Millions of Americans will immerse themselves on Thursday in the hallowed tradition of stuffing themselves nearly comatose — then, after waking from a gluttony-induced slumber, try and figure out what the hell to do with all that leftover turkey, gravy, green beans, potatoes, and pumpkin pie.
Odds are that after a few days of turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, or some highbrow turkey soufflé, the rest of the feast will end up in the garbage, adding to the already vast quantity of food that goes uneaten in the United States.
Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates more than 30 percent of groceries in the United States gets thrown away every year. That's about $162 billion worth of food, more than the entire US Department of Agriculture's annual budget.
A leading environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, puts the figure at about 40 percent, when losses on the farm are factored in. That's the equivalent of every American throwing away 20 pounds of food a month, the group concluded in a 2012 report.
In a country where nearly 18 million households struggle to put food on the table, reducing those losses by 15 percent would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans, the NRDC concluded.
Several million hungry people will be taking advantage of free Thanksgiving meal programs across the country, according to Feeding America, and those programs would benefit greatly from increased food donations. The Salvation Army alone will serve at least four million people around the country during the holiday season.
But the problem of food waste isn't only confined to a residential kitchen.
"One of the more surprising things is how much food actually gets left on farms," Dana Gunders, the researcher who wrote the NRDC report, told VICE News. "Sometimes entire fields of produce that are perfectly good to eat are left unharvested, even when it's ready to harvest and ripe and nutritious, just because of market reasons."
Crops are often left in the fields because they won't meet the cosmetic standards set by grocers, she said. Meanwhile, shoppers enticed by promotions like 2-for-1 deals in supermarkets end up buying more than they can cook before their bargains spoil. And as Americans eat out more frequently, bigger portion sizes at restaurants mean fewer meals get eaten completely.
"There are some crazy statistics about how much portion sizes have increased in the last 20 or 30 years," Gunders said. The number of calories in a typical cookie has quadrupled since the 1980s. Even a chicken Caesar salad now has twice the calories it did two decades ago.
"Trying to reverse that trend is really importantly both for our waste and our waistline," she said. "There are two things happening with extra calories: Either we're eating them, or we're not, and we're throwing them away. And either way, it's not good."
The average Thanksgiving meal is about 3,000 calories, according to the American Council on Fitness, a trade association for the health and fitness industry.That's 1,000 calories more than the US Food and Drug Administration recommends a person consume over the course of an entire day.
There are some steps consumers can take during Thanksgiving — and beyond — to reduce the amount of food waste they produce.
Even as Americans waste a third or more of their food, the Centers for Disease Control estimates more than 35 percent of American adults and 17 percent of children are obese. It's a growing problem worldwide as well, with increasing consequences for human health. The World Health Organization reported Wednesday that nearly half a million cancer cases a year can be blamed on being overweight or obese.
All this waste and over-consumption is not so great for the environment, either.
Most of the 34 million tons of food thrown away ends up in landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. And, as it rots, it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Meanwhile, growing those crops and raising the livestock that go into the American diet — particularly a high-calorie Thanksgiving meal — is a costly business, said Martin Heller, who studies sustainable agriculture at the University of Michigan. The more food is wasted, the more of the resources that went into it go down the tubes as well. In a study published in May in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, Heller estimated food losses add the equivalent of 33 million cars to American emissions.
"The reason you want to make your house energy efficient is to not burn as much coal," Heller told VICE News. "The same thing could be said about food losses in our food system. It's not to say that you can eliminate either, but you can reduce them."
And some foods, like beef, require more resources than others. About 25 percent of US freshwater use goes to agriculture, and a large portion of that gets devoted to raising both cattle and the feed they eat, Gunders said.
"Even though the volume is less, the impact of throwing away meat is much higher than produce," she said. "If you throw out a hamburger, that's the equivalent of taking a 90-minute shower, where if you throw out an apple, that's only a 7-minute shower."
But there are things to be thankful for, NRDC's Gunders told VICE News.
For instance, the food industry has begun taking the problem more seriously, and more stores are finding ways to donate older but still edible food to charities like food banks. The amount is currently only believed to be about 10 percent of the amount of food that could be donated, but "the more the better," Gunders said.
And there are some steps consumers can take during Thanksgiving — and beyond — to reduce the amount of food waste they produce, Gunders said.
Buy less bird and more containers, she said, and coordinate who brings what, which helps to avoid three people arriving at dinner with mashed potatoes. Also, she said, get creative with the leftovers so you don't get bored of eating the same food. But one of the most important things that people can do is to take a second look at their shopping cart before they check out, making sure that you're not buying too much.
"Part of being thankful," Gunders told VICE News, "is not wasting food."
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