Hawaii may waste less food per person than any other U.S. state; but we still wind up throwing out, or wasting, about a quarter of our food supply, according to a recent research report.

In their report, University of Hawaii researcher Matthew Loke and environmental-management professor PingSun Leung estimate that Hawaii discards 356 pounds of food per person per year, compared to an average of 429 pounds per person across the United States.

All the same, the report estimates that in 2010, Hawaii wasted 522.8 million pounds of food, or 26 percent of the total available food supply.

That works out to 1.43 million pounds of food waste per day across the islands.

The report estimated the annual value of food wasted in Hawaii at $698.36 per person, a per-capita value 33.8 percent higher than across the rest of the U.S.

“I was interested in this topic after listening to a report about food waste on NPR,” Loke said in an email. “Within a global context, food waste highlights a considerable loss of resources (natural and man-made) invested in food production to end-stage consumption.”

Loke and Leung said in the report that there is a lack of “quality data on food waste at the state or local venue,” so they tried to determine the amount of food waste in Hawaii.

They looked both at food imports and food grown locally. They estimated that 88.4 percent of our edible food, by weight, is imported to Hawaii.

This is why, Loke said, a significant share of the food waste in the state begins at the ports, instead of on the farms during harvest. Most of our food has to travel more than 2,500 miles by ship from the continental U.S., and our hot, humid weather makes food spoil faster — so roughly one-third of the total food waste takes place before residents bring their purchases home. 

Loke and Leung estimated the annual value of the food wasted in Hawaii at $698.36 per person. Because we pay so much more for food in Hawaii, that’s 33.8 percent higher than the per-person estimate for the U.S. as a whole.

The researchers also factored in food wasted by tourists — who, because they are likelier to eat more meals out and less likely to store and re-use leftovers, are more likely to waste food.

The Environmental Impact Of Food Waste

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in 2013, Americans threw away more than 37 million tons of food. Only 5 percent of that food was used for compost, instead of being sent to incinerators and landfills.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that globally, approximately one-third of food is wasted or lost every year.

And that wasted food causes other environmental problems, said Wendi Shafir, a pollution prevention and sustainable materials management coordinator for the EPA. 

When food is taken to landfills instead of composted, much of it winds up producing methane gas, which the EPA deems as the “second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States.”

PF Bentley/Civil Beat
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says that about 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Preventing food waste can reduce methane production, help organizations and families save money and help the community when food is recovered and served, according to the EPA.

The EPA has created a Food Recovery Hierarchy to list, from best to worst, strategies to try to reduce and make better use of food waste. 

First on the list is source reduction — that is, avoiding producing surplus food that goes to waste. Second is redirecting food that would otherwise be wasted to feeding hungry people, followed by feeding animals.

However, Shafir says that in some parts of Hawaii, it is more common for leftover food to be given to pigs instead of to other people, because of accessibility.

She said people are able to pick up leftover food and deliver it to farms, but not to other people.

One problem: People tend to be worried about being held liable in case others get sick after eating recovered food, Shafir said. But there are laws, such as the Good Samaritan Law, which legally protect those who help a person who is injured or in danger, that also may protect those who provide recovered food to hungry people, she said.

Reducing Food Waste Locally

Last year, a group of dietetics students from the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources created the state’s first Food Recovery Network chapter.

The network is a national student organization that aims to reduce food waste and feed those in need.

“We thought that if we could help people with food security, that could be a start to a better mind or a healthier mind to think,” said FRN’s Hawaii chapter Vice President Joy Nagahiro-Twu. “And we just kind of thought it was a great way to help the community.”

In order for an FRN chapter to become certified, members are required to complete at least two successful food recoveries.

Since its establishment, the Hawaii chapter has recovered over 1,000 pounds of food, all of which has been given to the Institute for Human Services, an agency that helps homeless people.

“If you see the amount of people that are out there, I still don’t feel like this amount of food will feed them so more help is needed.” -Joy Nagahiro-Twu, Food Recovery Network vice president

The chapter recovers leftover food from UH Manoa’s resident dining facility, Gateway Cafe and, more recently, the Campus Center.

Members and volunteers work with UH Manoa Dining Services to collect food every Friday.

“We’re getting upwards of 100 pounds just from one recovery day, one meal,” said Mariah Martino, FRN volunteer coordinator. “It’s not like the whole day we had 100 pounds of food recovered, it was just after lunch 100 pounds [of food] was taken down there.”

Before the FRN, the Manoa Dining Services would provide the leftover food to farms to be fed to pigs.

Now, leftover bentos, salads and fruits are taken to the IHS, where it is fed to those who visit the agency.

Fruits, vegetables and bentos are just a few of many types of food the FRN recovers.
Fruits, vegetables and bentos are just a few of the many types of food that the FRN recovers. Civil Beat/Bianca Smallwood

Currently, FRN members use their own vehicles to transport food from the university to the institute, all within a two-hour time frame to meet health requirements.

Nagahiro-Twu said that, as a parent, it makes her happy to know that the recovered food is being given to those less fortunate.

“For myself, I thought about my son and I think about a lot of things,” said Nagahiro-Twu. “He asks me for ice cream and all these things, and these kids are not able to get it, so my heart goes out for the women and children.”

Members say they hope that in the future, other UH campuses will create their own food recovery clubs in an effort to obtain more food and help more people.

“If you see the amount of people that are out there, I still don’t feel like this amount of food will feed them,” said Nagahiro-Twu. “So more help is needed.”

Another goal, she said, is to recruit more volunteers so the chapter can start completing more recoveries throughout the week.

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