Revisiting and Rethinking Food Waste

Refed pic 1Late last month I was pleased to join a collection of other thought leaders from around the globe at the U.S. Food Waste Summit to dive deep into the challenges of global food waste at multiple levels, with an associated focus on opportunities and solutions.

This year’s Summit was the result of a partnership between the Harvard Food Law and Policy Center (FLPC) and ReFED (Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data).  Both organizations have been playing a key role in the effort to reduce food waste in the U.S. – the Harvard team with a legal focus, and the ReFED team with a broader focus centered on the economic benefit of investments across a suite of food waste solutions as covered in its 2016 report.

This year’s Summit followed a prior conference on food waste reduction (Reduce and Recover: Save Food For People) led by Harvard FLPC two years earlier, and their efforts to continue the dialog are much appreciated.

Those of us working actively in the food waste space often hear the comment that there is great momentum behind food waste.  And while we are at the tip of the iceberg regarding the work that must be accomplished on food waste in the U.S., particularly in terms of broad culture change and making food waste a mainstream issue which the average citizen recognizes, there’s no doubt that we are making good progress in terms of raising awareness and creating forums which are spurring innovative discussions.

This year’s Summit was loaded with great people, topics, and content.  Topics included new models for food rescue, federal food waste policy, measurement, influencing consumer behavior, date labeling, organic waste bans, prevention and recovery in schools, regulation, emerging innovations, packaging, research trends, and more.  International approaches received attention as well, providing an important link from national to global, as members of government agencies from several countries (Canada, UK, Italy, France, and Japan) contributed to a panel on international approaches to reducing food loss and waste.  The session was preceded by a one-day Innovator’s workshop, beginning with a recovery-focused case study, followed by a review of legal and policy barriers and opportunities.  The Drawdown concept was also covered, providing a valuable reminder as to the great environmental benefit to be unlocked in food waste reduction.

Reflecting on this year’s Summit in comparison to the event from 2016 led to numerous takeaways, which I’ve distilled to four.  First, and to the point of momentum above, it felt as if the overall conversation this year was on a higher plane.  Less grassroots, and more developed, reflecting a more established sector.  Conversation was much more about innovation, opportunities in technology, measurement, data, scale, prevention, and where capital could and should flow for big impact.  The importance of metrics to drive results came up often.  For example, the idea of using predictive analytics to address the truckloads of produce waste at our southern border was raised.  Image recognition came up as a way to bring more efficiency to food sourcing for recovery agencies.  And these were normal points of conversation.  That’s a good sign.

Second, and importantly, the concept of prevention received extensive attention.  There was a casualness to the theme – it was more overt, yet at the same time more natural – and it seemed to gain its own momentum over the course of the event.  It seemed that there was tacit acceptance that prevention was undeniably the most valuable place to focus attention.  And while all of the attendees understand the food recovery hierarchy and know that to be the case, it felt as if a corner had been turned and that prevention had received a new level of commitment.  This too, is significant, because while prevention enables maximum benefit, recovery efforts have long received more attention.  Recovery efforts are tangible, they are immediate, and they provide instant gratification.  Individuals engaged in recovery can see and feel the benefit of their work – and the combination of so much food and so much hunger provides nearly limitless opportunities for recovery work.  Individuals love the work, and donors feel great about supporting it.

Prevention, on the other hand, is less tangible, and less immediate, and efforts to achieve it are inevitably perceived as more difficult – requiring change to established norms and processes.  Think of the overproduction of bread, pies, and cakes in our food retail sector.  We know that huge amounts of resources go into producing these products, but it’s easier for most well-meaning individuals to gravitate toward recovering these low-nutrition items for the food insecure versus working to reduce the overproduction and argue for reallocating the saved resources to root causes of hunger.   A challenge has long been to spur individuals to think long term for maximum financial, social, and economic benefit; so the increased attention on prevention at the Summit was indeed significant, reflecting a different level of conversation at this event.

States and municipalities are increasingly adopting measures to address food waste, indicative of expanded recognition of the problem.  Notably, the Harvard FLPC team is currently tracking 91 pieces of food waste legislation in 30 states.  California is a prime example, where State Bill 1383 addressing short-lived climate pollutants mandates that by January 1, 2020, the state must achieve a 50% reduction in the disposal of organic waste from the 2014 level.  By January 1, 2025, that reduction level must increase to 75% from the 2014 level.  And, at least 20% of currently discarded edible food must be recovered for human consumption.  These are compelling, visionary goals – and they should inspire other states to do the same.  The challenge now is in the implementation.  These goals will require hundreds of millions of dollars on multiple fronts (within recovery and prevention) to achieve them.  Prioritizing prevention throughout the process will save money and maximize efficiency.

Third, there was extensive discussion of the potential for technology to play a significant role in reducing food waste at scale.  And there is no doubt that technology, especially to the degree that it facilitates measurement and smarter logistics, will play a key role.  But let’s not forget the importance of culture change in the journey.  Jesse Fink noted that the average person on the street is still not sufficiently aware of the gravity of the food waste problem.  It’s a point that’s been mentioned many times, and I couldn’t agree more.  It’s essential that we embark on a deep culture change process around food waste, and to do that we must invest in education programs in our schools.

Fourth, in my mind, we still have an elephant in the room – and that is our stated national goal (announced by USDA and USEPA in 2015) to achieve 50% reduction in food waste by 2030.  We need a national strategy to work toward that commitment.  Simply stating a goal and relying on business and state and local governments to build support for it is insufficient.  Food waste reduction must be on the national policy agenda.  A round table of leaders from across sectors must be assembled to lay out a measurement-focused strategy for achieving the 2030 goal, which requires investment and boots on the ground.  And that strategy must be adopted, viewed as an investment in our future with a very compelling ROI.  Tough challenges must be addressed, such as entrenched overproduction, ubiquitous food coupled with easy disposal, a penchant for “perfect” produce, a culture that associates value in food with big portions, to name just a few.

It was great to revisit the topic at Harvard FLPC and rethink solutions.  We have momentum, and we’ve made nice progress, but let’s be clear:  we have much to do to meet the 2030 goal, and as with food, there’s no time to waste.

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