Forty percent of the food in the United States is never eaten—a staggering amount of waste, especially when you consider that one-sixth of the country struggle with food insecurity. Reducing food waste by just 15% would save enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans each year.
Innovative food waste solutions were the topic of discussion at “Beyond the Green Bin,” a panel discussion cohosted by CUESA and the Commonwealth Club on March 24 . Moderator Julie Cummins of CUESA introduced the panel by explaining that although San Francisco is justifiably proud of its green bin program, composting is not a panacea. “The value of an apple is much greater than the value of the compost that comes out of that apple. Our goal is to reduce, reuse, and recycle—in that order. Only after reducing waste should we think of recycling what is left over.”
The Environmental Toll of Wasted Food
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, agriculture uses 10% of the country’s energy, 50% of its land, and 80% of its fresh water. When we throw out food, we are wasting these valuable resources, a loss worth $165 billion annually.
Panelist Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at NRDC and author of the report, brought the point home to the drought-stricken California audience with her comment, “When you throw away one hamburger, it’s the equivalent of wasting the amount of water used in a 90-minute shower.”
Much of the food that is not eaten ends up in landfills, where it generates methane gas, a greenhouse gas with more than 20 times greater global-warming potential than carbon dioxide. “If uneaten food were treated like a country, it would rank third, behind the United States and China, in greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
Using Social Networks to Rescue Food
Food waste occurs at every stage of the supply chain, starting on the farm. Many crops are not harvested due to low market prices, overproduction, pest damage, food safety scares, and labor shortages. After harvest, many nutritious, flavorful fruits and vegetables never reach market because they have blemishes or fail to meet other quality or appearance criteria.
Nick Papadopoulos started the online community platform Cropmobster out of frustration with throwing out produce on his family’s farm, Bloomfield Organics. He came up with the idea while contemplating dumping 20 boxes of unsold produce on his compost pile. “I thought, ‘This is absolutely nuts. This food is edible. It needs to go to people.’”
“Using the power of crowdsourcing,” Cropmobster allows farmers, retailers, caterers, and others to publish alerts offering surplus food for sale, donation, or trade. Posts are instantly broadcasted through the site’s social media, including email, Facebook, and Twitter. Since its launch in March 2013, Cropmobster has redirected 500,000 pounds of food—approximately 1 million servings—to individuals, food banks, schools, and other groups in need.
Creating a Food Recovery System
At the retail level, waste occurs as stores attempt to keep their shelves fully stocked with a wide range of fresh products. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion each year in unsold fruits and vegetables alone. Markets often cull perfectly consumable food on account of aesthetic imperfection, overstocking, or passed expiration dates (more on that later).
Food Shift is working to create a food recovery service sector that will salvage edible food discarded by stores and foodservice companies and institutions. “We have created all this infrastructure to collect waste, to recycle, and to compost, but we haven’t set up a system to recover and redistribute edible food,” explained Food Shift founder Dana Frasz.
She advocates for building a financially viable system that creates jobs for food recovery, instead of relying on volunteers. Under this model, businesses pay to keep surplus food out of the waste stream, in the same way they pay for waste disposal. Food Shift is working with Andronico’s Community Markets to create a pilot food recovery system for its five stores.
Reducing Waste in Kitchens
Food waste also occurs at the final stage of the supply chain: food preparation in restaurants and in the home. Panelist Staffan Terje, chef and owner of Perbacco and Barbacco restaurants, is committed to using every part of a plant or animal.
“Every step of the way, on the farm and along the supply chain, involves a lot of manual labor,” he said. “Why should I waste a farmer’s time and use only part of his hard labor?” asked Terje, who grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Sweden.
He urged the audience to embrace the “wonky vegetables” like the irregular but delicious ones you might see at the farmers market, and to be creative when preparing food—for example, using overripe or cosmetically flawed fruit to make jam, sorbet, or chutney. To demonstrate that reducing waste can yield tasty results, Terje served the audience carrot top pesto, creamy beet green dip, and other appetizers made from ingredients that cooks usually discard.
“I’m in the food business, not the garbage business. The less food I put in the garbage, the better job I’m doing,” said Terje.
Decoding Expiration Dates
The panelists agreed that the public has an important role to play in transforming food loss into value. “Consumers are key to the issue,” said Gunders. “We need to reduce waste at home and also change the expectations we bring to stores and restaurants.”
Waste in the home often results from misunderstanding expiration dates on food, such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before.” A recent NRDC report examines the confusion created by the current system (or lack thereof) of expiration dates, with different regulations in every state. For example, the “sell by” date is the manufacturer’s suggestion for when a store should sell, not dispose of, an item; food is often safe for weeks after that date. However, 9 out of 10 consumers mistakenly interpret the “sell by” date as the spoilage date. In 2015, NRDC will publish a book educating consumers about food freshness and spoilage.
Reducing food waste requires education and creativity all along the food chain, and for the average consumer, the home is a good place to start. Gunders urged the audience to have fun with it: “You can make a game out of it in your kitchen. Can you eat everything in your pantry? What can you do with those last things in your fridge?….We’re already making progress. Let’s keep it going.”
Apple photo by shooting brooklyn. “Wasted” report graphic from NRDC. Food waste graphic and Commonwealth Club panel photo from Food Shift.
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »