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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1331

Food Waste 101: Understanding the Basics

  • Sara Elnakib, PhD, MPH, RDN, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator, Cooperative Extension of Passaic County
  • Amy Rowe, County Agent II, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Cooperative Extension of Essex and Passaic Counties
  • Jennifer Shukaitis, MPH, Family & Community Health Sciences Educator

Food Waste in the United States

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about one-third of food produced globally is wasted, the equivalent of approximately 1.3 billion tons of food per year. If global food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that about 30–40% of food is thrown out in the U.S., equating to 63 million tons and $218 billion of food wasted annually. Food is wasted throughout the food supply chain, including at the farm, in transit, and at home. This results in wasted land, water, labor, energy, and other inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food.

A large portion (31%) of U.S. waste occurs in the retail and consumer level according to USDA's Economic Research Service. With such high environmental, economic, and social impacts, the need to reduce food waste is crucial.

National and State Food Waste Reduction Goals

In 2013, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the first-ever United States goal to reduce food waste by 50% by the year 2030. This objective reflected the global strategy set by the United Nations Sustainable Development goals for responsible consumption and production. The state of New Jersey adopted similar targets in 2017, calling for the state to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. To help meet these global, national, and state goals, we all have to do our part to reduce food waste. The EPA has developed a framework for how we can reduce food waste, called the Food Recovery Hierarchy.

Food Recovery Hierarchy

The EPA's "Food Recovery Hierarchy" framework prioritizes the ways food waste can be reduced or reused most efficiently. The graphic is an inverted triangle that shows the most preferred food recovery/reuse methods at the top and the least preferred at the bottom. This hierarchy includes environmental, social, and economic benefits while also encouraging maximum use of valuable food calories and nutrients. Each of the hierarchy tiers is discussed in more detail including below.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. EPA's 'Food Recovery Hierarchy' framework.

Source Reduction

Reducing food waste at the source is the most preferred method because it prevents the problem from occurring. Source reduction can be achieved through a variety of practices across different sectors of the food system such as efficient planning, careful shopping, mindful consumption, etc. Both consumers and businesses can implement source reduction practices into their daily routines. Adopting relatively simple habits, such as meal planning and learning smart food shopping strategies, can reduce food waste at home. Learn more about reducing food waste at the source through the fact sheet FS1332, Ways to Reduce Food Waste at Home.

Feed Hungry People

Giving perfectly good uneaten food to people that can use it is the next most-preferred method of food recovery. The tons of wasted food that Americans throw out each year could be donated to neighbors, shelters, or food banks instead, especially when so many people go hungry due to food insecurity issues. There are several ways in which both individuals and institutions such as schools can donate unused food to food pantries to ensure that it does not go to waste, such as creating share tables in schools.

Feed Animals

Any food that cannot be used to feed people may be able to be given to animals, either directly or by converting food scraps to feedstock at a larger scale. More and more people have backyard chickens, and food scraps can be used to diversify their diet. Farmers may be able to use uneaten food for livestock in order to reduce feed costs. Contact a local farmer to inquire about donating uneaten food or food scraps to feed their animals.

Industrial Uses

While most individuals may not have opportunities to divert food waste for industrial uses, that may change in the future. Scientists are researching ways that biofuels or other food waste by-products could be used for a variety of technologies. Examples include car engines that can run on collected frying oil. Currently, there are businesses that collect frying oil from fast food restaurants to divert it to industrial uses. However, there may be an opportunity for this type of food waste diversion on an industrial scale.


If all other options have been explored, then some food scraps can be used for composting. Composting is a natural process that allows microbes to break down certain materials into their mineral components. The finished product can be added to soil to improve growing conditions for plants in the garden or landscape. Although this use is close to the bottom of the hierarchy, composting is still a great way to create nutrient-rich soil and an educational opportunity at home or at school. To learn more about reducing food waste through composting, see fact sheet FS811, Home Composting and fact sheet FS805, Vermicomposting (Worm Composting)


This practice is the least preferred, but, unfortunately, is the most common disposal method for uneaten food.

Food waste is a major issue in the United States, with environmental, economic, and social impacts. By learning what you can do to reduce food waste you are taking the first step to helping us meet the national and state goals to reduce food waste by 50% by the year 2030.


  1. High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. Food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security. Rome, Italy: High Level Panel of Experts; June 2014.
  2. ReFED 2018 U.S. Food Waste Investment Report (PDF). Berkeley, CA USA: ReFED; Fall 2016.
  3. United States Department of Agriculture website. USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation's First Food Waste Reduction Goals.
  4. Gunders, Dana, Bloom, Jonathan, Berkenkamp, JoAnn, Hoover, Darby, Spacht, Andrea, Mourad, Marie. (2017). Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Retrieved from National Resource Defense Council Washington, D.C. Retrieved from: (PDF).
  5. P.L. 2017, c. 136 (S3027) ยง1,2 -C.13:1E-226 to 13:1E-227 (PDF).
  6. United States Environmental Protection Agency website. Sustainable Management of Food: Food Recovery Hierarchy.

July 2021