A new wave of activists and businesses is tackling food waste worldwide

A new wave of activists and businesses is tackling food waste worldwide

 

Summer 2018 | Written by Calvin Hennick

Above: Compass chefs measure and track kitchen food waste with an online system called Waste Not to identify opportunities for reduction.


Selina Juul, standing on a TED Talk stage a few years back, tears a baguette into two pieces. “This is what is happening with the world’s food today,” Juul says, holding the smaller portion in her right hand, punctuating each word with a small thrust of the bread. “One third of all the world’s food is either lost or wasted. It has been grown and produced to feed the garbage.”

Then, with a smile, she puts the baguette back together again and says, “But we can actually help prevent this. We can put an end to the global food waste tragedy.”

This brief demonstration is a near-perfect distillation of how Juul views food waste—as a problem that is tragic and inexcusable but also ultimately simple and avoidable, and therefore eminently solvable.

“In the circles where I am, in the European Union and at the United Nations, food waste is on the agenda,” Juul says in an interview with USGBC+ in between a nearly nonstop slew of speeches she’s delivered since starting the Stop Spild Af Mad (“Stop Wasting Food”) movement in Denmark in 2008, including at the Greenbuild Europe Conference this past April. “There are articles about food waste in the media all the time. But the thing is, it must be incorporated into corporations’ plans around saving energy, saving water, saving resources. Because food is a resource.”

While the idea of food rotting in the trash may be galling on its own, food waste has ramifications that extend far beyond the shame of uneaten leftovers. First, there’s the economic cost; the nonprofit ReFED pegs the annual cost of growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten at $218 billion per year in the United States alone, or 1.3 percent of GDP. Then there’s the fact that every pound of food that is sent to a landfill is a meal that doesn’t make its way to those around the world experiencing food scarcity or insecurity—a problem that Juul and others point out will only worsen as the global population balloons in coming decades. And finally, there’s the staggering environmental impact of fueling tractors and combines, irrigating farm fields, and shipping food to every corner of the country and the world, only for it to be thrown away.

Until recently, food waste largely hasn’t received the same level of attention as other sustainability issues. Perhaps this is in part because it’s a problem to which almost everyone contributes, and people aren’t quite ready to confront their own habits. In one study in Great Britain, people underestimated the amount of food they threw away by almost half. But in the past few years, a number of business groups, public agencies, and activist groups like Juul’s have not only succeeded in raising awareness about food waste but have begun, in some cases, to curb the problem.

In Denmark, for instance, food waste dropped by 25 percent over a five-year period after Juul began advocating for the issue, and the amount continues to decrease. “We’re going in the right direction,” she says.

Selina Juul, founder of the Stop Wasting Food movement. | Photo: Andreas Mikkel Hansen

From Anger to Action

Juul emigrated to Denmark from her native Russia at an early age, and was stunned by the abundance of foods at the supermarkets. While people stood in lines at grocery stores in Russia for the chance to buy small scraps, Denmark’s shelves were overflowing, and Juul recalls delighting in all the “wonderful foods.”

But then, as a teenager, Juul began working in a supermarket bakery, and she saw how much unsold bread the store threw away every night. “I asked them, ‘Why are we throwing it away, why don’t they give it to the homeless people or to horses or something?’” Juul recalled in one interview. “I got very, very angry, and as a teenager I was shocked by all the waste. And this feeling of anger, well more of disappointment, was with me for many years.”

In 2008, Juul turned that anger into action, creating the Stop Wasting Food group on Facebook. Within two weeks, Danish media outlets were paying attention to the topic, and in three months, a large Danish discount chain contacted Juul. The company had read about her movement and wanted to do something tangible to help, so they canceled all bulk discount offers (such as “buy two, get one free”), eliminating an incentive for people to buy more food than they could eat.

In the decade since, Juul has developed well over a dozen campaigns and partnerships with government groups and private companies. Stop Wasting Food is a member of a European Union commission on food waste, a partner in the United Nations’ global SAVE FOOD initiative, and has co-signed a Joint Declaration Against Food Waste with a goal of reducing food waste by at least 50 percent by 2025.

The group’s network of partners and joint campaigns has also helped make a difference for those who are food insecure; its Save & Help campaign is a collaborative effort with an aid organization and retail chain, and its Christmas Surplus campaign was set up to distribute extra food from supermarkets to vulnerable families during the holidays. Stop Wasting Food also runs an education campaign in schools, which encourages students to work on journalism projects about food waste. And the group is a co-founder of REFOOD, a national certification for food service companies to highlight their work around recycling and food waste reduction.

Move for Hunger teams up with relocation companies across the country to pick up unwanted, nonperishable food items from those who are moving and deliver it to their local food banks. Since 2011, North American Van Lines and their customers have donated over 149,000 pounds of food to local food banks through Move for Hunger, providing over 124,000 meals to families in need.

The Scope of the Problem

Somewhere in California, a tractor trailer sits full of rotting strawberries, the grower unable to command a price that makes it worthwhile to ship the fruit. Somewhere in the Midwest, a wholesaler is rejecting perfectly edible produce because it doesn’t meet arbitrary aesthetic standards. At a restaurant in New York, inefficient ordering and food prep practices result in spoiled fish and excess kitchen scraps. A dumpster behind a grocery store in Atlanta is filled with expired bread and bagels. And inside vegetable crispers in homes in all 50 states, cucumbers slowly soften, spinach wilts, and half-eaten avocados turn brown.

Part of the reason that food waste can feel like such an unwieldy problem is that it occurs at every stage of the supply chain, and in different ways. The factors that cause a head of lettuce to rot in the field and those that cause it to rot in a person’s home are only vaguely related, and no single approach can address both. That’s why advocates are tackling the issue from as many angles as possible.

Stop Wasting Food has set an example in Denmark with tactics like closer collaboration with the government, food donation programs, and distributing takeaway bags to restaurants to encourage people to eat their leftovers.

Adam Lowry is the executive director of Move for Hunger.

“Carrots and peppers have always come in all different shapes. But today we’ve been brainwashed to think that the only produce we can eat is a perfectly shiny apple or a perfectly straight carrot.”

-Evan Lutz, Founder & CEO of Hungry Harvest

In New Jersey, Move For Hunger encourages people who are moving to donate unused items from their pantries. Executive director Adam Lowy, whose family owns a moving company, started the nonprofit in 2009 after seeing people toss out food instead of paying to ship their soups and canned peas to their new homes.

“When I started, I knew nothing about hunger or food waste,” Lowy says. “We started just asking people if they wanted to donate their food when they moved. In a month, from doing nothing more than asking a question, we collected 300 pounds of food.” Since then, the organization has rescued 10.5 million pounds of food, most of it still coming as a result of that simple inquiry. “Even if you weren’t thinking about donating food, if someone’s in your living room and asks if you have a couple of cans of food to donate, you’re probably going to do it.”

Evan Lutz is founder and CEO of Hungry Harvest, a Maryland-based company that rescues “ugly” produce that would typically be rejected by retail grocers, as well as surplus fruits and vegetables, and then delivers those crooked carrots and oblong bell peppers to its customers’ doorsteps. Although the company is a for-profit, Hungry Harvest also has several programs aimed at addressing food insecurity. By saving visually imperfect and surplus fruits and vegetables from the trash and providing them to those in need, Lutz says, he hopes to “democratize” healthy eating.

Lutz says he is looking to help normalize the consumption of out-sized and unconventionally shaped produce (which, of course, is often cut up for cooking anyway). “The way produce is grown and how it looks has not really changed that much in the last hundred years,” he notes. “Carrots and peppers have always come in all different shapes. But today, we’ve been brainwashed to think that the only produce we can eat is a perfectly shiny apple or a perfectly straight carrot.”

Business and Government Solutions

In 2011, the Grocery Manufacturers Association partnered with the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association to form the Food Waste Resource Alliance (FWRA)—one of a number of business-sponsored programs that have popped up in the past several years to combat food waste. Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says the effort was inspired by an “aha moment” that industry stakeholders had several years ago as they worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve packaging and recycling.

“We realized that the single largest component going into landfills was food,” says Stasz. “We said, ‘This is definitely something we can try to solve.’” She compares food waste reduction to other sustainability movements that have been embraced by businesses—including the growth of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) over the past 20 years. “Food waste is similar to what energy use or water use was like 20 years ago, when everyone was just paying the electric bill or water bill, and all of a sudden we started measuring and making small changes, and we saw these huge benefits,” she says. “There’s really a great environmental case and a great social case, but there’s also a great business case to be made for reducing food waste in your operations.”

The FWRA has worked to help businesses in food-related industries measure their food waste, and also to encourage the donation of food that would otherwise be thrown out. The group is also trying to combat consumer food waste by standardizing and simplifying food date labeling, which is a leading contributor to food waste at home. While manufacturers currently use dozens of confusing tags such as “enjoy by” and “freshest by,” the FWRA has worked to reduce those down to only two—“best if used by” (meant to describe quality and expected taste) and “use by” (meant to signal a potential food safety issue for perishable products).

“There’s really a great environmental case and a great social case, but there’s also a great business case to be made for reducing food waste in your operations.”

-Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association

Compass Group, the world’s largest food service company, began organizing a Stop Food Waste Day in 2017 to raise awareness about the issue and spotlight its own efforts to be more efficient with food.

The company—which runs food service establishments inside facilities such as sports venues, hospitals, museums, and schools—established a goal of reducing internal food waste by 25 percent between 2016 and 2020, and has already seen an 11 percent reduction.

“It’s a global epidemic,” says Amy Keister, senior vice president of sustainability for Compass Group North America. “We really thought, this is something that we’re the experts at, and we can hopefully bring awareness and make change.”

To tackle the company’s own food waste, Compass Group is improving internal tracking and ordering, making sure its kitchens have information about different dishes that can be prepared with surplus produce, and is even using clear food waste bins so that chefs can see what’s being thrown out.

In 2014, the company launched its Imperfectly Delicious Produce program, which encourages its kitchens to purchase fruits and vegetables that might not meet an “artificial standard of attractiveness.” Keister points out that some romaine lettuce is left to rot in fields because it’s not the same size as the packaged romaine hearts sold at grocery stores. “You want to just hit yourself over the head,” Keister says. “These problems are easy to fix.”

Government solutions for food waste aren’t as immediately apparent as those for some other sustainability issues. While local, state, and federal governments can impose fuel efficiency standards or prohibit the use of plastic grocery bags, they can’t send enforcement officers into people’s homes to make sure they’re eating their fresh veggies. But in 2015, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a goal to reduce domestic food waste by 50 percent by 2030 via partnerships with states, businesses, nonprofits, and academia. Both agencies sponsor food waste reduction challenges, and the EPA boasts that its participants diverted 740,000 tons of food from landfills in 2016.

A traveling food truck features root-to-stem recipes that fully utilize ingredients and educate guests on how to save at home.

Compass Group established a goal of reducing internal food waste by 25 percent between 2016 and 2020.

At the county level, StopWaste, a public agency in Alameda County, California, has been encouraging waste reduction efforts since 1976. While the group’s efforts have historically centered on “downstream” measures like composting discarded food, the agency has lately turned its attention to more “upstream” approaches that prevent food from being discarded in the first place, says Cassie Bartholomew, project manager for food waste reduction.

StopWaste subsidizes local businesses’ adoption of LeanPath, a food waste prevention system that incorporates a camera and scale to help businesses gather accurate data about food waste, and Bartholomew notes that Alameda County’s mandatory recycling ordinance calls for fines for businesses that send food scraps to landfills. She says the agency is also working to spread awareness about food waste through programs in K-12 schools. “We’ve found that by engaging students, they become food rescuers,” she says. “They become messengers in their households.”

Amy Keister is the senior vice president of sustainability for Compass Group North America.

“We’ve found that by engaging students, they become food rescuers [and] messengers in their households.”

-Cassie Bartholomew, project manager for food waste reduction at StopWaste

Individual Impacts

According to the EPA, up to half of food waste is the result of consumer behavior, making it incredibly difficult to devise scalable solutions. No matter what steps businesses and governments take, food waste will continue to be a major problem until there is widespread change in the behavior of individuals.

As a result, advocacy and awareness are central to food waste reduction efforts. StopWaste, for example, gives tips on its website about how consumers can reuse food, including a recipe for sushi made with leftover turkey. Juul expounds on the merits of kitchen organizational systems that help people to remember to use perishable items before they go bad. Lowy encourages people to buy imperfect produce at the grocery store and grow their own herbs to increase their sense of connection to their food.

The good news is that there are plenty of things individuals can do to reduce food waste in their own kitchens, from menu planning to chopping and freezing vegetables before they go bad. And individual consumers have one of the simplest and most powerful motivators to change their behavior: money.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family loses up to $2,200 per year due to food waste.

“It adds up,” says Lutz. “I think the financial incentive is there, but the awareness might not be.”

“Even if it were just a dollar, or a handful of quarters, no one would throw money away,” says Keister. “But you do that every time you clean out your fridge.”

“We need to feel more connected to our food,” Keister adds. “Our grandparents knew the fishmonger and the baker, and so they knew what went into making the bread or catching the fish. We’re so disconnected. I think the next generation will make that shift, if we keep having this conversation. No one wants to waste food. They just don’t even think about it. But if we can get people to picture their lettuce as a few dollars, they’re not going to throw it away.”

Students engage in project-based learning and develop skills to make a difference in their school and their community. StopWaste educators visit the classroom and facilitate a three-part series of two-hour lessons.

Public Perspective

When Juul began the Stop Wasting Food movement a decade ago, scant attention was being paid to food waste globally, to say nothing of the implementation of practical solutions.

Ten years later, national governments and multinational corporations are tackling the problem, new organizations are sprouting up to try out innovative solutions, and there are real metrics showing reductions in waste within some companies and countries. It’s a testament to the power of grassroots advocacy and organizing.

Looking ahead, Juul expects that her message will become more deeply ingrained in the public consciousness, to the point that organizations will face backlash if they aren’t taking steps to reduce food waste.

“In five to 10 years, I think people will expect corporations to do something to stop wasting food,” Juul says. “It will be a very natural expectation from customers.” This expectation, Juul believes, will apply not only to companies in food-related industries, but also to sustainable developers. “If you’re building a hotel or a conference center, you should be thinking, what are we going to do with the food waste? This issue should be incorporated into the mindset of people who are building green. It will become a competitive factor for clients and customers.”

Fundamentally, the case that Juul is making to green building advocates is the same one they’ve been making for decades on behalf of sustainable development. “You save money, and you make money, and you save the planet,” she says. “So it’s a win-win situation.”

“In five to 10 years, I think people will expect corporations to do something to stop wasting food. It will be a very natural expectation from customers.”

-Selina Juul, founder of Stop Wasting Food

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