Reduce Waste Recover Food picSave food for people.  A seemingly simple and obvious statement, yet very powerful, nonetheless — and one at the heart of last month’s conference on food waste reduction in Cambridge, MA.  The Reduce and Recover: Save Food For People conference, co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, U.S. EPA, the Massachusetts DEP, and RecyclingWorks, continued to build on the momentum generated from a string of conferences on food waste reduction in the U.S. over the last couple of years (and from heightened awareness from new legislation, articles and reports, a national advertising campaign, and Feeding the 5K events around the country).  Congratulations to Emily Broad Leib of Harvard FLPC and her team for putting together an impressive list of participants to explore a wide range of critical topics in food waste and food recovery over three days.  Some brief highlights of the event follow.

With a focus on the top two levels of the food recovery hierarchy (source reduction and feeding people), the conference began with a preliminary workshop for food recovery entrepreneurs prior to launching into two days of informative panel discussions and breakout sessions.  Day one discussion began with a panel on food recovery and hunger relief efforts as well as an update on food waste from the perspective of the U.S. EPA.  Breakout sessions followed, including opportunities for food recovery at the farm and garden level, food recovery by large institutions, engaging consumers on food waste, state and local policy strategies, establishing a business case for measurement, food waste reduction and donation in schools, innovation in food recovery, and food waste reduction in the retail sector.  Day two kicked off with a discussion of collaborative efforts to rescue food, followed by breakout sessions on clarifying date labels, community food security methodology, increasing food recovery via prepared foods, federal policy solutions, scaling up new products from surplus food, and the use of “bans” as a policy tool to reduce food waste.

Complementing these discussions, the Harvard FLPC team arranged concurrent strategy-building working groups to investigate six topics in separate sessions over the two-day period:

  • changing behavior through consumer education and awareness
  • clarifying food safety best practices and regulations to support food donation
  • building infrastructure for farm level surplus
  • creating alliances to increase local food donation
  • tackling food distribution and logistics from business to recovery
  • clarify the meaning of date labels

Each group was tasked with addressing four key questions:  What federal policy options can decrease wasted food?  What state and local policy options can decrease wasted food?  What are the opportunities for innovation?  What resources, data, or partnerships are needed to spur changes?  The working group sessions were especially valuable — giving participants the opportunity to draw on content from the conference while simultaneously sharing their own questions, concerns, and expertise with colleagues engaged in similar work in different areas of the country (and providing a foundation for future collaboration).  Our group on creating alliances to increase local food donation, for example, contained 36 food recovery professionals leading several innovative initiatives with a common goal: reduce the waste of food and get those food resources to needy people.  Our initial discussions pointed to the need for better data repositories (to match excess food resources with needy organizations), educational efforts to increase food donations markedly, a nutrition emphasis (to increase donations of healthy food items), creative cross-sector partnerships, effective management of donor relationships, and identifying/overcoming stubborn barriers to food donation.  Our group, and others, will continue to engage in discussions on this topic in the coming months.

The conference featured many noteworthy moments and yielded valuable takeaways for the participants — many of which (in my mind) centered on culture and culture change.  Early on, Martin Suuberg of MA DEP noted that “wasting food doesn’t have to be part of the foodie culture.”  I couldn’t agree more.  It should be the reverse.  Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine followed, citing the high level of hunger (50 million citizens) in the U.S. coupled with excessive food waste, and noting that if we reduced waste by 15% we could cut the hunger figure in half.  Pingree sees opportunity in our schools, making responsible use of imperfect produce, for example, and educating our youth who in turn can positively impact their parents.  She mentioned the importance of getting consumers to think differently about food waste, noting that a key part of what we need to change is our culture, and that we need to embrace the idea that it is incredibly disrespectful to our farming community and hungry people to waste food at such levels.  Again, I couldn’t agree more.  Congresswoman Pingree is leading efforts on food waste reduction in Congress, and we’re lucky to have her pushing such common sense legislation.  As she pointed out, the good part about advocating for food waste reduction is that the topic is not particularly controversial.  That is indeed a key advantage, and one we all need to build upon to hasten the transition to a culture in which we as consumers properly value our food and the many scarce resources that went into producing it — i.e. a sustainable culture of responsibility versus an unsustainable culture of abundance.

Karen Hanner of Feeding America brought an important human perspective to the discussion, linking hunger and wasted food while also pointing out the great potential for innovation and partnerships to capture perishable produce that is so important to the food insecure population.  A key cultural shift underlying this discussion involves moving from the broad concept of food banking to a more health-focused concept of nutrition banking.  Mathy Stanislaus commented on U.S. EPA’s improving Sustainable Food Management efforts (see ResponsEcology’s Food Waste Challenge work on Feeding People, Not Landfills), including the Call to Action to meet the national goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.

Doug Rauch, founder of Daily Table, traced his journey with wasted food at Trader Joe’s, where he had an “audacious” goal to give away all of the company’s excess food products.  He quickly learned that not only was it difficult to do, but that positively impacting hunger was much more than the logistics of moving food — it was about providing healthy meals to people in an affordable way.  And, since many needy individuals are reluctant to make use of hunger-relief agencies, he concluded that it was also about providing those affordable, healthy meals in a dignified manner.  Hence, he created Daily Table in Dorchester, MA, which I’ve previously covered here.  The results to date at Daily Table are impressive, and stem from Rauch’s own work regarding his personal challenge to the audience:  How can we make tomorrow different?   A compelling thought when it comes to the coexistence of hunger and wasted food.  And let’s not forget the environment, too.

Day two contained many poignant moments as well (far too many to cover here), including the viewing of a new video by the ReFed team and unanimous excitement over the explosion of momentum behind food waste reduction in the U.S. in recent months (which Feedback’s Tristram Stuart applauded).  Notably, Stuart also emphasized that driving this change requires continual innovation, reinvention, and repackaging of ideas — and that “it’s not all about supply chain, it’s about empowering people.”  Well said.  And people means culture.

In many ways, the broad scope of topics and information dissemination from numerous experts reminded me of our efforts at The Last Food Mile conference in December of 2014 at UPenn.  We’ve come a long way on food waste awareness in 18 months, for sure.  And we’re now in the exciting, and hard, part of moving from awareness to action at scale.  Fortunately, as Chellie Pingree noted, the topic is not particularly controversial, and it has tremendous potential for multiple, high pay-off “wins.”  It does, however, require the will to change.

And for those looking to answer Doug Rauch’s challenge and make a meaningful difference regarding food waste — there are myriad opportunities for innovation, partnerships, education, and policy development — and all revolve around people and culture change.

Nice work, Harvard FLPC.