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World Food Day Thoughts: Innovating to Solve our Food Waste Crisis

World Food Day is tomorrow, October 16. And the world has an enormous food waste problem. Nowhere is that problem bigger than here in the U.S.

In 2013, 133 billion pounds of edible food (worth $161 billion) was wasted in the U.S.  That’s a full 40% of all the food produced for consumption that never actually gets consumed.  Globally, the figure is about 33% of all edible food. Altogether, the waste amounts to about 20 pounds of food per person each month!

It is thrown away, landfilled, incinerated, allowed to rot, plowed under.

This crisis has both environmental and social implications. The environmental impact of our wastefulness is incredibly high. Just consider the amount of energy, fertilizers and other chemical applications, and other resources that go into growing, transporting and selling food. Most wasted food is dumped into landfills. In fact, food is the second highest component of landfills.  Once there, it decays and releases large amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide).

And this waste is occurring while 800 million people globally remain chronically hungry. That figure includes 1 in 6 Americans.

Where is the waste happening?

Food drops out of the production–consumption chain at many stages, but three account for the majority of the waste. They are:

  • At the production stage. In the farm fields, some farmers routinely discard perfectly good produce because of aesthetic imperfections or being the “wrong size.” It’s been estimated that 60% of all produce grown on independent farms never even leaves the field. Undersized, oddly shaped, “ugly” produce is left to rot in too many fields.
  • At the retail stage. If aesthetically unacceptable produce is not left in the field by the farmer, there’s a good chance that the grocery store will refuse to put it on the shelf. The retailer will opt instead to toss uglies into the garbage. Similarly, a large proportion of the overstocked (but perfectly good) food – the result of seasonal glut or poor purchasing/inventory controls – is discarded.
  • At the consumption stage. End users, including both individual consumers and commercial (restaurants) and institutional (dining halls), account for the largest single category of waste. Many wasteful habits explain this result, demonstrating the need for more education about nutrition and portion sizes and controls.

Addressing the problem

The problem of food waste is certainly not new, but it is continuing to grow despite both the growing crisis of global hunger and efforts by many organizations to move food from the brink of being waste into the hands (and mouths) of those in need. The bottom line?  There are too many disincentives that make it cheaper to throw food away than to redistribute it.

Charities in cities across the globe are devoted to picking up food from retailers who are about to discard it and getting it to food distribution points. The logistics of this effort, however, are daunting.

In the effort to prevent food from being wasted and get it to someone who wants and needs it, speed is everything.  And potential delays abound to thwart the best efforts to rescue food from being wasted.

Here are some of the new, promising approaches that are taking aim at common challenges:

  • Get food off the farm field before it rots. A number of organizations have seen that it makes sense to collect “rejected” produce directly from farmers. For example, crews of collection volunteers from D.C. Central Kitchen go to the fields to pick up and “harvest” produce that would otherwise be left in the field to rot. This produce is then transported directly to food distribution centers, drastically cutting down on the time lag between farmer and consumer, saving much of the edible food in the process.
  • Use technology to move discarded food faster. Food Cowboy, a Washington D.C.-based organization, uses mobile technology to safely route surplus food from wholesalers and restaurants quickly and efficiently to food banks and soup kitchens instead of landfills. In the U.K. and Ireland, the supermarket chain Tesco, has partnered with the non-profit FareShare and rolled out a FoodCloud app. The app alerts local non-profits to the surplus food available at each Tesco location at the end of each day. FareShare is planning to extend the app to grocery chains across the U.K. and Ireland.
  • Address the environmental and social issues at the same time. Trader Joe’s former President, Doug Rauch started Daily Table in Dorchester, Mass in June 2015. It’s a supermarket selling discarded excess inventory from other food suppliers that would otherwise be thrown away. Daily Table sets up its grocery stores in food-deprived neighbors (a.k.a. food deserts) and sells the groceries to local residents at deep discounts.
  • Turn wasted food into energy – and a lot more! Most consumers know about (and are hopefully participating in!) composting their food scraps to turn them into rich organic material for their gardens. Now there’s another whole level to the “don’t-waste-make-it-useful” way of thinking about the end of the food chain. In New York, an anaerobic digester is being constructed in Suffolk County. It is designed to collect, separate, break down, and transform the 180,000 pounds of food waste generated each year on Long Island, turning it into convertible energy, vehicle fuel, electricity, fertilizer, and nutrient-rich water. The biogas alone will generate 2.0 megawatts of electric power (enough to power about 400 homes), as well as approximately 1.9 million diesel gallon equivalents of compressed natural gas.

These are great approaches, but much more must be done. The scope and urgency of the problem calls for action by governments, organizations, and individuals. Governments have begun to step in to address the problem. New York City is piloting a program to collect residents’ food scraps for composting. France recently passed a law that requires groceries to redistribute, rather than discard surplus food. But more can be done.

  • Subsidies to food donors can cut the costs of food redistribution.
  • Organizations can find new and creative ways to encourage employees and members to think differently about food consumption. For example, college campuses across the country are starting programs to compost dining hall waste and use it to enrich campus-based farms.
  • Adjust what you buy to minimize waste. Freeze left-overs before they spoil and save them for those nights when you don’t have time to cook.

So on World Food Day, we should all consider what we can – and should – do to help address the connected problems of food waste and hunger.  Addressing one side of the equation can simultaneously address both sides.  Looking for some projects that can help cut food waste in your company? Ask us about Sustrana’s Project Selector for some real world inspiration and quick win ideas!