By Michael Erard for Al Jazeera America

Photos by Ted Morrison for Al Jazeera America

Design by Tate Strickland

Development by Steve Melendez

Produced by Alex Newman

Edited by Alessandra Bastagli, Mark Rykoff

Published on Aug. 17, 2014

Our project to track our food waste for a year started with a question: Could we raise a flock of urban chickens based solely on kitchen scraps?

To answer it, my wife and I wrote down every food item that we threw away (or composted, to be more precise) during 2013. This was food that softened, rotted or sprouted before we got to it; cooking experiments gone awry; a toddler's unpredictable food preferences; food that was invaded by pests; kitchen accidents. The amount of broccoli and noodles on the list is embarrassing. A lot of it was ingredients we don't usually cook with but that caught our eye at the market, like fennel. (That rarely goes well.) The amount of food we bought but didn't eat seemed unconscionable.

I've always been interested in the environmental downstream, something that was instilled at an early age by my family's living circumstances. In 1974, my parents moved the family to the arid eastern foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado and built a house in a remote area. They drilled 400 feet but didn't hit water, so we had to haul it 10 miles from town in a 500-gallon tank. When you have to haul your water, you make a lot of strict (and out of the ordinary) choices about what you'll use it for; you also try to put it to good use when you're done with it.


When we moved to New Hampshire in 1978, the water issue was solved, but we still thought about the downstream, because we kept a flock of chickens, who gladly received any kitchen scraps. I remember pondering a half-eaten banana or pizza crust for a second before putting it in the scrap bucket, then recognizing that same peel or crust as it tumbled into the chicken pen. I felt no guilt doing either; we were making eggs. "Let's make an egg out of it," we'd say, and presto, you could transform wastefulness into thrift.

As an adult, I wanted the power of that magic spell. So my wife and I listed the foods in a lined notebook, counting some foods precisely (four apples, six peas) but eyeballing volumes of others. By the end of the second month or so, we changed some habits. Before, we didn't want to think we wasted very much. Now, here it was rapidly filling up the pages, and it seemed like a lot. By the end of the year, there were about 300 items that totaled about 38,000 calories. If we hadn't adjusted our habits at the start of the project - by cooking smaller amounts of grains or noodles and being less casual about the fruit we cut up for our son - the total might have been higher. Either way, by my calculation, our kitchen scraps didn't have the calories or the balanced nutrition that chickens need. On 38,000 calories, we could keep one broiler chicken alive for about 20 weeks.

All Food
By Category
Erard's Year
Interactive: Waste in America
About 31 percent of the U.S. food supply went uneaten in 2010. This means that once food got into grocery stores, restaurants and home refrigerators, 133 billion pounds went into the trash, a total costing about $161.6 billion, if purchased at retail prices. Use the graphic at right to navigate through food loss estimates for 2012.
Erard's Year of Waste
Michael Erard wrote down every item of food that his family wasted over the course of a year. A typical American family throws away about one quarter of the food they buy, for many reasons: undervaluing "cheap" food; confusion over label dates; spoilage; impulse/bulk purchases; poor planning; cooking oversized portions. The chart at right represents the total waste by Erard's family (three people). In one year, they threw away roughly 92 lbs of food. The average American, according the USDA, loses 248 lbs of food year to waste and loss via shrinkage, evaporation and other causes.
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Scale (lbs)
49 25 9

About the data: The USDA tracks food loss from the production level (farms), to retail (groceries stores) to the consumer level (your fridge and restaurants). Food loss isn't exclusively food waste: food loss includes shrinkage and evaporation. These numbers aren't an exact picture of waste, but they do help illustrate how much food goes uneaten in the United States. For Michael Erard's food waste, we used weights for medium-sized items (15.5 apples) and weights available in the USDA's National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. When this database did not include a food item (Pirate's Booty, for example), we bought the item and weighed it.

Note: In the USDA figures, fats and rice did not have numbers available for 2012, and the 2010 values were used instead.

Erard's List
  • Dairy
  • 11oz cheese
  • ½ raw egg
  • 2 cups, 2 tbsp scrambled egg
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups tapioca
  • ⅛ yogurt with blueberries
  • Fruit
  • 15 ½ apples, including 2 less than fully chewed cores
    A kid requires a lot of energy to eat a whole apple, so at a certain point, he just stops. And a parent just can’t eat all the leftovers, all the time.
  • 2 bananas
  • 1 cup blackberries
  • 1 ½ cups cherries
  • 7 crabapples
  • 25 grapes
  • ½ lime
  • 5 oranges
  • 2 cups peaches
  • ½ pear
  • 1 plum
  • 2 tbsp raisins
  • 3 tsp raspberries
  • 8 strawberries
  • ⅓ watermelon
  • Grains
  • 4 bagels
  • ½ baguette, 20 slices and ⅘ loaf of bread
  • 7 cups breakfast cereal
  • 4 squares cornbread
  • 1 and ¾ cup couscous and ½ couscous salad
  • 1 ritz cracker
  • 9 cups of flax meal
  • 1lb stale buckwheat flour
    I bought this to make buckwheat noodles. Then we realized that eating noodles so frequently didn't make us feel good.
  • 1 piece of French toast
  • 11 ⅚ cup noodles
  • ¾ cup oatmeal
  • 14 pancakes
  • ½ pb and jelly sandwich and 4 crusts
  • 2 pizza crusts
    Nobody can eat all the crusts on all the pizza all the time. I try, but these got away.
  • 3 ½ cups polenta
  • 4 ½ cups quinoa
  • 1 raviolo
    We send 8 or 10 in our son's lunch, and sometimes a few come back.
  • 1 tbsp white rice
  • 2 ½ cups tortellini
  • 16 ½ tortillas
  • 2 waffles
  • Meat
  • 7 pieces of bacon
  • ½ cup beef stew
  • 7 ½ chicken nuggets
  • ¼ chicken, boiled in stock
  • ¼ chicken breast
  • 1.1 lbs fish
  • 2 fish sticks
  • 1 hot dog
    My son said he wanted a hot dog; he actually didn't, and since we'd eaten fried clams and fries, we didn't either.
  • ½ cup lobster meat
  • 4 oz. pork chop
  • ½ sausage
  • Vegetables
  • 1 ½ avocado
  • 8 ¼ stalks, 1 bunch and 4 ½ cups broccoli
  • 1 cup brussels sprouts
  • 1 burdock root
  • ½ butternut squash
  • ½ cabbage
  • 4 ⅞ cups carrots
  • 2 ¼ heads and 2 ¼ cups cauliflower
  • 8 ⅛ cups kale and greens
  • 6 ears of corn
  • 2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
  • 1 ¼ cucumber
  • 2 heads fennel
    I bought this, then forgot about it.
  • 1 cup green beans
  • 1 green chile, 2 green bell peppers
  • 31 green peas
    These were cooked for a lunch, then overlooked in the fridge.
  • 3 leeks
    I bought these with good intentions and culinary curiosity but failed to follow through.
  • 5 cups lentils
  • 20 dried mushrooms and ¼ cup fresh
  • 1 ½ onions
  • 1 pickle spear
  • ½ cup homemade pickled beets
  • 1 potato wedge
  • 15 cups salad
  • 6 cups split peas
  • 1 delicata, 1 kabocha, 2 cups zucchini squash
  • 1 container thyme
  • 3 tomatillos
  • 4 ½ cups tomato sauce
  • 12 cherry tomatoes and 4 plum tomatoes
  • ¼ turnip and one bunch turnip greens
  • Recipes
  • ¼ cup apple-cabbage mix
  • ⅛ cup apples, couscous, veggie burger
  • ⅛ cup beans, eggs and kale
  • ½ cup black beans and rice
  • ½ cup blueberries and cream
  • 1 ⅛ cup bread pudding
  • ¼ cup broccoli and cauliflower
  • ½ cup blueberries and cream
  • 1 cup cabbage and sausage
  • 1 ½ cup cauliflower and cheese
  • 1 cup chicken and rice
  • 3 cups curry
  • ¼ cup fish and rice
  • ¼ cup lentils and veggies
  • 2 ½ cup macaroni and cheese
  • 2 meatballs with sauce
  • 4 cups noodles and lamb and ½ cup noodles and peas
  • ¼ oatmeal and blackberries
  • 2 cups pasta salad
  • ⅛ cup spinach quiche
  • 6 cups rice pudding
    This was a great use of leftover rice, but I mistakenly used rancid berries.
  • 4 cups rice soup
  • ¼ sandwich
  • ¼ cup trail mix
  • ⅓ veggie burger
  • 1 ½ cup pureed parnsnip, potato, squash

Though I also feel guilty about the bits of egg or rice at the bottom of the pot or every speck of peanut butter on the edges of the jar, we didn't track those, nor did we count the detritus of food prep that, in some cultures, is considered an ingredient. Even though I'd eat peels of apples eaten from my hand, I didn't count the peels when I cut apples for pies. Food we left behind at restaurants or at dinner parties. The cold, half-drunk cups of tea or the last few drops of coffee that come out of the cone filter. Smashed crackers at the bottom of a backpack. These are all foods I'm convinced I'll fondly remember as luxuries of the old days when I'm staggering through some apocalyptic landscape like the father in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

By and large, the list is a faithful portrait of the way we eat. For instance, we're focused on eating together, and eating fresh, whole foods that we cook and assemble ourselves. I know I sound like Gwyneth Paltrow here, but it's true. Because we eat a lot of veggies, we buy a lot of veggies, and sometimes we get ahead of ourselves, and they end up in the compost pile. Like many people, we like to think of ourselves as adventurous cooks and eaters, too, which is promoted in the food culture, not just here in Maine but everywhere. We bought mushrooms, thyme, limes, winter squash and leeks because when we're in the market, they seem fun to try cooking with. Once we get home, where the usual routines prevail, it's as if those foods become invisible on the shelves. But that same love of cooking also gets us repurposing foods from meal to meal. For instance, a lentil meal gets pureed and diluted to serve as a pasta sauce; leftover chicken thighs are chopped up and cooked with vegetables; bread crusts become bread pudding. In other words, you don't need chickens to not waste food.

At the same time, it's interesting to note that some types of foods rarely appear on the list. Even though I haven't mentioned how much beer or wine we consume, you know what it means when it's never thrown away. Desserts rarely ever go to waste either: In a whole year the only entries on the list were one cake ball, one cupcake and two cups of tapioca. Six cups of rice pudding. Half a cup of blueberries and cream. Except for the cake ball and the cupcake, these were cooking mistakes. I inadvertently used moldy blueberries in the rice pudding, which was a real tragedy, because it was otherwise delicious.

We don't eat much meat, either, so I expected not to find a lot on our list. But when I compiled it at the end of the year, I was surprised to see so much, mostly chicken, but also some fish, even some lobster, which we fix only for houseguests. (The truth about lobster is that people who live in Maine don't eat it that frequently.)

A list, by its very nature, doesn't provide much room for explanations or excuses; it gives you the naked damning facts. Our list made me think of a literary food list I love: In 1974, French writer Georges Perec kept an account of everything he ate and drank in a year, producing something that his biographer David Bellos called an "insane and brilliant inventory-poem." It goes on for pages. Perec lists eggs and anchovies, coqs au vin, wild pigeon casseroles, kidney kebabs, Armagnacs and Bordeaux. Taken individually, the lines can be hilarious: "One blini, one empanada, one dried beef. Three snails." It looks like a man's life; it looks like French cuisine. But is it real? It could be an imagined year of eating. All the social particulars about eating — where the foods came from, who made them, where they were eaten and whom he ate them with — were all absent in Perec's list. But look at how specific his hungers are: "One apple pie, four tarts, one hart tart, ten tartes Tatin, seven pear tarts, one pear tarte Tatin, one lemon tart, one apple-and-nut tart, two apple tarts, one apple tart with meringue, one strawberry tart." This is what Perec called the "infraordinary" — the unnoticed but entirely essential manifestations of daily life that, if you accumulate them, create the effect of intimate revelation.

I have no stories about tarts, but I do have one about the hot dog and bun that showed up on our list. Its demise I regret whenever I see it. Why did it have to go? It happened like this. One evening over the summer, we went to the Lobster Shack, a restaurant on a beautiful rocky outcropping on the Maine coast, where my wife and I shared a fried scallop plate, and the kid (he was three and a half at the time) got a hot dog but refused to eat it. It came home with us, then languished in the refrigerator. A lot of food on our waste list, in fact, is kid-related, which will surprise no one who has to feed children. One day noodles and peas goes over so well you decide to prepare it the next day too, when it's refused. Or he wolfs raviolis at dinner, 19 of them at once, but he can't squeeze in the 20th, which no adult has room for either.

But I don't want to make him the scapegoat; there's certainly lots of incompetence, persnicketiness and bad food handling on the adults' parts. A half a cup of lobster meat went bad because at each lunchtime I could never summon the appetite for a lobster omelette or sandwich. Once I cooked a delicious noodle and lamb dish using the Georgian spice mix khmeli suneli and the leftovers came on a road trip with us. Inadvertently they were left out of the cooler overnight, and I felt squeamish about eating them. Half-eaten things go into the refrigerator to wither and die, and we put them there even though we know that the refrigerator's role is to enable waste by disguising our lack of commitment to the food as good food handling, then hiding the food from our eyes while it spoils.

Accidents of hospitality befell us, too. Dinner plans change at the last minute because of surprise guests (with whom we order pizza), or when we get a dinner invite elsewhere. That's how so many peas and lentils have met their rotted fate — say I've been soaking them but get distracted from cooking them, so they're forgotten on the stove top or end up going into the fridge.

A number of years ago, I read the book "Rubbish," by anthropologist William Rathje and journalist Cullen Murphy, about modern American consumption based on Rathje's studies of landfills, which was called the Garbage Project. One thing that he noticed was that Mexican-American census tracts produced less food waste than predominantly Anglo census tracts, and he surmised this was because Mexican-American cuisine relies on relatively few ingredients (though the dishes themselves are diverse). From this the Garbage Project derived the "First Principle of Food Waste," which is, "The more repetitive your diet — the more you eat the same things day after day — the less food you waste." One result is that leftovers from any one meal can be turned into new ones; another is that the ingredients themselves are often fresh.

Admittedly, repetition can be difficult. Nutritionists tell us to eat diversely, and food marketers want us to try new things. More subtly, since we try to eat what's available in season, there's less continuity in our diet, which means I frequently forget from season to season the best way to prepare kale or the way we liked zucchini or new things to do with beets. But this is manageable, and speaking for my own family, we have to get better at it, because novelty and nutritional diversity caused a lot of food waste that year. No matter how we try, some waste is inevitable. Sometimes you have to eat broccoli, only broccoli, and lots of it. Yet even when you do, broccoli will end up going into the compost pile, and I can tell you exactly how much in 2013: 10 whole heads.

They would have made some great eggs.

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