The biggest source of food waste in America is households, where produce wilts, milk spoils, and leftovers lurk at the back of the fridge until they are tossed. Now, anxious consumers who have been hoarding food may discover there’s no way they can eat everything they’ve bought. Says Frank Franciosi, of the U.S. Composting Council, “We may see municipal curbside collection of food waste go up as more people eat in or take out.”

Indeed, San Francisco, which has long collected both residential and commercial food scraps from curbsides, has already seen an impact. “People are cooking more at home,” says Robert Reed, of Recology, the company that handles the city’s discards. “Tonnages of food scraps from single-family homes and apartments are up.” New York City’s curbside collection of food scraps has also seen an uptick over the past two weeks.

Waste at restaurants—where Americans typically spent about half their food dollars before the coronavirus hit—is plummeting as eateries shut down. But it’s likely to rise at those shifting to a take-out-only model. “This is a period of colossal readjustment,” says Andrew Shakman, founder of LeanPath, which develops technology to reduce waste in the food-service industry. “Food waste per meal tends to increase for our customers when their sales volumes are lower, so we expect operations that are running at partial speed to become more wasteful per meal served.”

Then there are farms, where, even in the best of times, growers leave as much as half their crops in the field, largely because of cosmetic imperfections. Now, produce growers fear that even more crops will go unharvested. U.S. immigration policy has constrained visas for workers entering the country, and the arrival of 200,000 seasonal migrants is in doubt. And because living conditions for farm laborers are crowded, making them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, illness could keep many from working once they arrive.

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Author: Elizabeth Royte, National Geographic
Photo: Joseph Prezioso, AFP/Getty