EPA recently released the Feed People Not Landfills video as part of the Sustainable Materials Management Food Recovery Challenge initiative. This is the video that resulted from a contract awarded to sustainability change-management firm ResponsEcology. ResponsEcology produced two videos under this contract — a long and a short version — for EPA to use for both general awareness-raising as well as for internal training purposes. The videos clearly established the triple bottom line benefits to be achieved by food recovery partnerships. EPA made some final changes to the short video which was then posted to YouTube. A supporting Case Study document summarized the project results and detailed the benefits of food recovery partnerships as well.
The video productions were part of the larger project scope which involved assessing the efficiency of the food donation and distribution process. The efficiency metric is important as it can be a leverage point to induce organizations to partner with EPA and donate food (rather than discarding it) via the Food Recovery Challenge (FRC) program. The FRC webpage currently carries the tagline “Changing How We Think About Our Resources For A Better Tomorrow.” While the promise of a better tomorrow will undoubtedly help create some partnerships, the use of the word “resource” is also highly appropriate. With estimates of between 30% and 50% of global food production lost or wasted between field and fork, it is essential that we not only reduce food waste at the source but that we also capture and redirect excess food to higher value purposes starting with feeding people. With nearly one billion people experiencing food insecurity across the globe — and roughly 50 million in the U.S. alone — the idea of finding creative ways to capture excess food resources to feed people would seem to be (and really is) a no-brainer. And further, when feeding people with that food is not a possibility, moving down the hierarchy and finding ways to redirect the excess to animal feed, industrial use, or compost is critical.
One of the key aspects to driving change here involves thinking of excess food not as waste, but as a resource. As such, excess food has tremendous value that can and should be harnessed for social and environmental benefit — and every effort should be made to keep it out of the landfill. Terminology is important and can help drive a change in our thinking as well as our actions. Substituting “resource” for “waste” is a great start. Alternatively, as suggested recently by Doug Rauch (CEO of Conscious Capitalism) at The Last Food Mile conference in Philadelphia, we should flip our wording and speak in terms of “wasted food” rather than “food waste.” The former conveys the idea that we bear responsibility for the waste, while the latter implies that it is out of our hands.
ResponsEcology’s project work involved auditing the donation and distribution processes at three locations in the northeast region and included a rural and urban mix. Encouragingly, the tracking and auditing work showed a highly efficient system with only 1% of the donated food discarded due to the operational challenges of the distribution process — leaving 99% to help feed people in need. This social benefit — feeding hungry people — is the most compelling aspect of food recovery partnerships.
As the video conveys, this efficiency rate has a great environmental benefit as well. Extrapolating the results of the study to the annual volume of the food banks in question, ResponsEcology calculated that the diversion of food from landfill results in the avoidance of over 13 thousand metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions — or the equivalent reduction of consuming 1.5 million gallons of gasoline, 31,000 barrels of oil, or 57 rail cars of coal.
The video also notes that it is relatively easy for organizations to donate excess food, and that donations made in good faith are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Donations of excess food reduce trash disposal costs, and donor organizations get the added benefit of being perceived as a good corporate citizen in the eyes of the community and employees. While all of these factors provide incentives for operational managers, direct observation of a food distribution event can serve as the most powerful “in your face” wake-up call to the value in engaging in food donation partnerships. Observing the high morale of a team of corporate volunteers assisting with the packing and distribution of food to needy individuals is a close second.
The Food Recovery Challenge is indeed a no-brainer. It has appeal on all key levels — social, environmental, and financial. While growing, it should enjoy far more support from organizations across the country in possession of excess food. Speeding the transition from landfill disposal to food recovery partnerships requires new thinking by operating managers, and it all starts with viewing excess food as the valuable resource that it is.