Food tank picEarlier this month I returned to New York to attend the Food Tank Summit on Preventing Food Loss and Food Waste.  Having been at NYC Food Waste Fair just two months earlier, I started to think about the momentum behind food waste, which quickly turned into a further point of reflection for me as I realized that exactly four years earlier I had been in New York for Food Tank’s Food Waste Free NYC event.  I recalled that the 2013 event was followed the next night by Feedback’s first Disco Soup event in NYC.  I attended both of those events, and had spent a day earlier in the week gleaning produce for Disco Soup at a New Jersey farm with Tristram Stuart and the Feedback crew – so it was indeed an intense week immersed in the challenge of global food waste – and very rewarding.  I remembered thinking that given the senselessness of 40-50% of food going to waste across the globe, coupled with 800+ million hungry across the globe (not to mention all of the related environmental issues related to so much food production and waste), that we had to be on the verge of an explosion of interest and innovation in the food waste space.  In effect, a broad and deep movement to reduce global food loss and waste.

As I entered this year’s Food Tank event, I mused that four years later my weeks are similarly dominated by work on the challenge of food waste.  As expected, the recent surge in momentum behind the topic was immediately evident – more people, more resources, more press, more buzz.  And having helped with Feedback’s Feeding the 5000 event in Portland (ME) last September, I couldn’t help noting a similar overall escalation in scope and excitement compared to the 2013 Disco Soup event in NYC.  Parked outside and adding to the buzz around this month’s Food Tank Summit was The Economist, with its #feedingthefuture truck serving up smoothies from imperfect produce – a key part of the organization’s efforts to help educate the public about food waste.  All of this excitement, dialog, and investment certainly bodes well for awareness and action efforts on global food waste reduction, which are being further propelled by the UN’s 2015 announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals (particularly Target 12.3, which calls for a 50% reduction in global food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030 along with reductions in food losses along production and supply chains.  The opportunity to turn all of this interest and momentum into meaningful – and systemic – action is definitely now.

Another point of reflection for me involved some of the key discussion themes and came during the first major session of the day – a fireside chat between former US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and executive chef Tom Colicchio.  I recently led a session at FAO in Rome along with Jonathan Bloom and Andrew Shakman in which we focused on what we thought were the three most important topics in food waste: Culture (Values), Education, and Prevention.  I was glad to see that these themes ran throughout the discussion between Vilsack and Colicchio (and subsequent sessions) and, I hope, will inspire all of the attendees to advance them in their own sectors.

On the Awareness (and related Education) theme, Colicchio noted that despite all of the interest of the people in the room, he still feels as if the average person on the street doesn’t understand the food waste issue, and doesn’t understand that the average family discards $1500 of food per year.  Vilsack followed, noting that when people shop on-line they buy 29% more than they need – and with the explosion of on-line food services that’s clearly a reason to engage the average consumer.  These are great points, and we need to keep them in mind to make the connection.  We’re seeing great commitments on the part of major global organizations (ex. Sodexo, Aramark, IKEA) to cut food waste in their operations in half by 2030 in accordance with the UN goal, and we’re all contributing to a wide range of publications, campaigns, and conferences, but we need to make awareness about the scope and scale of food waste broad and deep – and that means getting to the average consumer (because the consumer, in conjunction with retailers, drives this train).

Vilsack added a few personal notes regarding the role of the consumer relating to properly valuing our food.  In addition to pointing out that trayless dining helps him to take less food in buffet situations, he noted that when dining out today, he is quick to inform the server not to bring bread and butter if he doesn’t intend to eat it.  Further, he stated that his wife will inform the server to bring only a half portion — though she will pay for the entire portion — if she doesn’t feel that she can eat all of it.  Vilsack used these examples to convey that the consumer bears some responsibility for directing restaurants on portion sizes to reduce waste.

On the Education theme, Colicchio referred to the value of home economics classes before commenting on Depression-era values — noting that we are two generations removed from really valuing food, and that we don’t recognize its “real” value (which reflects all of the resources that went into producing it).  He pointed out that when we can get a hamburger for 69 cents, we don’t think twice about throwing it away – and concluding that “we don’t value food.”  Vilsack concurred, drawing a parallel to water, and noting that we don’t respect our food and the extraordinary effort that goes into producing it.  He added that if we respect food, we’ll figure the logistics and policy issues to getting it from where it is wasted to where it can be consumed.

Further on the Education front, Vilsack noted that in recent talks at Universities, he encouraged young people to get involved in the food waste issue and find a way to build consensus for change.  It’s a great point, and as noted in their conversation, food waste should be a relatively easy to unite people around.  When considering all of the associated social, environmental, and financial benefits of food waste reduction, it really is a hard issue to argue against.

With education comes responsibility.  I would also add that as new individuals take up the food waste cause – and the more the merrier – it’s extremely important that they bring an informed viewpoint (again, the role for Education).  And for those with impactful communication platforms, especially moderators of highly visible discussions on food waste, the responsibility for being well-informed is magnified.  Failure to do so does a disservice to the gravity of the global food waste issue.  Sadly, in that regard, the moderation of this particular segment left much to be desired.  One irksome question early in the discussion:  Who do we blame for this issue of food waste?  Blame?  That’s absolutely not the word we want to be using in this discussion.  As with any budding movement, we want to be collaborative and inclusive to solve a very complex, entrenched problem.  We want a culture of inclusiveness that breeds idea-sharing and innovation for solutions.  Blame isn’t going to get us there.  Far worse, another question:  Do you think that one of the challenges of food waste is that it’s like, not that sexy, it’s like really not that sexy…I mean, we’re talking about garbage essentially, right?  In critiquing this one, and the lack of knowledge behind it, I’m not sure where to begin.  Regarding sexiness, or lack thereof, we need not worry as to whether the topic of food waste can strike enough of a moral cord to gain global interest – it clearly can, and has.  The reference to food waste as “garbage” in this case was incredibly unfortunate, and incredibly misguided (not to mention unprofessional) – and does a huge disservice to all working in the food recovery sector.  Those working in this space realize that we already have a challenge of terminology – we too easily use the term “food waste” when we really should be talking about “excess food” to properly convey its value.  Adding the term “garbage” to the mix is not only distasteful, it shows a level of irresponsibility that the food waste movement can’t afford.

My final musing here – let’s throw that word itself in the garbage, and take responsibility for being as informed – and positive — as possible to take this movement forward.