Earlier this month I journeyed to Italy for a very special trip with my University of Pennsylvania Organizational Dynamics students for an international version of my Global Pennovation class entitled “Global Collaboration for Sustainability: The Food-Water-Energy Nexus in Italy.”

This course had been in the works since before Expo Milano in 2015 — that incredible event that brought more than 20 million global citizens to Milan over a 6-month period to explore innovation, technology, sustainability, and global food security under the broad theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”

The course was designed to foster the creative thinking and collaborative spirit needed to solve the enormous sustainability challenge of feeding more than 9 billion global citizens by 2050 — which requires a balancing act between food, water, and energy resources as well as a significant reduction in the vast amount of annual global food loss and waste.

From the start, it was a very special trip — from the splendor of all-things-Rome (including the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican amid picture-perfect weather) to the positive energy and collaborative spirit among all participants, especially this diverse group of motivated graduate students.  Class members “gelled” instantly, and their organizational dynamics skills were apparent as they built relationships with one another, engaged speakers with insightful questions, and engaged European colleagues in innovative consultation sessions while effectively collaborating to develop awareness and education campaigns to reduce food waste under tight time constraints.

The trip was full of highlights, beginning simply by turning the students loose to gather and report on their own sustainability-based observations while exploring Rome — which proved to be powerful.  Jordan Figuerido then joined us virtually to detail his UglyFruitandVeg campaign and the power of mission-focused, creative individuals to drive change through effective social media platforms.  Jordan’s highly visual Twitter account is a source for pictures and stories of “ugly” fruits and vegetables, and it highlights the senseless waste of imperfectly-sized and shaped produce due to ingrained food system constraints (as he noted, approximately 25% of all produce in the U.S. goes uneaten, never reaching the store due to cosmetic standards).  His work has positively impacted countless individuals to seek out ugly produce, and numerous companies to begin selling it.   That session led to a spirited discussion around ugly produce, including how to successfully “rebrand” it to the American consumer, and how to inject a “purposeful” element to the conversation to increase acceptance.  One student drew a compelling comparison to diversity, noting that as people we are all incredibly diverse, so why shouldn’t we expect our food to be similarly diverse — in all shapes and sizes, with and without blemishes?  Another individual noted that ugly really isn’t ugly, and in terms of nutrition, it’s really beautiful.

Our next stop was the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture) building in Rome — the hub of global food security work.  Joined by fellow food waste leaders Jonathan Bloom (author of American Wasteland and the blog Wasted Food) and Andrew Shakman (co-founder and CEO of LeanPath), we partnered with FAO experts to lead a joint session on food waste through the broader lens of the food-water-energy nexus.  Our intent was to bring global and U.S. perspectives on food waste together, stimulating dialog and collaboration and learning from one another to “move the needle” on food waste.  The half-day session was highly productive.

On the FAO side, Lucie Pluschke started us off by noting that our food and agricultural systems are under an “unprecedented confluence of pressures” and pointing to the need for a common approach to make agriculture, forestry, and fisheries more productive and more sustainable.  That holistic approach (SFA) revolves around five key principles — efficiency, conservation of natural resources, improving rural livelihoods and equity, improving resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems, and responsible governance.  She followed with data on the water and energy footprint of food, noting (importantly) that dietary patterns with low environmental impact can also be healthy diets — an essential “win” from a social/health standpoint.  Stefania Bracco followed with a discussion on Investing in Energy Sustainable Technologies in the Agrifood Sector (INVESTA) — noting how energy sustainable technologies can aid in reducing food losses and citing case studies showing the financial and non-financial benefits of energy interventions in value chains such as milk, rice, and vegetables.  Last, Camelia Bucatariu gave an overview of the Save Food Initiative — recognizing the importance of climate change to global food security (pointing out that “without water, you can’t do much”) and noting the many projects on food loss and waste reduction that are currently underway around the globe (in 30 countries across 48 food supply chains).

From the U.S. perspective, Jonathan, Andrew and I distilled food waste efforts into three core topics – culture and values change, education, and prevention.  I led off with an overview of food waste in the U.S. with a focus on culture, values, and consumer change.  I covered several cultural factors — including expectations of large portions, “perfect” produce, excessive variety, 24×7 availability, and relative “cheapness.”  Together, these factors have led to a culture of abundance around food rather than a culture of responsibility.  We no longer value food properly, and we are disconnected from it like never before.  I closed with several recommendations to change the cultural dynamic.  Jonathan followed with a well-crafted education focus, noting with irony that given the amount of food that kids see wasted each day, we are actually giving them “food waste education” by conveying that food has little value.  He identified several reasons for this “education” (such as poor quality food, irrational lunch logistics, and “all you can eat” structures), and then discussed many options to move from problem to progress.  Andrew summed up our session with a stirring presentation on food waste prevention from a business perspective through the lens of LeanPath — noting that despite the fact that food connects us like nothing else, we still waste vast amounts of it.  As such, it is often “the elephant in the room.”  He noted that food waste is a behavioral problem, and that successful prevention requires that everyone (especially front line kitchen workers) consistently repeat the same behaviors at scale.  Last, he pointed to the importance of measurement to manage the food waste problem, as well as the need to shift the food waste conversation (from recovery) to prevention and to engage business on responsible production.

In sum, our deliberate attempt to bring U.S. and European/global perspectives together worked well — and both sides learned much from the other.  In my view, this is the kind of global, collaborative, mission-aligned discussion that is needed to address our most pressing sustainability challenges while inspiring a new generation of change agents.

There were many key takeaways from the trip, one of which certainly involved the proper valuation of food as a resource.  The Italian culture is one that celebrates food, which is clearly apparent in nearly every dining experience.  Time is taken to savor food, unlike the rushed consumption that we see in the U.S.  Waiters prepare food table side in restaurants with a flourish, (and pride); lunches and dinners are long and leisurely.  In a hurry?  The food is so good it quickly makes you question why.

And there is so much going on around food.  A simple ten minute walk through any city shows the preponderance of local specialty food shops — you immediately get the feel that food is viewed differently here; it is valued.  Italy is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, and, as noted, it is home to the FAO — the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Italy hosted the highly successful Expo Milano 2015, and it will soon be home to FICO Eataly World (Fabricca Italiana Contadina) — a 20-acre, $100 million-plus theme park alongside the University of Bologna campus celebrating the Italian food culture and food and expected to draw six million visitors annually.

It is also home to our friends who are doing so much valuable work on food waste — Silvia Gaiani and Matteo Vittuari at the University of Bologna (UNIBO) who were active in FUSIONS, and Matteo Vignoli at the Food Innovation Hub at the University of Modena y Reggio Emilia (UNIMORE) — all of whom were terrific partners on this trip.

And Italy also hosted the recent Seeds and Chips conference — a significant global event bringing food and technology themes together.

And yet despite its food culture, Italy, like the U.S. and other leading developed countries in the European Union, still wastes a considerable amount of food (5 million tons in 2013 according to Silvia’s presentation) — reinforcing the entrenched nature of food waste in the global food system and the need for national and global collaborative efforts to address it.  Fortunately, as Silvia noted, 83% of Italians express a significant level of concern around food waste, which bodes well for change.

The value theme was further exemplified by the artisanship that we observed around food, first at a parmigiano reggiano production facility (Caseificio San Silvestro) in Modena where cheese was produced expertly by hand — complete with hugs from the staff! — and later at a balsamic vinegar factory (Acetaia Caselli) with product lines steeped in family tradition and going back decades.  As Acetaia Caselli’s owner Simone noted, “it’s more than a family business, it’s a family passion…the product is something you live….”  Well said.

The value theme also stood out in our tour of an Italian supermarket (Conad Ipermercato), where food (and other) items approaching expiration dates were discounted by 50% and placed in highly visible displays throughout the store (with clear messaging related to the shared responsibility in using resources wisely).  With this approach, consumers get value by saving money, resources aren’t wasted, and the environment benefits.  While there, we were also fortunate to see “Last Minute Market” in action — a food recovery organization that partners with retailers to pick up and redistribute excess edible food that cannot be sold to be turned into meals for hungry citizens.  The group also picks up cartons of household items which are needed by lower income individuals.  Spawned at the University of Bologna several years ago, it now operates in “for profit” mode — helping organizations save money and improve their brands while simultaneously helping needy organizations.  Conad benefits financially in two ways — from reduced taxes and reduced trash disposal costs.  The organization also gets the CSR benefit of communicating the story to both customers and employees — and it is significant that the store sees enough value from the effort to justify one half of a full-time equivalent.  Importantly, the program “works” from a financial standpoint, which ensures durability, and achieves triple bottom line benefits.

A theme of collaboration also stood out all along our journey — from FAO to UNIBO to Last Minute Market to UNIMORE.  It was particularly evident in Bologna where, following related lectures, our students collaborated with UNIBO graduate students in consultation sessions designed to produce educational campaigns to 1) shift consumer behavior toward valuing food and food waste reduciton, and 2) to shift emphasis from food recovery to food waste prevention.  As at FAO, there was great value in bringing U.S. and EU perspectives together.

Last, in addition to collaboration, the innovation theme was exemplified by our ideation session at UNIMORE’s Food Innovation Program in Reggio Emilia.  Consider a program that involves 60 days of travel to experience ten exceptional food hubs around the world…sign me up!  Students receive broad, in-depth exposure to the global food system while working on tangible products at UNIMORE’s Food Innovation Hub (think IDEO in a centuries-old building) in a three-phase process of inspiration, aspiration, and perspiration.  It is well thought-out, and is indeed inspirational.  The UNIMORE students were clearly excited by their work, and our students were similarly inspired to not only help them ideate on their projects from a U.S. perspective, but also to gain additional ideas for their own projects.

Valuing food, culture, education, prevention, collaboration, innovation, inspiration, and change — just a few of many key themes from this Italian sustainability journey — and all critically linked to the challenges of global food waste reduction and the food-water-energy nexus.

I feel as if we have moved the needle by launching a set of inspired sustainability change agents

And I think it’s safe to say we’re all ready to do it all over again.   .