IMG_2263True to form, 2016’s version of the Global Pennovation class provided numerous meaningful takeaways for all participants — myself included.  In this class, we always take a deep dive into a major sustainability topic — such as food waste, water security, sustainable cities, or, in this case, the food-water-energy nexus.  At the same time, since we are in the Organizational Dynamics program at UPenn, we study how to manage the complexities of, and effectively lead change in, today’s fast-paced and diverse global workplace.  Putting those two themes together, we seek to prepare our students to be effective change leaders in their organizations, and optimally to be change leaders for sustainability.  No small feat in the course of a 15-week semester, but we have a lot of fun in the process — and we are often aided by input from many thought leaders in sustainability and leadership from around the world.

A poignant moment occurred early in our course, when one of students proclaimed:  “I don’t understand why everyone in the country isn’t talking about what we are talking about, right now!”  Another student was profoundly impacted by a visit to DC Central Kitchen, which recovers hundreds of thousands of pounds of food each year to feed the hungry (and so much more!).  Another explored the history of food date labels in this country (confusion over which leads to vast amounts of waste annually, and the subject of a conference at Harvard this month), while another explored the environmental and social issues in today’s “fast fashion” industry.  Notably, several students committed to apply the course material to their home and work environments.  Such is the power of the food-water-energy nexus topic, and the impact of digging into the myriad challenges of feeding 9.6 billion people in a sustainable manner.

Exposed to a wealth of food-water-energy nexus issues, class members were struck by the staggering amount of food waste that occurs nationally and globally each year, the senseless nature of the coexistence of food waste, hunger, and obesity, and the serious environmental impact of wasted food.  Meaningful change starts with concerned, informed individuals who seek to make positive changes in their own behavior — and regarding the problem of food waste, the need for change among consumers in the U.S. and developed countries is enormous.  Consumers need to shift away from the current “culture of abundance” (which leads to billions of pounds of food waste in the U.S. alone each year) to a culture of responsibility in which food is properly valued.  In so doing, consumers can drive change in the food system through their purchasing actions by rewarding food retailers who display responsible behavior (such as making effective use of “imperfect” produce and establishing donation relationships with local food-relief agencies).

We always seek to have local and global impact through our class deliverables.  This year’s class achieved local/regional impact on the topic of food waste by developing an informational exhibit at the Philly Farm and Food Fest, and by leveraging the power of  a social media campaign (ZeroFoodWastePhilly) to impact a national and global audience.  The Philly Farm and Food Fest is a large, annual food-focused event centered on local/artisanal food production and healthy, sustainable eating.  The event was held at the Philadelphia Center on April 10th, with thousands of visitors attending, touring, tasting, exploring, and simply enjoying the opportunity to learn about food system issues.  The Dynamics team set up a booth to engage Food Fest participants with a highly informative messaging campaign on the subject of food waste, including a video, food waste quiz, informational handouts, and a #zerofoodwaste challenge — in which participants could put their newfound knowledge to work by pledging to stop wasting food (along with the opportunity to get their picture posted on the class Facebook page for emphasis!).  As we all know, nothing motivates like the opportunity to be on camera!

With a mission to educate the public about food waste and its environmental impacts through action-based initiatives, this year’s Dynamics team engaged hundreds of individuals (including children — the next generation of food waste reducers!) over the course of the event through meaningful conversations that will undoubtedly lead to food waste-reduction efforts in numerous households.  The team also benefited from the ability to converse with Hannah Smith-Brubaker, Deputy Secretary for Market and Economic Development at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, a third-generation farmer who understands the value of food as a resource.  While taking the #zerofoodwaste challenge, Smith-Brubaker noted that Pennsylvania is looking at ways to meet the USDA’s food waste reduction goal, and also noted that on her own farm, no food goes to waste — it is either consumed, preserved, fed to animals, or composted.  That’s the kind of mindset we need among policy leaders in the Agriculture space.  Her background will be key to the state’s effort on food waste reduction.

A powerful moment occurred when one Farm Fest attendee stopped, scanned the Dynamics team’s booth, and boomed: “Food waste…I’m in the restaurant business, what do I know about food waste?”  Scary, but true, and indicative of the level of awareness-raising and education on food waste that needs to occur in the coming years.  Fortunately, there are growing technology-based solutions (such as LeanPath’s food waste prevention system) to help restaurants and food service institutions reduce food waste while simultaneously saving money and motivating employees.  Indeed, the power of LeanPath is the cultural shift that it motivates in kitchen environments.

In need of a broad information source on food waste?  Check out the Dynamics team’s Facebook page here.  And check out an inspiring article on their work here as well.