Multi-agency initiative invites public and private partners to collaborate on strategy to reduce food waste

Shaunice Wall is NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

An estimated 40 percent of food goes uneaten in the United States. Between 2007 and 2014, American consumers wasted nearly 150,000 tons of food per day. Yet, 40 million Americans struggle with hunger, including 12 million children.

The massive amount of food waste has far-reaching consequences on food security, the economy, and our environment. On April 9, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted an event NCL attended for its Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, a multi-agency effort created to tackle the burgeoning problem of food loss and waste through combined and agency-specific action.

Led by the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the purpose of the initiative is to work with communities, organizations, and businesses along with state, tribal, and local governments to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent over the next 15 years.

In attendance were state, local, and community leaders and other stakeholders to discuss how all levels of government can work together to reduce food waste. A strategy that includes six key action areas–such as improving consumer education and food labeling–was introduced.

“We need to feed our hungry world, and by reducing food waste, we can more wisely use the resources we have,” said Secretary Sonny Perdue of the USDA.

A panel titled “Lessons Learned from States, Cities and Organizations in Reducing Food Waste” discussed various efforts to combat food waste. One effort mentioned was a recycling assistance program in Massachusetts called RecyclingWorks. The program was designed to help businesses and institutions maximize recycling, reuse, and composting opportunities. Another successful program that was discussed was the Save the Food Campaign, a program developed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ad Council to encourage Americans to make simple lifestyle changes like creating shopping lists, freezing food, and using leftovers to reduce waste in their own homes.

Mr. Trump recently designated the month of April as Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month and is encouraging participation from all sectors.

The actions of the USDA, EPA, and FDA will include research, community investments, education and outreach, voluntary programs, public-private partnerships, tool development, technical assistance, event participation, and policy discussion. These three agencies invite public and private partners to participate in Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month through the following:

  • Join the conversation: Share your efforts with the #NoWastedFood hashtag in your social media posts throughout the month.
  • Educate your community: Learn about USDAEPA, and FDA programs and resources to reduce food loss and waste.
  • Be a U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champion: Join other corporate and business leaders who have made a public commitment to reducing food loss and waste in their U.S. operations by 50 percent by the year 2030.

The National Consumers League (NCL) has been a longstanding advocate for reducing food waste. Most notably, NCL has produced a and collaborated with like-minded organizations to conduct research on household food waste.

NCL believes that the strategies undertaken by the three agencies will be a critical measure to combatting food waste and we look forward to continuing our work to achieve the goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

For more information on the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, visit the following webpages:

Let’s all get out and glean – National Consumers League

The Bible is replete with calls for it, our glut of food in America calls for it, and yet few of us do it. I’m not talking about praying! I’m referring to the term “gleaning.” NCL has an active campaign to reduce food waste, since Americans toss out 40 percent of the food we produce. That takes a huge toll on our farmers—who work so hard to grow our crops—and on the environment, when wasted food stuffs landfills, and it leaves the 60 million food-insecure families in America behind, when we could be feeding millions more.

But in Belle Glade, FL, it turns out, they are heeding the call to glean. Thousands of people from November through July get up at the crack of dawn and drive to local fields to package up unused crops—butternut squash, bok choy, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green beans—and ensure they get to the distribution centers at the local food banks. According to Susan Salisbury, who wrote about the cleaning efforts for the Palm Beach Post, an estimated 20 percent of crops never make it to our tables. It’s either “ugly” or doesn’t meet retailers’ standards. Another 20 percent is thrown away at home or in restaurants, something the National Consumers League has worked to reduce.

Amidst a lot of abundance and wealth, there is another side of Palm Beach County. If you drive off the main roads you see it, but few of us make those detours. It turns out that 200,000 people in the county are food insecure, according to the head of the Palm Beach County Food Bank.

In fact, 90 percent of the crops that are gleaned come from Palm Beach County, with up to 3,000 volunteers working closely with growers. Last year they recovered 497,000 pounds of produce. A whopping 3.7 million pounds, statewide, has been saved. Kids come with their parents to participate in gathering produce. What a great lesson for them.

I was surprised to learn that this food recovery program may be the only one of its kind in the nation. Kudos to the farmers who work with the community to ensure this donated food—millions of pounds of it—gets to those in need. This program should go national.

And by the way, this notion that I hear so often that you can’t give food away because if people get sick, you’ll get sued, is a red herring! Ever heard of the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act? It’s the federal law that protects those who donate, recover, and distribute excess food from fear of lawsuits.

Three hours later, volunteers fill up bins that provide food to the many in Palm Beach County who don’t have enough to feed their families. This is the side of America that I love. Forget military parades— let’s get Americans out gleaning fields across the country. Palm Beach County has taught us how.

High school students shocked at waste uncovered during cafeteria food waste audits – National Consumers League

“Schools are a place of learning. The cafeteria should be too!”

I’m willing to guess that if you ask almost any student their favorite school period, the resounding answer will be “lunch!” My memories of school lunch involve scarfing down a peanut butter sandwich and quickly catching up with friends before our 30 minutes were up. The cafeteria is hectic, lines are long, and many students rush through their meals in order to preserve time to socialize.  So too often, a hasty lunch period leaves trash bins overflowing with half-eaten sandwiches and other barely touched food items.

Food waste in American schools is a major problem. Studies have found that U.S. schools waste a total of about $1.2 billion annually. There are many theories as to why schools produce so much food waste, but in order to really identify the root causes, we have to get our hands dirty. And who better to dig into a messy issue than energetic high school students?

In the spring of 2017, students participating in LifeSmarts, NCL’s signature consumer literacy program, were given the unique challenge of conducting a food waste audit in their school cafeterias. Throughout the 2016–2017 academic year, LifeSmarts students studied the impacts of food waste that infiltrate almost every aspect of consumers’ lives. Students learned about the humanitarian and environmental impact of food waste. Having this background knowledge helped the students contextualize the auditing challenge within the discourse of the national and global food waste problem.

The terms of the challenge required students to conduct one audit in their cafeteria during one lunch period. Students worked with their peers to separate waste into five separate bins: unopened food, organic waste, liquid waste, recycling, and landfill waste. Students recorded the weight of each bin and answered a series of data-related and critical thinking questions, which gave them an opportunity to connect their real-life results with the national and global impacts of food waste.

Students’ reactions were diverse, and their suggestions inform insightful structural and policy solutions for preventing and reducing food waste in schools and communities.

One student shared:

“Before the food audit, we predicted that the amount of food wasted would peak at around 70 percent of the total weight of food received, however when we combined the total weight of food thrown away and the unserved cafeteria food we were astonished to find that the true amount of food wasted was around 85 percent.“

Some students went an extra step to try to understand why food was being thrown out:

“Additionally, we were interested in evaluating the variety, amount, and nutrition within the available choices and determine how healthy students are eating at our school. This data will be shared with the food distributer for our high school as well as the School Committee.”

Students were also confronted with limitations from their school board:

“Unopened food cannot be shared, saved, or removed from the school per BOE directives.”

“Prepared cafeteria foods that were untouched had to be disposed of as food waste.”

As students became aware of the issue, they presented next steps for increasing efforts to reduce waste:

“Our LifeSmarts Team could encourage the administration to make a student lunch advisory board to review the lunches and see which meals students are reluctant to consume.”

One of the most striking findings from the audit challenge is the combined metrics of waste generated.

Instead of throwing away unopened food, it could have been recovered or donated. The potential for food rescue is detailed in the table below. Amounts were calculated using Food Rescue’s conversion tool.

Items rescued 2,444
Meals rescued 488
Pounds of CO2e rescued (the amount of carbon dioxide which would have the equivalent global warming impact) 305.5

The feedback from students who completed this challenge demonstrates the value in conducting food waste audits. Many students expressed interest in conducting more audits to dig deeper into the issue. Others were energized to move forward with engaging community members and school administrators to experiment with new solutions.

In the 2017–2018 academic year, LifeSmarts students will build on the momentum from the first audit challenge and test strategies for reducing waste in their cafeterias. Students will be encouraged to run longer audits, implement solutions, and conduct a second series of audits to measure their success. By collaborating with school administrators, food service workers, and community partners, students will navigate our complex food system, providing opportunities for solution-making from the ground up.

U.S. Conference of Mayors committed to food waste resolutions – National Consumers League

ali.jpgIt’s been nearly a year since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a national goal to cut U.S food waste in half by 2030.  Since then, we have seen leaders from across the food supply chain, as well as non-profit, industry and government sectors, make impressive progress towards achieving this goal. NCL has been working hard to identify strategies for consumers who want to be part of this national movement. So, NCL is pleased that the United States Conference of Mayors recently committed to a set of resolutions that will strengthen food waste reduction plans within municipalities. 

Congress has been slow to act on food safety, including enacting federal legislation aiming to reduce our nation’s food waste problem. Regulations on food waste disposal, food recovery and redistribution, and even food date labeling can vary by state or city.

While disjointed state and city policies aren’t the most efficient way to tackle a national issue, some states and cities have developed their own food waste programs in order to push the needle. Take landfill bans for example. Currently, five states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont) and two cities (New York City and Seattle) have a ban or mandate on the amount of food scraps permitted in landfill. To help retailers and consumers prevent food loss and landfill waste, many states and cities are also providing tax incentives for food donations or have established more robust farm-to-food bank programs.

These leaders are inspiring other municipalities to follow suit. The resolutions presented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors signal the growing concern of food waste. NCL applauds the U.S. Conference of Mayors for making food waste a priority and for presenting solutions that help consumers be part of the solution.

Below are highlighted resolutions from the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ food waste resolutions:

  1. Food Recovery Hierarchy – The U.S. Conference of Mayors has developed a food recovery hierarchy based on the first three tiers of the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy, which are: reduce instance of waste, recover edible food for redistribution, and repurpose food scraps for animal feed.
  2. Financial Incentives Federal and state governments are encouraged to increase access to grants, loans, guarantees, tax incentives, or other financial resources to improve food waste recycling infrastructure.
  3. Collaboration – The private sector and consumer facing businesses are encouraged to strengthen partnerships with government agencies to press for food waste legislation and consumer education campaigns.
  4. Responsibility of Cities – Cities are asked to assess their region’s contribution to food waste and its impact on their communities. Cities are also encouraged to develop innovative programs to reduce waste and provide societal, environmental, and financial benefits. 

Food waste – National Consumers League

ali.jpgI spend a lot of time thinking about food waste and it’s lasting effects on our environment and our communities. While this may be a natural outcome of working on these issues for NCL, I don’t think it will be long before the average consumer also has this topic on the brain on a daily basis.The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, in partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and Massachusetts RecyclingWorks, coordinated Reduce and Recover: Save Food for the People, a two-day event focused on reducing food waste and preventing food loss on June 28-29. Advocates who gathered ranged from environmentalists, anti-hunger advocates, college activists, foundations, government officials, social entrepreneurs, and in NCL’s case, consumer advocates. Industry was also there in force. A central topic of discussion was, “how do we elevate the food waste movement beyond food and environmental spaces and into the conscious of everyday Americans?”

We are often so immersed in the issues we care about that it can be hard to gauge how the general public perceives the issue. Closing this gap between movers and shakers and everyone else is key to creating lasting change.

Consumer food waste ranks as one of the top sources of food loss in this country. Americans are throwing out $165 billion worth of food, yet studies show that 73 percent of consumers think they waste less than the average person. Clearly there is a disconnect, and consumers are contributing to the problem more than they think.

The multifaceted attendees–including industry trade associations like the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Restaurant Association, and Sodexo, all seemed to agree that consumers are mostly operating with good intentions when they overbuy and then throw out food. Whether they are throwing a party and don’t want anyone to go hungry or just shopping for fresh produce for their families, consumers mean well. But these behavioral patterns are creating literally tons of waste. Leaders in the food waste movement are now moving focus from naming the problem to employing strategies to change consumer behavior.

Here are some strategies that emerged from the conference:

First, consumers have to be aware that food waste is a serious problem with economic, moral, and environmental ramifications. A clear understanding of the issue will at least prompt consumers to think about their buying decisions as they shop, eat, and dispose of their food. Media campaigns help create awareness about societal issues and consequently shifting behavioral norms.

Think of the great slogans from previous Ad Council campaigns: “Every Litter Bit Hurts,” “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” “Only You can Prevent Forest Fires,” “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” and  “Click It or Ticket.” All of us know them and they’ve really help to change behaviors on a societal level. Look at the progress we’ve made on seatbelt usage: In 1982, only 11 percent of drivers and front seat passengers wore seatbelts; Today, 87 percent of drivers and passengers wear seatbelts and hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved as a result. The Ad Council’s new “Save the Food” campaign hopes to raise consumer awareness and change behavior.

Then, there is the issue of date labels on food. Adam Rein from ReFED explained, “100 percent of people experience confusion around date labels.” Date labeling on food packaging are all over the map and leads to consumer waste. They are actually a manufacturer suggestion for a product’s peak freshness, and are in no way connected to food safety. Millions of pounds of food are thrown out each day because of our current hodge-podge date labeling system. To the rescue is a bill introduced in the House and Senate entitled the Food Date Labeling Act, which standardizes date labeling, leading to less unnecessary tossing out of perfectly edible food.

At NCL, we believe the pledge by federal agencies to reduce food waste should be a starting point for the federal government getting their own house in order and serving as an example to the nation on how to reduce food loss. The federal government is the largest consumer of energy, with a footprint that includes 360,000 buildings and $445 billion spent annually on goods and services. Federal facilities could potentially save the nation billions of dollars and perhaps even surpass the national goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. NCL plans to ask President Obama to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to develop food waste reduction policies across the agencies as a standard practice in all federal facilities.

As for the consumer, awareness is the first step to changing behavior. Infrastructure to support consumers, such as legislative changes and support from federal agencies, must be in place to sustain lasting behaviors. Large food corporations like Campbell’s Soup Company, Sodexo, Nestle, and others are beginning to implement food waste reduction strategies throughout their supply chain. Many companies are also supporting legislative changes, like the Food Date Labeling Act, which will reduce the likelihood that consumers will toss out perfectly good food because they are confused by a date label.

The Reduce and Recover conference brought together many of the groups that are going to drive the campaign to reduce food waste in America by 50 percent by 2030. The event followed NCL’s May 11 Food Waste Summit, co-hosted by Keystone Policy Center, which focused on the consumers role in the issue of food waste. It was clear from last week’s conference at Harvard Law School that we have a growing and broad based movement to get a handle on food waste.

From a consumer perspective, if we voice concerns and ask companies to help reduce food waste, we believe that will have an impact on industry. The environmental, moral, and societal imperatives are enormous. They demand that we work overtime to meet America’s stated goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.