A white plastic fork is sharply in focus, laying on a dirt ground with some blurred trash visible in the background.
A plastic fork lays on the ground of the Bluff Road Landfill in north Lincoln on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Discarded food takes up a large percentage of landfills – more than plastic, paper, wood and glass. (Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC)

Think back to the last time you rinsed off your plate, cleaned out the fridge or took out the trash. Can you remember how much food you have thrown away in the past 24 hours? What about the past week? Year?

According to the most recent data from the nonprofit ReFED, 54.2 million tons of food waste were generated in the United States in 2019, equating to about 330 pounds per person. In Nebraska alone, 1.75 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) were released as a result of uneaten food, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 233,333 cars. CO2e expresses all the greenhouse gasses produced in one number and puts them in terms of the quantity of CO2 that would create the same amount of global warming.

Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, where it is the most common waste of any other material from our daily trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While food slowly decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, a gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

​​“It’s only the stuff that can rot that will lead to gas, and in this case, I’m going to say that food waste is probably going to be the majority of that material,” said Erik Waiss, environmental assistance coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

Globally, food waste accounts for roughly 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to a significant impact on the environment, according to the International Panel on Climate Change. But it  also an opportunity to fight climate change on an individual level.

A local solution

Many organizations promote recycling, composting or donating surplus food in order to reduce the amount of food going to landfills. Most landfills also have composting or gas collecting facilities to mitigate the effects of food waste on the environment.

“But that’s after the fact, the food waste has already been generated,” Waiss said. “I think the quickest way to reduce food waste is to change general behavior on its creation.”

One such way is buying local, which includes farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and community supported agriculture (CSA).

The Nebraska Food Cooperative, which has been in place since 2005, acts like an online farmers’ market where Nebraskans can order local food from farmers across the state. Depending on the season, consumers can choose from a selection of meats, eggs, jams, grains, potatoes and fruits and vegetables. While it is not as easy as Amazon, the cooperative enables farmers to sell their products year-round to local consumers.

“We have a window of ordering that usually runs a month and a half, and then at the end when it closes we go collect all the produce from the farmers across the state, bring it together, and take it out to drop sites,” said Doug Garrison, treasurer of the cooperative and co-owner of DS Family Farm in Malcolm.

The cooperative currently has 12 active producers listing their products, although the number changes from season to season.

“In the past we have had way more than that, it’s just kind of cyclical,” Garrison said.

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Doug Garrison, co-owner of DS Family Farm, drives out to his pasture every day to move the cows so they always have nutrient-dense pasture to graze and are able to put nutrients back into the soil with their manure. He values being able to provide local beef to Nebraska consumers. (Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC)

Garrison and his wife, Sheila, who raise pasture-grazed cattle and poultry on their farm, started selling their beef to the cooperative in 2015. Membership is required to buy or sell on the cooperative, and there are various types of memberships depending on the desired involvement. These members create a strong network of producers and consumers, where producers can spread awareness of the availability of local food, and consumers can get to know farmers around the state.

The Garrisons also recognize the importance of buying local and try to do so as much as they can. However, it has been a gradual process.

“Maybe we only dedicated 10% of our grocery expenses to buying local at first,” Garrison said. “Then slowly through the years we increased, buying more and more locally.”

Garrison said he has noticed a difference in his overall food waste in doing so.

“When I buy directly from a producer, I’m buying just what I need to utilize over the coming weeks,” Garrison said.

Traditional grocery stores often promote cheap value deals and minimum purchase discounts, leading many to purchase more than they can use.

“What our country has been through over the past 50 years is called the green revolution, and that’s where we’ve taken our food system away from local, feeding our neighbors and self-sufficiency, to this industrial system that is very efficient,” Garrison said.

Garrison said that in that process, we’ve changed our food and created a model based on quantity, yield and being able to ship produce across the country.

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Doug Garrison pets the last remaining cow in his original 10-cow herd. Now at 32 cows, Garrison harvests around 12 cows per year with each cow providing enough meat for two to four families. (Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC)

While food waste occurs across the supply chain, 31% of food loss occurs at the retail and consumer levels. That means much of the food makes it through the growing, harvesting, processing and transporting process just to rot in our refrigerator or on a grocery store shelf. However, this also means that consumers have the power to make a difference, starting with their purchasing habits.

“We’ve been trained for this highly efficient chain model, so that is a huge challenge,” Garrison said.

Compared to buying a five-pound bag of lettuce at Costco and only using one-fourth of it, Garrison said that when he buys local he sees very little wasted in what he is purchasing.

“That’s one big advantage of the food co-op – the only thing we ever ship is exactly what the customer wants, so we never have any waste,” Garrison said.

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Doug Garrison tosses bales of protein-rich hay to his cows. Unlike large feedlot operations that bring the feed to the animals, Garrison’s cows graze on grass and hay from his fields, leading to very little imports and waste. “It’s basically like a closed system,” Garrison said. (Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC)

Although the cooperative sells some fresh fruits and vegetables, a greater selection of produce can be found at local farmers’ markets or receiving produce boxes directly from a farmer by joining their CSA program.

ShadowBrook farm in south Lincoln has used a CSA program for over two decades. In a typical CSA, consumers purchase shares of the coming harvest’s crop in advance and then during harvesting season they receive weekly boxes of fresh produce. However, in 2020 ShadowBrook started the flex-style program.

In this program, consumers pay an amount at the beginning of the season and every week select what they want from an online store.

“They get to choose how they utilize what they’ve invested,” said Ian Richmond, who leads the produce production at ShadowBrook.

CSAs not only help with cashflow for farmers at a time when there is very little, but they also help farmers with planning, enabling them to have a better idea of the volume of consumers before they begin production.

“It’s kind of like being able to go at it backwards instead of producing and then having all this waste,” Richmond said. “I can have a better idea of what’s going to sell through the season to the subscribers.”

Farmer-run market

In 2005, Kevin Loth and Charuth van Beuzekom, owners of ShadowBrook farm, created the Old Cheney Road farmers’ market along with another local farmer. In 2018, the market moved to the College View neighborhood and became the Sunday farmers’ market at College View. It is the only farmer-run market in the state, with 60% of the board of directors consisting of farmers.

“It was brought about to be a producers-only market,” Richmond said.

The market offers local products, meats, baked goods, pantry staples as well as fresh produce. The Sunday market not only emphasizes buying locally, but also buying what is in season in the area.

“People want what they want all the time, because that’s kind of what has become accepted,” Richmond said. “Because people want things that are out of season, it increases food waste.”

Choosing to eat seasonally and locally not only reduces the distance food travels from farm to plate, but it also enables consumers to understand how their food is grown. Richmond said he thinks the more educated a person is on the food they’re purchasing, the greater likelihood they are going to use it before it is wasted.

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About 30% of food in American grocery stores is thrown away. Retail models like overstocked produce displays and expectation of appearance perfection lead to much of the fresh produce being tossed. (Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC)

“They have more of a connection to where that food came from and really feel a sense of ‘well, this is about to go bad–I’m going to figure out a way to use it before that happens’,” Richmond said.

While the current retail model pushes farms to overproduce and consumers to overbuy, the process of buying local can balance the system and help consumers understand the amounts of food they can realistically utilize.

“If they can change that behavior then the whole supply chain will shift to accommodate that, and in general, we will just have less food waste because people are better aware of what they need,” Waiss said.

For Richmond, food waste doesn’t exist on the farm. If he overproduces something and can’t sell it, he feeds it to the pigs or turns it into compost to put back into the soil.

“I would probably say that smaller scale operations in this day-in-age do that,” Richmond said.

However, this usually only works up to a certain extent, as it becomes much more difficult for larger farm operations to effectively compost all of their surplus food.

In addition, as cities become more populated, it becomes harder to get material like food out of the waste chain since people have less ability to convert their food waste into compost to feed home vegetable gardens or flower beds. Many simply do not have the room to do so, meaning most of the food they throw away is being shipped directly to landfills. Because of convenience, most city dwellers also tend to purchase the bulk of their groceries at stores.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more food waste in the switch from rural to the city,” Waiss said.

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About 800 tons of waste are disposed of in the Bluff Road Municipal Solid Waste Landfill every day. The permitted disposal area (171 acres) is currently projected to reach capacity in 2035. “As the population increases we just have more volume in general,” said Erik Waiss, the environmental assistance coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. (Photo by Ellie Kuckelman/CoJMC)

However, CSAs, food cooperatives and even farmers’ markets offer viable channels for all to buy local, reduce food miles, and become more connected to the food they buy and the farmers that produce it. This decreases the steps in the supply chain where food could get wasted and leads to conscious consumers who better understand proper portion sizes and the work that goes into growing the food they bring home.

While many contributors to climate change involve problems on a global manufacturing and industrialization scale, food waste is an issue that people can combat on an individual level.

“I would like to be able to say that 10% of the population chooses to buy 30% of their food in a year locally—I think that would be huge,” Richmond said. He thinks that currently, less than 1% of people are buying one-third of their annual food locally.

“Really if you think about that, it could change for the better,” Richmond said. “I think anything we can do as individuals is helpful.”

Ellie Kuckelman is a senior journalism student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a minor in Spanish. Ellie has a passion for telling stories through both words and photos. She currently works for Nebraska Communications as a sports photographer.