The food waste challenge has seen an explosion of coverage on multiple news and social media platforms over the past decade – as readers of this blog are well aware – and deservedly so.

But one platform that hasn’t been greatly involved to date is TikTok, perhaps indicating that the issue is a bit “too heavy” at this point for those in the Gen Z age range of 1997 to 2015. 

And that’s unfortunate, because as we all know, broad and deep engagement from youth (both Gen Z and Millennials) is critical for driving organizations to incorporate sustainability and shared value principles into their operations – from food waste and plastics reduction to decarbonization and deforestation commitments.

And significantly, these are the individuals next in line to bear the greatest burden if insufficient progress occurs on food system transformation and climate between now and 2050.  

We need youth to reinforce and accelerate the basic expectation of responsible behavior among businesses and responsible governance among policymakers – and we need to nurture such expectations by providing appropriate education throughout K-12 on climate change, circularity, and the imperative of transitioning to a regenerative food system.

Ideally, such education would be coupled with meaningful engagement opportunities to inspire students to become change leaders at an early age, for today’s youth can be powerful voices on climate and SDG issues (just consider the global impact of Greta Thunberg in recent years).   

Notably, a rare exception to the TikTok food waste gap occurred in January, when a user (and former part-time Dunkin’ Donuts employee) posted an 8-second video showing him and his team filling a trash can with unsold doughnuts and munchkins at end-of shift.  The video was captioned “every night…312 donuts and munchkins” and flashed the single word “pain.”

The video went viral, garnering over 48,000 views, and generating hundreds of twitter-like comments revealing outrage over the waste and questioning why the doughnuts were not donated to hungry people (Note: I’ll get to the nutrition aspect shortly).    

This was preceded by a 58-second video by the same individual entitled “My closing routine at Dunkin’” – which depicts in great detail the vast amount of doughnuts, bagels, coffee, and tea which are dumped at Dunkin’ locations nightly.  The rote nature of waste at such establishments comes through clearly, which is disturbing when one considers that this is just one food operation of many in a massive global fast-food sector.  To date this video has received over 1.8 million views and over 220,000 “likes” – while also fueling many emotion-laden responses linking the coexistence of food waste and hunger from the TikTok community.

Later in January, another Dunkin’ employee followed suit, posting a similar video on TikTok (labeled “Closing at Dunkin’) which also showed in great detail the large volume of end-of-shift waste at Dunkin’ locations.  To date this video has received over 1.6 million views, and in turn stoked additional emotion-laced conversation in which participants not only questioned why such food items were discarded rather than being donated, but also cited similar experiences in which they were required to throw away food items nightly in their roles at other food organizations.

And in June, another TikTok user posted a short video of a tray of chicken nuggets being discarded with the caption “What they do every night with the chicken nuggets at Chick-fil-A.”  This video has received over 600,000 “likes” to date while also generating numerous emotional comments questioning why such food isn’t redirected to feed the homeless, with one respondent noting: “The amount of food we throw away, and the amount of starving people there are just doesn’t sit right with me.  It’s sad.”

The Big Disconnect

Without question, there’s a positive awakening aspect here. 

These videos have obviously evoked a number of strong emotional responses on TikTok and other social media platforms, and to the extent that they are increasing awareness of the downside of extensive, institutionalized food waste in food sector operations – particularly among youth – that’s a good thing. 

And if they become the impetus for the creation of more engagement among youth on food waste – and the creation of young food system change leaders – so much the better.

But there’s also a huge disconnect on many levels behind all of the emotion and outrage here.

The first aspect concerns the narrowness of the scope.  However distasteful the waste of doughnuts and related food items at Dunkin’ locations is, it is a fraction of the bigger food waste picture. 

And while millions of individuals have seen these posts – and associated articles have touched on a few basic systemic issues related to food waste (such as liability fears related to donations and freshness premiums) – a large portion of the comments from TikTok respondents have been narrowly focused on diverting the excess doughnuts to feed the homeless. 

There’s plenty of room for outrage here, but there are many other aspects of food waste in the system to be considered, too.   

Second, and closely related, is the critical element of nutrition.  Simply stated, there’s a giant “nutrition miss” in this early TikTok conversation.  Support for the basic preferential choice of donating excess food versus throwing it in the trash is one thing, but doughnuts, munchkins, and muffins are not the type of food items that warrant galvanizing human energy and resources toward finding solutions to consistently redirect them to fill pantries and feed hungry citizens. 

It’s important for the TikTok audience to consider that we are talking about items of very low nutrient value here – a steady diet of which will only exacerbate health problems such as obesity and diet-related illness among the very portion of the population who can least afford poor health outcomes.

Significantly, the doughnut controversy illustrates a much larger systemic challenge around donations of excess food:  we should be focused on efficiently moving high-nutrition food items to those experiencing food insecurity – fruits, vegetables, and proteins – versus a steady diet of poor-quality food such as bread, baked goods and sugary dessert items.  Unfortunately, far too much effort is spent moving the latter, which compounds the hunger problem by creating a larger health problem. 

To quickly understand this, I’d encourage everyone to volunteer at local pantries or regional food banks.

Third, and closely related, is the missing, critical element of prevention.  The existence of excessive end-of-shift waste at Dunkin’ locations, along with high levels of excess food at retailers and other quick service/fast food operations, is illustrative of a key systemic problem – the continued overproduction of cheap, low-quality food amid our developed world culture of abundance. 

As consumers, we expect excessive variety and full shelves of food at all hours, and we can purchase food in myriad locations rapidly and with ease.  Coupled with cheap disposal costs and a culture which values big portions and low prices, we’ve created a reinforcing cycle of excessive food production and excessive food waste. 

That cycle creates huge environmental externalities – consuming scarce resources while heavily taxing the environment through emissions, deforestation, packaging waste, ocean pollution, biodiversity loss, and much more.    

Further, with so much poor-quality food on hand, many food organizations rely on donation streams as a convenient (and indeed, saving) outlet – enabling them to perpetuate a model of fully-stocked shelves of bread and baked goods at all hours (which of course appeals to consumers) while gaining positive press and tax deductions for donations of unsold items on the back end. 

As I’ve said before, this is the wrong kind of circularity – a perverse cycle where food organizations, particularly retailers, are rewarded for driving overproduction and high levels of waste while also consistently donating items that lead to poor health outcomes for the food insecure.

It’s a core food system challenge that must be fixed if we are to successfully feed a global population of 10 billion by 2050 within planetary boundaries (as covered brilliantly in the EAT-Lancet Food in the Anthropocene report), and it’s why the overwhelming call among TikTok users to donate the daily excess from Dunkin’ locations is narrow and misguided.

Shifting to Responsible Production

Should we all be outraged over the callous, robotic, and repetitive waste of bagels, doughnuts and munchkins from fast food operations like Dunkin’? 

Yes, without question.  But not because we are missing a colossal opportunity to establish durable donation programs for such low-nutrition food items.  Diverting such “food” to people will only create costly health-related outcomes downstream. 

If possible, effort could be expended toward efficiently routing such excess food resources to animal feed, where it can be naturally converted into protein for human consumption.  Beyond that, and more likely in this case, the material could be utilized to generate energy or compost. 

But it’s important to note that these are much lower value solutions.  And while food organizations have a responsibility to put excess resources to productive use and minimize the environmental harm of landfilling, we all lose if they continue to overproduce vast quantities of food with the belief that such bottom-of-the-Hierarchy solutions are highly beneficial outlets.

Composting isn’t a panacea for food waste, nor is anaerobic digestion. These options fall far short of offsetting the harm of overproduction. 

The optimal solution, and the one that Gen Z users also must understand and embrace, involves preventing the wasted food from occurring in the first place.  That involves changing the system: moving from continual overproduction to responsible production.

Responsible food organizations must make the operational and behavioral changes to ensure that such vast amounts of excess food aren’t on hand nightly, routinely headed for disposal.  Prevention avoids all of the resource consumption and environmental harm associated with that needless production.  And it frees societal resources and human capital to address the root causes of social problems like food insecurity. 

And engaged consumers, especially the up-and-coming Gen Z population, should expect food organizations to act responsibly, and reward them accordingly. 

It’s good to see youth utilizing social medial platforms like TikTok to bring attention to excessive, entrenched cases of food waste in our food system.  And it’s good to see from their reactions that hundreds of thousands of young people sense that something is very wrong here, and that we can do better. 

They’re right.

After all, if what we see in these videos is indicative of what food organizations are teaching youth in entry-level jobs about how food resources are valued, how are they shaping the behavior of future citizens? 

Visibility drives awareness and transparency, and in turn lays the groundwork for action.  And for decades, the vast amount of food waste in our global food system has lacked appropriate visibility.

There’s an opportunity here to leverage the viral nature of these initial TikTok posts which have evoked so much emotion among youth, and to take the initial narrow conversation up a few levels.

We can (and should) do that through educational programs on food, sustainability, climate, and biodiversity throughout our K-12 system, as Italy announced in 2019.  And we can supplement such educational efforts with meaningful opportunities for engagement to create change leaders, as the Future Food Institute effectively does through its many boot camps.

Last, food organizations, particularly those in the quick service sector, would be wise to reflect on what has occurred here.  A few short videos showing institutionalized food waste have reached millions around the globe and have clearly evoked strong emotions. 

They certainly won’t be the last. 

TikTok is another social media platform in which compelling snippets of content can reach millions in a few hours – impacting not only the workforce of the present, but the consumers of tomorrow.

Brand reputations are in a tenuous position if company operations fail to incorporate shared responsibility principles and continue to externalize environmental and social costs through excessive waste of food. 

Just ask Dunkin’.