Photograph by Brian Finke for National Geographic
Photograph by Brian Finke for National Geographic
The Plate

A New Roadmap for Fighting Food Waste

Since the United States has now joined other nations in acknowledging that food waste is a big problem, one question has lingered: how do we tackle it? A new group just might have the answers.

The U.S. now spends $218 billion producing, transporting and discarding food that isn’t eaten. Minimizing that waste by just 20 percent would yield $100 billion in societal economic benefits over a decade. This according a recent report—a novel collaboration between business, government and nonprofits—called ReFED.

A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent provides just that. Actually, it’s more GPS than roadmap, as it charts the best routes for reaching specific outcomes like emissions avoided, money saved, meals recovered, and more. Those best routes come from the 27 solutions for fighting food waste the roadmap prescribes. For example, if the goal is the most cost effective solutions, then standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns and packaging adjustments offer the most bang for the buck, according to ReFED’s analysis. If lowering greenhouse gas emissions is the priority, expanded composting, consumer education campaigns, and waste tracking and analytics are the top three answers.

The ability to prescribe solutions customized by sector (restaurants, homes, etc.) and outcome make the roadmap unique. ReFED Advisory Council member Emily Broad Leib believes it is this aspect that will make the report matter. “The roadmap absolutely provides a guide for businesses, advocates, and policy makers about where we should invest our time and resources to ensure we are able to meet the national food waste reduction goal in the most cost effective way,” said Broad Leib, who also directs the Food Law Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.

If implemented, the roadmap solutions would prompt significant savings. Collectively, U.S. consumers could save $5.6 billion annually by not buying food that we won’t eat.

The $218 billion total estimated cost of American food waste means we’re wasting 1.3 percent of the U.S. GDP for no good reason! And it’s a significant jump from the often-cited U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate of $162 billion. The ReFED report uses more recent data, including some on-farm loss (more on this later) and the cost of disposing food waste.

Given that we waste food everywhere from farm to fork, the problem can feel overwhelming. That’s why simply having a concrete way forward, i.e. a roadmap, is massive.

Also significant: the ReFED report uses hard data to detail the impact of various solutions. That leads to sentences like this one that feels too good to be true, but isn’t: “Implementing the roadmap is projected to generate 15,000 new jobs, double recovered food donations to nonprofits, reduce up to 1.5 percent of freshwater use and avoid nearly 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Indeed, the report originated from a desire to give perspective through the numbers. “The roadmap came about because we thought there’s a real opportunity for looking at the food waste problem through an economic lens. And to use data to allow multiple stakeholders to drive action,” says Sarah Vared.

ReFED formed early in 2015 as a coalition of more than 30 business, non-profit, foundation, and government leaders. ReFED loosely stands for Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data but also references the ‘Reduce, Reuse Recycle’ trinity while alluding to ensuring people are FED. (If ReFED can confer all of that in five little letters, imagine what it can do in a 96 pages report!)

The roadmap and ReFED stem from the interest and commitment of the Fink Family Foundation. Partners Betsy and Jesse Fink have a family farm in Wilton, Connecticut—Millstone Farm—where they’ve gained firsthand experience with the creation of excess food and the difficulty it creates. The Finks have long funded efforts surrounding wasted food and together with 12 other foundations, created ReFED along with several others, including Vared, Principal at MissionPoint Partners, which Jesse Fink co-founded.

In pondering what ReFED could contribute to the food waste discussion, Vared and the steering committee looked to the McKinsey global greenhouse gas abatement cost curve and its hierarchy of actions for inspiration. “The McKinsey report was such a landmark piece of research in the climate world and it really helped prioritize solutions,” Vared said. “So our team and NRDC, with Dana, thought ‘why not do the same thing for food waste?’”

Because the roadmap has impressively done just that, any shortcomings with the research risk being amplified. That’s why the lack of data on food wasted at the farm level is concerning. There is a real data gap in this sector. But using an estimate for only one facet of farm loss—fruits and vegetables unsold due to cosmetic flaws—to represent all farm level loss in several graphs is problematic.

So the roadmap’s assertions that farm waste represents 16 percent of U.S. food waste by weight and costs $15 billion are potentially misleading as we consider where to focus resources. Fortunately, the report lists on-farm losses as a “future research opportunity.”

Another facet of food production the reFED plan deems needs further research is the seafood waste stemming from the unintentional catch of fish. This “bycatch” is significant, as it leads to waste estimates of up to 50 percent in seafood production.

Still, the lack of complete farm and bycatch data are quibbles. The roadmap will likely guide businesses, policymakers and investors for years to come. “We hope it is a call to action for the different stakeholders to get involved,” Vared says.

If the U.S. is to approach the Obama Administration target of 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030, the roadmap will likely bear a decent amount of the credit. Because despite the ambitious 50 percent goal, the administration has offered little funding or planning to help reach it.

For more on tackling food waste, see this month’s issue of National Geographic.

Jonathan Bloom is a journalist, speaker, and consultant on the topic of wasted food. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of the blog Wasted Food, You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @WastedFood, or in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, two sons and many, many containers for leftovers.