Obesity and food waste in the U.S.
High levels of food waste and a high prevalence of obesity are two key challenges facing the U.S. food system.

LONDON — High levels of food waste and a high prevalence of obesity and overweight people are two key challenges facing the U.S. food system, according to the 2016 Food Sustainability Index.

The new index, published by The Economist Intelligence Unit and developed with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation, ranks 25 countries for sustainability across the three pillars of food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, and nutrition.

Of the 25 countries measured, the United States was ranked 19th for prevalence of overweight in children, 24th for prevalence of over-nourishment, 23rd for physical activity levels and 25th for prevalence of unhealthy diets.

On food waste per capita per year, the United States ranked 23rd of 25, with about 30% to 40% of its food produced being wasted, which equals more than 20 lbs per person per month.

Lucy Hurst, food sustainability
Lucy Hurst, study director

“Although the U.S. has one of the highest levels of food waste per capita, much is being done to tackle this issue, especially grassroots campaigns emerging thanks to the Good Samaritan Law, which makes it easier for retailers to donate food to charities,” said Lucy Hurst, the study director. “On consumption, despite a number of recent government initiatives such as Let’s Move and Choose My Plate, the U.S. still has one of the highest obesity rates among the 25 countries in the index.”

However, the United States rated favorably for its policy responses to these issues, with developments at the federal, state and local levels tackling unhealthy diets and food loss, according to the study. States such as Idaho promote the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets, while others, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, support programs to encourage physical activity in the workplace. San Francisco, meanwhile, has taken action to reduce food waste through mandatory composting and recycling, consumer education and redistributive food banks, according to the study.

Food waste infographic
The average American wastes more than 20 lbs of food per month.

The Food Sustainability Index was established to explore three paradoxes in food systems — sustainability, hunger and nutrition — and to provide a benchmarking tool to help policymakers identify areas of priority.

On the index for sustainable agriculture, the United States ranked 19th of 25, with low scores for environmental impact of agriculture on water (23rd), impact on land of animal feed and biofuels (25th), and environmental impact of agriculture on the atmosphere (21st), but high scores for environmental biodiversity (2nd) and climate change mitigation (tied for 1st).

Overall, the United States ranked 11th of the 25 countries measured. France topped the index, touted for its holistic approaches to food loss, water management and climate change, as well as its positive nutrition indicators. Ranking last on the list was India, due to challenges regarding nutrition and agricultural sustainability.