More food than we can eat? America’s food waste problem

By Russell Penasa; Zero Waste Team member

In January I had the opportunity to help out with the Food waste audit. After a few hours of watching plates of half eaten cheese burgers and weird combinations of mushed french fries, ketchup, salads and mystery sauces, we ended up collecting 391.5 pounds of food waste from the San Juan Dining Hall. These numbers made me wonder if there was a similar trend throughout the U.S. I found that there is a larger trend that poses a few interesting issues.

In the United States there is an expanding gap between the food we produce and hungry mouths across the country. According to, “today in the United States, 25 percent of households with children living in large cities are food-insecure, and 48.8 million Americans live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis.” Our neighboring state New Mexico, has the largest percentage of child food insecurity in the country, where 30.6 percent of children are food insecure. Is there a lack of food in the U.S.? There is certainly a vast amount of industrial agriculture across the nation accounting for 51 percent of the U.S. land base.

According to one ecologist, most of the feed produced for the meat industry of the U.S., “could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat.”

Although industrial agriculture systems deserve a lot of criticism, which includes many other ecological issues, the real question is: where is this void between food and the people that need it? In a report done by the USDA, 31 percent of the 430 billion pounds of the avail­able food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. This represents 133 billion pounds of food that went straight into landfills, estimated to be worth $161.6 billion dollars using retail prices. This represents 1,249 calories per capita, per day, for the entire population of the United States.

So do we have more food than we can eat? Based on the information above, it would prove so. It seems the dis-connection between food and the hungry comes from a lack of infrastructure, a gap between businesses and the community, and some type of pattern of wastefulness that is very unique to our nation. Maybe we take availability of food for granted? Either way, there is something we can do.

On our campus only about 20-21 percent of the food waste that is generated in the dining halls gets composted. Certain infrastructure limitations are inevitable; however, groups like The Durango Food Bank work with 30 local agencies to meet the food needs of our community and play an important role in closing this looming gap. On campus, the Grub Hub also provides free food to students, and is an active group in creating a more socially just community. Keep those plates clean!



Disturbing reality of our food waste.

Disturbing reality of our food waste.


The Durango Food Bank/Grub Hub links:

My Zero Waste Inspiration

Bea Johnson never takes out the trash. She is not lazy or a hoarder but rather a pioneer in the field of zero waste living. Bea and her family choose to act and purchase in ways that have as little impact on the environment as possible. Beginning with small changes and gradually implementing larger ones, the Johnson family completely changed their way of life over the course of a few years. Bea only buys clothes second hand and repairs or tailors them when needed, fills a reusable container with homemade toothpowder that she uses on her compostable toothbrush and harnesses solar energy to power her family’s house. Claiming to find ways to reduce waste addicting, Bea and her family say their alternative and revolutionary lifestyle has made them much happier.

Before learning about Bea Johnson and her family, I lived my life similar to how they did before they migrated towards zero waste. I took long showers, I threw out things without a second thought and I didn’t consider how my consumption affected the environment. I believed I maintained an eco-friendly lifestyle because I recycled and used an aluminum water bottle but in actuality, I was nowhere close to living green.  On the fateful day I stumbled across an article on Yahoo about the “zero waste family,” I thought about every aspect of the world in a completely new way.

produce in cloth bags

Using cloth bags to purchase produce from the grocery store is more eco-friendly than using disposable plastic ones and some bags even have nice designs. Photo courtesy of Emma Kurfis.

Bea lives by the phrase: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. By applying this motto to every aspect of their lives, Bea and her family now only throw away enough trash in one year to fill up a single 1.5 liter Le Parfait jar. Amazing. Fascinated by this and the idea of being so waste-free, I read more of her blog posts and tried to take some of her ideas and use them in my quest to reduce my own carbon footprint. For example, I try to remember my cloth grocery and produce bags every time I go to the store, I typically use the Durango T to get downtown and I take the time to make sure my recyclables are clean and on the list of acceptable items for the city of Durango. It is quite difficult to become completely zero waste as a college student but any small changes can make a big difference, thus I am providing a list of a few tips that are simple and easy to apply to college life.

  • Refuse what you do not need. Refuse buying bottled water if your tap water is clean and safe to drink. Refuse freebie items handed out at fairs, events and even in the student union to avoid creating the demand to make more and accumulating junk you don’t need.
  • Reduce what you do need. Donate rarely used items to local thrift shops or the FLC Free Store to de-clutter your home. The Free Store is open every Thursday in the Student Union from 9-11 a.m.; donations are welcome and appreciated.
  • Reuse by using reusables. Taking your own shopping bags to the grocery store, bringing your own thermos to the coffee shop and using a refillable water bottle all easily prevent a great amount of waste from accumulating in landfills.
  • Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse. With single stream recycling now in Durango, recycling is easier than ever! However, be sure to know how to properly recycle everything because if recycling on campus gets too contaminated, it gets sent to the landfill! The guidelines for Durango recycling can be found here: .
  • Rot (compost) the rest. Create a composting system that works for your home and lifestyle. The on-campus dining hall composts food waste but if you live off campus, look into composting your food waste. Composting is made easy here:

For more information on zero waste living and the Johnson family, visit the Zero Waste Home blog at


– Emma Kurfis

Compost King: San Francisco

EC file photo

EC file photo

According to Mother Nature Network, the city of San Francisco has taken a novel approach to a long known fact of human beings: we generate waste.  On October 21st the city of San Francisco made composting mandatory for all citizens.  Although fines won’t be enforced until early 2010, the new law is an effort to push the city closer to its goal of producing zero-waste by 2020.  Cities are the biggest offenders in generating waste.  In San Francisco the solution to this problem has turned out to be quite dramatic.  The city will no longer sweep the issue aside, but, instead, will send most of their compostable waste to a facility in Vacaville, CA, where gardeners, farmers, and vintners can buy the end product for their crops.  San Francisco has made it easy for citizens to comply with the new ordinance by distributing three different bins to each household: blue for recycling, green for compost, and black for trash.

This new composting push is a simple idea that fosters sustainable behavior. San Francisco already boasts a 72 percent recycling rate. reported on a recent study showed that 36 percent of the city’s landfill garbage is food waste, while 31 percent is paper. Food waste is a major concern that needs to be dealt with. Rather than simply informing the public and hoping they make the right decision, the city took a direct approach because the deadline for their zero-waste commitment is fast approaching. Residents can no longer feign ignorance about the problems waste creates.

The new ordinance is anticipated to dramatically increase recycling within a city that already boasts the highest recycling rate in the nation. Some estimates figure that as much as 90 percent of all waste generated within city limits will avoid the landfill.  Hopefully citizens who have not composted, or recycled in the past, will do so now. Thus, we find the idealized concept of a zero-waste community becoming a reality. It’s a new chapter of sustainability in the United States and hopefully one that will catch on in other metropolitan areas.

– Caryna Pourier

Make the Jump to Compost

EC File Photo

EC File Photo

Fall is finally here, and it is now the season for pumpkin carving, corn mazes, and leaves to change and fall. I’m sure most of you will agree that no matter what age you are you still enjoy taking part in the fall pastimes. Raking a pile of leaves and then jumping in them has always been a favorite of mine, but what do you do when you’ve had all the jumps you want and need a place to get rid of the leaves?

Leaves happen to be one the best fertilizers. So after you have had all of the fun jumping into the pile you can compost the leaves and spread them across your garden. For those of you without a composter you can use your lawnmower to chop the leaves up so they’ll break down sooner. You can also add fruits, vegetables, napkins, and coffee grounds for extra nutrients. This leaf concoction can help you harvest winter roots like leeks, carrots, and rutabagas. The only precaution to take when spreading the leaves is to make sure they don’t get too thick over the crowns of your perennials. This can cause root rot.

You can also compost your leaves during the winter and use them next spring to give your garden an early boost. You can simply place the leaves in a wire round bin and turn them every three or four weeks. Adding coffee grounds, vegetables, and fruits is also a great way to make the fertilizer even more nutritious, but can attract animas. If you’re adding food scraps to your compost make sure you have a closed container. By spring next year you can have all of the fertilizer you need to start a beautiful s garden.

Finally, if you don’t garden but don’t want all that leafy goodness to go to waste, call the Environmental Center at 247-7676. Our zero-waste crew is collecting leaves this fall for several of the community gardens we work with. This fall after carving pumpkins, going to corn mazes, and haunted mansions don’t forget to re-use those fun filled leaves. Gardens everywhere will thank you.

– Devon Dey