IMG_ Oxyfood pic

Earlier this month I was pleased to return to California for a special conference on “all things food” at Occidental College in Los Angeles, aka “Oxy.”  The conference was the result of a joint effort by the Association for the Studies of Food and Society (ASFS) and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS).  Entitled Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture – the conference leveraged the College’s location amid the rich history of agriculture in southern California and sought to encourage participants to “imagine and explore how the agricultural and food worlds throughout the Pacific mesh with environmental, social, cultural, historical, and material resources.”  Further, the conference was designed to allow participants to “examine the roles of people, place, innovation, food production, and consumption, with attention to how these roles reflect and reinforce the social, economic, and cultural food landscapes of the Pacific.”

Powerful stuff, and no small task.  So one can imagine the wide range of topics and discourse over three days of sessions.  Thought leaders from colleges and Universities from all over the U.S. and around the globe gathered to explore myriad aspects of the food system in a total of 108 sessions over that three-day period.  Some topics included nutrition, local food production, animal welfare, land justice, economic impact of food system initiatives, feeding tomorrow, future foods, identity and migration, urban food, food systems sustainability, food safety and security, food deserts and food access, food recovery, and food waste, to name a few.  An impressive swath of critical food system issues indeed, led by many passionate people looking to make a positive impact in their sectors.

I was thrilled to participate in a session entitled “Making Sense of Food Waste” along with Andrew Smith of the New School (NY), Eric Handler (Chief Health Officer of Orange County, CA), and my Philadelphia colleagues Sol Katz (University of Pennsylvania) and Jonathan Deutsch (Drexel University).

Andy Smith started us off with a brief overview, pointing to four key themes that underlie the vexing issue of food waste — the moral aspect, the environmental element, economics (the fact that everybody wins with food waste reduction), and inconvenience (to which he referred as the main rationale for wasting food).

I followed, noting that I loved our topic (making sense of food waste) as my first thought upon hearing it was “as if one can.”  Because as I mentioned at Oxy, food waste can be referred to in many ways — a conundrum, an oxymoron, dysfunctional, irresponsible, immoral, unethical, and unsustainable — to name a few.  But when considering the scale of food waste in conjunction with hunger and all of the other costs of that waste (loss of scarce resources, increased greenhouse gas emissions, unnecessary soil depletion, increased landfill space/usage, and lost human capital that could have been used productively elsewhere), the word that often comes to my mind for food waste is nonsensical.

By definition, food waste makes no sense — but here in the U.S. it is a systemic problem deeply rooted in our culture.  When we think of food, we think of big portions, along with “perfect” produce and the ability to obtain endless varieties on a 24×7 basis.  Indeed, food is largely ubiquitous to us — it surrounds us — and it is also relatively inexpensive — so we buy a lot of it.  Yet we’re also confused by all of the date labels on our food, and because it is so easy to replace, we tend to waste a lot of it.  We have a “when in doubt, throw it out” mindset.

We’re also disconnected from our food like never before — physically (with the urbanization trend and the decline in the number of farms) and mentally.  And as I have mentioned previously, we are using the wrong words regarding our food, further devaluing it and promoting a culture of abundance around food when we really need to revert to a culture of responsibility around it.

On the plus side, however, we have seen considerable momentum behind food waste reduction in the last few years — and that momentum seems to be accelerating.  I gave some perspective on the drivers behind this movement, and noted that it is a key time for us to harness that momentum in a big way.  We’re at an inflection point of sorts — we’ve come a long way in terms of awareness-raising; now we need to go further with tangible work to reduce (and prevent) food waste.  That’s the harder part.

I noted several points to consider in this effort, including reconnecting the American consumer with our food, addressing the tough, systemic challenges of our food system, thinking big, leveraging stories, observations, and success stories, building on common motivations, and driving responsible business and government investment.

First, creating consumer change is essential — we must “re-connect” U.S. consumers with our food, and we must restore the concept of value by emphasizing the resource implications and financial savings in reducing food waste.  We must also utilize awareness and education campaigns to overcome the distance factors, restoring the concept of value around food and enabling a cultural shift from one of abundance to responsibility.  Getting consumers to embrace imperfect produce would be a great start, and a launch point from which a more educated consumer base with sustainability-oriented expectations would push retailers to drive positive change in the food system.  We must emphasize the moral element here too, while educating the next generation (those for whom the “feeding 9 billion” question really matters) to properly value food.

We also need to address the tough questions, such as shifting emphasis up the food recovery hierarchy from recovery to prevention — for prevention (aka source reduction) is the ultimate win in food waste.  We need to alter the system to address the entrenched overproduction which has such extensive social, environmental, and financial effects. And while in the short term we should make every reasonable effort to put excess food resources to optimal use, our recovery efforts need refined focus.  We need a nutrition focus when moving food for people; we’re currently expending too many resources to move too much poor-quality food — thereby contributing to a cycle of poor health among individuals that can least afford it.  We should not only question the continued overproduction of such food items, we should change our reward system to discourage it.

Building on the increased momentum in the food waste space, it’s a time for us to think big — let’s say audaciously — to solve the food waste problem.  It’s been too easy for us to neglect it for too long.  We can draw meaningful parallels to other audacious efforts, such as eradicating smallpox and putting a man on the moon.  If we could demonstrate the needed collaboration and will to solve those two great challenges; it’s reasonable to assume we could do the same with food waste.  We can look to other sectors for parallels to design the effort, such as Interface Carpet’s “Climate Take Back” effort, in conjunction with Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown” project (more to follow on that).

And while thinking audaciously, I noted that we have several other points to leverage — including the power of stories, the power of our daily observations, and the power of our successes.  Further, we need to leverage our common desire for a better future.  While most parents think in terms of providing financial security for their children, do we think enough about environmental security?  Consider the fact that if we ranked food waste as a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind the U.S. and China.  If that statistic isn’t a wake-up call for change, I don’t know what is.

And last, back to Education.  It’s essential that we harness education to impact all food system stakeholders.  In our schools, I noted that we need to de-normalize food waste, and normalize reduction and prevention efforts.  We need to engage youth in our middle schools, restoring the connection to food and inspiring concern for resource optimization.  As noted above, we need to engage consumers, showing the dollar savings that they can recoup through food waste reduction while also demonstrating the environmental and social benefits — prompting them in turn to question what their favorite retailers are doing to reduce waste throughout their operations and the food supply chain.  We must engage business and government as well, driving responsible operations and public-private partnerships with a systemic focus.

Sol Katz brought an anthropological perspective to food waste, discussing a Food System Sensitivity Model, while Eric Handler of Waste Not OC followed with a description of his organization’s effort to change the traditional mindset toward food donations, “flipping” it from a concern over liability to a responsible desire to “feed the need” and eliminate hunger in Orange County.  In addition to moderating, Jonathan Deutsch noted the importance of teaching people to think critically about applying their skills to save the world, as well as the importance of University-led public-private partnerships.

All in all – a fun, engaging discussion trying to make sense of a nonsensical topic!