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Dr. Meredith Niles: Food waste and hunger in America

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In the United States, the average American wastes a pound of food per day and during the holidays, household food waste is even higher than usual.  At the same time, many Americans go hungry every year, which has been made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, November 13, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Meredith Niles, an associate professor of food systems and policy at the University of Vermont. She discussed topics including: the environmental impacts of food waste; what individuals and families can do to reduce the amount of food they throw away; the growth of food insecurity and hunger in the United States, and who’s most affected; how food waste is related to food insecurity and hunger in the United States; and her research on how farmers think about sustainability and adopt sustainable farming practices.

Declared interests:

Dr. Niles currently serves as a consultant to the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist on their Climate Smart Commodities Program, and recently served as a consultant to the US Agency for International Development’s Advancing Nutrition program.

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MEREDITH NILES: My name is Meredith Niles. I’m an associate professor at the University of Vermont in the nutrition and food science department and the food systems program. And I study how we can achieve sustainable food security by working both with farmers and with consumers across the food supply chain.

Interview with SciLine

How much food does the average American waste, and does the amount change during the holidays?


MEREDITH NILES: Based on some research that I did with some colleagues a few years ago, we found that the average American, just at the consumer level, wastes about a pound of food per person, per day, all year long. So, it’s a huge amount of food waste that we have. And a lot of that is primarily from fruits and vegetables—meat and dairy in particular. We don’t have a lot of good research to understand food waste during the holidays. But we do have evidence that waste in general increases during the holidays, by some estimates up to 40%. And because we know that food is almost a third of our waste supply chain, it’s reasonable to assume that food waste also goes up during the holidays.

What are some of the environmental impacts of food waste?


MEREDITH NILES: We see the environmental impacts of wasted food from the farm field all the way to our forks and even after we finish with the food and waste it. At the farm level, we see greenhouse gas emission impacts, but also impacts on things like irrigation water. So, 4 trillion gallons of irrigation water that we use to grow food that we don’t eat every year. Also, 5 billion pounds of fertilizers and pesticides used to grow food that we don’t actually eat. And then we expend a lot of energy as we transport food and then we refrigerate food at the retail level and the home level for food that we never actually even use. And then after we throw food away, it often goes to a landfill. And when food decomposes in a landfill, it produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas emission 30 times as powerful as CO2. So for all of these reasons, the United Nations has actually estimated that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

What can individuals and families do to reduce the amount of food they throw away?


MEREDITH NILES: At the household level, I think there’s two strategies that people can use. First, they can try to purchase food that would have otherwise been wasted. So, a lot of grocery stores will discount things that might be closer to their expiration date that you could purchase. It would be be cheaper for your household. You’d help trying to keep food out of the waste stream. There’re also some great new online tools to help you do those things. There’s a great company called Misfits Market, which will package up products that might be at the end of their shelf life but still perfectly good to eat. You get a discount; they ship it right to your doorstep. But then also, when we get into our own households, we can try to reduce food waste by doing a lot of the things that probably many of us know but have a hard time implementing, like planning for our meals and trying to eat our leftovers and try not to actually have things waste in the fridge. But that can be kind of complicated. So, one of the apps that I really like that helps with this is called Kitche. And you can take a picture of your grocery store receipt, and then the app will give you recipes for how to use up all of the products that you’ve purchased—and then also remind you of what you have in your fridge.

What role can freezing play in reducing food waste?


MEREDITH NILES: I think your freezer is a really important friend in the food waste battle, especially during the holidays. So I’m about to go away for vacation, and I’m looking at a fridge full of food, and probably many other people are, too. And so one thing that you can think about is freezing that food, which a lot of people I think forget is possible. You can freeze a lot of things, even things like milk and cheese. They freeze just fine. And then when you get back home, you can pull them out of the freezer. They’ll be totally good. You’ll have a longer shelf life, and you will have prevented that food from going into the garbage can.

Food waste is especially troubling given the high levels of food insecurity in some communities. What should people understand about food insecurity?


MEREDITH NILES: Food insecurity is when people lack consistent, reliable access to enough food that’s high quality, nutritious, and safe. And there’s gradients of food insecurity. So, on the most moderate form of food insecurity is when people are worrying about maybe not having enough to eat or not having enough money to buy food. And then there’s more severe forms of food insecurity. So that would be, for example, where people are skipping meals or stretching the food, they have by eating less—or even in the most extreme cases, not eating for several meals or even a whole day. So, when we get to that more extreme level of food insecurity, that’s when people experience hunger. Hunger is a component of food insecurity. But not all people who are food insecure, necessarily are hungry.


How have food insecurity and hunger grown over time, and what is driving these trends?


MEREDITH NILES: Here in the United States, we’ve seen an increase in food insecurity since the COVID-19 pandemic. And this is for a number of reasons but primarily because of the economic impact of the pandemic. So, the huge number of Americans that lost their jobs, or were furloughed, or had disruptions in their jobs, that impacted the amount of money that they had, which is directly related to food insecurity in the United States. So, we’ve definitely seen an increase over time since the pandemic, we’ve also seen that stay quite high for a variety of other reasons. In particular, inflation is something that has really gone up since the pandemic, and this has disproportionately affected food prices. So, for example, 2021 to 2022, the cost of eggs went up 33%. And so, we’ve seen a huge increase in food cost after the pandemic, as well. And wages haven’t necessarily kept pace with that inflation cost. So here in the U.S., the primary reason we see food insecurity is for economic reasons. But we’re also seeing changes globally that are much broader. And so globally, food insecurity has also gone up over the last five years or so, which is quite different than what it has looked like over the past several decades, where it’s been trending downwards. But for the last five years, we’ve seen the increase in hunger and undernourishment at the global level. And that’s primarily for what I call the three C’s. COVID is one of them, just like in the U.S., but also internationally, we see rising conflict that contributes to changes in food insecurity, and also climate change.

How are retailers reducing food waste and contributing to food security?


MEREDITH NILES: Retailers are doing two things to reduce food waste and also contribute to reducing food insecurity. First of all, at their grocery store level, they are implementing a lot of strategies to try to actually get food off their shelves. So, if a food product has been around for a while, they might discount it, for example. If it looks a little ugly, they might also discount it. No one’s going to know if you buy a potato that has a bruise and you put it in your Thanksgiving mashed potatoes. So, you might be able to get some of those products a little bit cheaper. They’re trying to actually reduce the food waste in the first place. But if they still have food waste, an increasing number of corporate pledges and other grocery stores and retail chains are redistributing that food away from the landfill to food pantries and food banks to try to provide that to people who are in need. So, they’re both trying to reduce it at their own level by employing market-based strategies, usually to get it off their shelves. But if that’s not possible, then we’re also seeing a rise in donations of food products as well.

How are farmers reducing food waste and contributing to food security?


MEREDITH NILES: Farmers—the primary way that I see farmers trying to reduce food waste and contribute to improving food security is through what’s called gleaning. And this is when a farmer has maybe already harvested their product, and there’s still product left on the farm field. They’ll often bring in volunteers or even their own farm labor to pick the leftover products and then have those go to a food bank or food pantry. So an example might be a field full of pumpkins, they go through and harvest but they leave some behind because of the mechanization. And then people go through pick the pumpkins and they can go to the food bank. And farmers are actually in some states incentivized to do that. Some states have tax incentives that allow for farmers to get a tax break for the market value of that product, or some portion of the transportation costs as well.

What can you tell us about the relationship between food waste and food insecurity in the United States?


MEREDITH NILES: Food waste and food insecurity are connected. But reducing one doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes for another. So just reducing food waste doesn’t necessarily improve food security for many people. And that’s because the primary reason that people are food insecure in the United States is because of economic reasons. And so, the underlying causes of food insecurity are financial. And so, trying to think about ways to solve food insecurity that are instead focused on improving wages, for example, improving employment opportunities or social services, I think is really important, rather than just thinking about moving food from one place in the supply chain to another. Certainly, we see a big connection between food waste and food insecurity at the food donation level. So, there are an increasing number of companies and also farmers who are reducing food waste at their level by donating it to places like food banks or food pantries. And that serves an immediate need to help people who have short-term food insecurity. But trying to improve the economic situation of people that struggle with food insecurity and hunger are the long-term solutions that we need to solve food insecurity in the United States.

[Posted November 13, 2023 | Download video]