in 2022, accounting for close to half of the food that ends up in a landfill.7

The balance of wasted food is spread across sectors. ReFED puts farm waste at about 15 million tons in 2022. These figures, however, only include produce waste—not animal products like meat, seafood, or dairy. The food service industry in America discarded about 13 million tons of food. At the manufacturing level, about 13 million tons of food went to waste in 2022. Meanwhile, retail accounted for another nearly 5 million tons.

Types of food wasted

According to the Gallup/MITRE survey, food waste in American households included a variety of products. The most-wasted items were vegetables, followed by fruit, grains, mixed foods, dairy, proteins, and then oils, fats, and sugars.

ReFED’s data agrees. According to 2022 numbers, Americans wasted 31.3 tons of produce, 18 million tons of prepared foods, 14.2 million tons of dairy and eggs, 10.6 million tons of dry goods, and 5.08 million tons of fresh meat and seafood. About 4.39 million tons of frozen food, 2.98 million tons of beverages, and 2.12 million tons of bakery goods and breads also went to waste.8

What are the main causes of food waste in America?

There are many reasons food ends up going to waste, but economic status, behavior, and psychology certainly play their roles at the consumer level, says Jaenicke and Ohio State University professor and food waste researcher Brian Roe.

“In some ways, you can think of food waste as being completely rational,” says Jaenicke, noting that higher income households sometimes are less likely to spend the  time needed to efficiently manage food inventories, and are more prone or willing to overbuy instead. Meanwhile, lower income families don’t always have extra income, so they manage food waste a bit better. They also may be more hesitant to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables for fear of them going to waste, which plays into a socioeconomic issue of healthy eating as well. “Keeping track of your own inventory (of food waste) is hard to do, but that might help a bit as well,” he says. 

Consumer purchasing habits can influence what makes it to market because some people won’t buy “ugly” or damaged produce. Meanwhile, the “best by” and expiration date labels on most foods can be quite confusing to people and lead to unnecessary waste. In fact, there are no federal guidelines for these labels, and many are added not for safety reasons but just to note when producers think food may be past its prime.

Opaque food dating aside, other forces in the food system can nudge individuals towards waste. “It’s very fair to say that [the majority of] food waste generation occurs in households or consumer-facing elements of the supply chain, but that’s not to say the blame should be proportionate to that necessarily,” says Roe. “Consumers are dealing with the output of many choices made throughout the entire food system.” That also includes portion sizes, particularly at restaurants or with pre-packaged foods, he added.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 31% of the American food supply goes to waste at the retail and consumer levels.

Also remember: Waste also occurs before the products end up on shelves or plates. A 2021 EPA report noted that recent field studies found an average of 57% of some vegetables never even made it off the field, a figure that included only the produce that was “suitable for harvest and use.”9 There are several reasons why so much can be lost on the farm: growers sometimes leave produce behind because of its appearance; farmers, buyers, and distributors can miscommunicate about customer demands; low prices might make harvesting cost ineffective; and buyers might flat-out reject some goods.

Efforts to reduce food waste in America

There’s a wide variety of solutions for tackling food waste, from implementing laws and regulations to incorporating new technologies and collaborations

Government initiatives

The U.S. has no overarching federal policies on the books to regulate how to address and handle food waste. The one exception: President Biden signed a law in 2023 to make it easier for businesses to donate extra food. There are, however, some government initiatives to address the problem. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA joined forces to cut the country’s food waste by 50% by 2030. Efforts to meet that goal include providing federal funding opportunities such as grants through the EPA

Many states have also changed regulations regarding sell-by dates in an effort to acknowledge more modern processing and transportation technologies and reduce unnecessary food waste.10 ReFED keeps an inventory of current state-level food waste policies on its website. It even ranks some of the policies related to prevention, rescue, and recycling of food waste on a scale of “negative” to “strong” scale. It also highlights “best-practice policies.” Virginia’s Food Donations Tax Credit, for one, incentivizes businesses to donate food to nonprofit food banks, and Alaska’s lack of animal feed regulations allows farmers in that state to more easily repurpose vegetable waste into animal feed.

Role of nonprofits

Nonprofits like ReFED educate the public about the problem and offer a variety of solutions for individuals, communities, and businesses. The organization’s solutions span every sector from optimizing harvesting at the farm to recycling anything left uneaten. ReFED also has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to form the U.S. Food Waste Pact to further the cause through collaboration. Meanwhile, other organizations like food banks and Feeding America also provide valuable educational resources and help redirect unused food products to those who need them most.

Business and community collaborations 

Through initiatives like the U.S Food Waste Pact, major brands like Del Monte and Whole Foods work with communities to establish food waste reduction programs. The Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment, for example, is a voluntary public-private partnership between businesses and governments supported by the member states and cities of the Pacific Coast Collaborative (British Columbia, the states of Washington, Oregon and California as well as cities in those regions). The group, for example, has supported including the use of artificial intelligence to increase the accuracy of ordering and inventory and reduce waste at events or on flights.

How much food is wasted globally each year?

A 2021 report from the World Wildlife Fund and British supermarket chain Tesco estimated that total global food waste lost “from farm to fork” is more than twice what has been previously calculated, and is really closer to 2.75 billion tons annually.11 The report also notes that 58% of farm-based food waste occurs in high- and middle-income countries in Europe, North America, and Industrialised Asia.

Which countries waste the most food?

Data published in the United Nations Environment Programme shows that households in China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and the United States wasted the most food in the world.12 Those five countries would account for about 8% of the world’s total food waste. However, those numbers only account for food waste at the household level. About 1.3 billion tons of food is lost before it can reach retail markets.

How does food waste impact the world?

Food produced and not eaten can lead to negative environmental, social, and economic impacts because of the slew of resources gobbled up along the way.

Environmentally, food production uses vast amounts of land, energy, and valuable water resources that cannot be recovered. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that food waste squanders about 80 million acres of habitat yearly, while the World Wildlife Fund notes that some foods even lead to the destruction of rainforests because land is cleared to instead grow products such as soy, palm oil, and cocoa. Food waste also sucks up about 5.9 trillion gallons of clean water in the U.S. alone, according to the EPA.13

Socioeconomically, food waste contributes to impacts on food security. Around 13% of American households aren’t able to access the food they need to live healthy, full lives.14 If the average household reduced its waste by 10 to 20%, that would reduce the demand on the supply chain and in turn lead to less land being used to grow that food and, ultimately, a reduction in food costs, says Roe. “If people just stop wasting as much, the whole system can adjust and prices would come down altogether,” he says. 

How does food waste affect climate change?

Food waste is one of the world’s largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, in large part due to the methane released by food waste rotting in oxygen-depleted landfill environments. Coupled with the greenhouse gases created and wasted throughout the food chain supply, from transportation vehicles to farming equipment and manufacturing processes, food loss and waste accounts for upwards of 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

  1. United Nations Statistics Division (2019) ↩︎
  2. The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Feb. 2014 ↩︎
  3. Estimates of Food Loss at the Retail and Consumer Levels, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture ↩︎
  4. ReFED Insights Engine (2023), ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  5. Estimating Food Waste as Household Production Inefficiency, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Mar. 2020 ↩︎
  6. State of Food Waste: Nationally Representative Study, MITRE, 2023 ↩︎
  7. ReFED Insights Engine (2023), ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  8. ReFED Insights Engine (2023), ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  9. From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Nov. 2021 ↩︎
  10. The effect of sell-by dates on purchase volume and food waste, Food Policy, Jan. 2021 ↩︎
  11. Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms, World Wildlife Fund, Aug. 2021 ↩︎
  12. UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021, UN Environment Programme, Mar. 2021 ↩︎
  13. From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Nov. 2021 ↩︎
  14. Household Food Security in the United States in 2022, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Oct. 2023 ↩︎