’Tis the season for … potlucks? That’s what it feels like during the holidays. Here’s the thing about potlucks — there’s always way too much food, and you must try everything. To top it off, I throw out all the rules when it comes to making food for others to enjoy. I use lots of butter, salt and lard (if the recipe calls for it). And, I imagine, lots of other potluck-goers do the same.

We are lucky to live in a time and place where food is in such quantity that we often don’t think twice about throwing away uneaten food. Garbage bags become overburdened with half-eaten casseroles, hams, turkeys, salads and so much more. I should know. I’m usually the one carrying out the trash, praying the bag holds together long enough to get it into the garbage can.

Even as we celebrate the holidays and surround ourselves with an abundance of family, friends and food, it’s also important to remember that many of our fellow global citizens, including one in eight American households, have little to no access to food now and throughout the year. Yet, when we look at the production of food in the United States, there should be more than enough to feed all Americans. So, where’s the food?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30-40% of the food supply in the U.S. is never eaten. Food loss comes from multiple causes. It begins on the farm, where insects or diseases infect a crop, causing failure in the field. “Ugly fruit” are crops that a farmer cannot sell because of superficial qualities that don’t affect the taste, but people won’t buy an ugly veggie. Spoilage can occur in transport from farms to grocers or during processing. Then, food sits on well-stocked grocery shelves, without being purchased, and eventually gets tossed. Finally, consumers often buy far more than they will eat and send the leftover food to the landfill. Restaurants account for 33% of food loss in America, while households are the biggest source of food waste at 44%.

The biggest impact of food waste is losing nutritious ingredients that could feed families in need. Food is also the largest component in landfills, generating methane, which is a major greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change. You also must account for all the land, labor, water, pesticides and fertilizers that go into producing food that is never eaten.

There are actions you can take to help prevent food loss. They follow the familiar mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle.

We can reduce the amount of food we purchase by budgeting our trips to the store or thinking out meals in advance. This is ranked as the most preferred option by the USDA to avoid food loss.

We can reuse food by working with local food recovery programs that take uneaten food from restaurants, farmers and grocers to shelters or food pantries.

We can recycle food through composting. In my home, we have a worm composter, where we put leftover vegetable scraps, bread, coffee grounds, eggshells and much more into a bin for worms
to turn into fertilizer for our garden and houseplants.

I hope this holiday season leaves everyone with full bellies and much joy. Even with the problem of food waste, the solution lies in Illinoisans each taking a few small actions to improve the situation. Now, time to get ready for my next potluck. How will I make this salad taste amazing? Ah, yes — bacon should do the trick.