Six Takeaways from NYC Food Waste Fair

by Deirdre Appel
NYC Food Waste Fair - Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center

On Thursday, May 23, hundreds gathered at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the 2019 NYC Food Waste Fair. As NYC’s largest expo on food waste solutions, the event showcased a full-day panel program, more than 70 exhibitors, hands-on workshops and skills training, demos and tastings and a Zero Food Waste Challenge that featured 12 top chefs competing to make the ultimate zero food waste dish.

The annual fair – supported by the Foundation for New York’s Strongest (the official non-profit of New York City’s Department of Sanitation)  – brought together organizations, educational institutions, food and beverage professionals, composting experts, refuse haulers, and others to address food waste in creative, innovative and urgent ways.

Creating a food system based on equity as opposed to excess is a major priority for the NYC Center for Food Policy. Below we share our top takeaways from the event.

Food should never go to a landfill

Food is an asset, so excess food should be used to feed people or animals, nourish the soil, grow more healthy food, or create energy. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

In New York, large food scraps generators-supermarkets, restaurants, colleges, and hospitals-generate more than 250,000 tons of wasted food and food scraps each year, some of which is edible food and 22 percent of our landfills contain food we chose not to recycle. This, coupled with the fact that one in eight people in the United States is food insecure (one in four in the Bronx) is a dangerous reality that demonstrates inefficiency and promotes inequity.  

The Fair reinforced the notion that wasting food is wasting resources and harmful to the environment. We heard from panelists who continued to repeat d the headline statistic that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. This is an even more shocking figure when you consider that, globally, 70 percent of freshwater is used for agriculture. In a time when our water resources are quickly being depleted, wasting food is also wasting water.

Additionally, people at the fair spoke about the negative consequences of mishandling food scraps. When food is sent to landfills, it decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the global-warming capacity of carbon dioxide. In addition to creating methane emissions, composting food scraps in landfills can also contaminate ground and surface water.

Fortunately, there are solutions and incentives to diverting food waste from landfills. The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) estimates that if these food scraps were diverted from landfills, more than 120,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalence reduction could be achieved each year and if just five percent of this material were donated, food banks would see an increase of 20 percent in the amount of food available for consumption by those in need.

The end goal? Consume (whether by animals or people), compost or convert into energy whatever food is produced. Food should never go to a landfill.

Combating food waste is not just good for the environment; it is good for business

Thomas McQuillan, vice president of corporate strategy for sustainability and culture at Baldor Specialty Foods, delivered the keynote address whose main theme was that addressing food waste protects not only people and the environment but also business.

“Food is our greatest asset. We can work together to create strategies that optimize the use of food across the value chain. The result is the creation of economic value, an increased access to nutritious produce and a reduced environmental impact from wasted food,” said McQuillan, “By feeding people, feeding animals and composting all remaining food, Baldor Specialty Foods will be zero organics to landfill by 2020. Do more, waste less.”

And this isn’t just good PR. It is a smart business decision, especially in a sector like food that operates on very small profit margins.

A new report by Champions 12.3, a coalition of executives from governments, businesses, international organizations, research institutions, farmer groups, and civil society dedicated to achieving SDG Target 12.3 to reduce global food loss and waste by 2030, shows the positive return on investments in reducing food waste. Their review of 114 restaurants across 12 countries found that nearly every site achieved a positive return, with the average restaurant saving $7 for every $1 invested in reducing kitchen food waste.

Heeding this call, McQuillan spearheaded the SparCs (scraps backwards) initiative to reduce food waste. Many other businesses in NYC will necessarily  follow suit as a growing number will be required by law to source-separate their pre-consumer organic waste.

“A growing number of New York City businesses are required by law to separate their organic waste—and we are committed to supporting these businesses with the resources they need to be successful,” said Bridget Anderson, Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability at the New York City Department of Sanitation. The Food Waste Fair highlighted the newly-launched donateNYC Food Portal, which facilitates efficient, hyper-local food donations to organizations that can use or re-distribute excess food.

Sustainability may be a journey but innovation is here now

Achieving sustainability within the food system and eliminating waste at each stage of the food supply chain will take time. However, we already have the solutions that will help us achieve our goals. The expo hall showcased a range of solutions and recognized that the problem with solving food waste is not a lack of ideas but the implementation, uptake and scalability of the ideas we already have.

The fair also included an expo hall of more than 70 exhibitors highlighting their food waste prevention and recovery solutions, which included donation services, inventory management, waste auditing, hauling, compostable products, animal feed solutions, food-from-scraps products and catering, among others. Sponsored by Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm focused on building the circular economy, the hall was filled with booths sporting logos from Atlas Organics, Toasted Ale, Square Roots, Misfits Market, Farmshelf, and others.

“Innovations in food waste reduction and organics processing represent a massive economic opportunity for municipalities and investors,” said Ron Gonen, Co-Founder and CEO of Closed Loop Partners. “Closed Loop Partners is pleased to partner with the Foundation for New York’s Strongest to highlight several early stage companies that are taking on this challenge.”

Supporting small businesses with the 2019 Microgrant Program

While sustainability may be profitable for a business’s bottom line, scaling up innovations and solutions can bes difficult for small businesses. That is why the Foundation for New York Strongest launched the 2019 Microgrant Program, which will provide up to $2,000 in funding along with technical support to help NYC businesses that commit to meeting certain criteria for beginning or expanding their efforts to prevent and reduce food waste.

Looking to chefs to inspire change

While the expo hall was filled with entrepreneurs and food waste solutions, the first floor of the Brooklyn Navy Yard was taken over by NYC’s creative culinary leaders.

In  the Zero Food Waste Challenge, chefs – whether reigning from a Michelin starred restaurant or a soup kitchen – competed to prepare the ultimate zero-waste dish. The challenge was hosted by Jake Cohen, Editorial and Test Kitchen Director at The Feedfeed, a crowdsourced digital cooking publication and community. And while, of course, dining on innovative dishes and sipping cocktails sounds like the perfect way to end a full-day spent discussing the problem of food waste, there was more to it than just that. The Challenge is a display of the growing recognition among chefs of the need to be active agents for change in the sustainable food movement and to be culinary role models for others.

“It’s exciting to see a greater focus at Food Waste Fair 2019 on the role that Chefs can have to reduce food waste at the source using culinary innovation,” said Adam Kaye, Chef and Co-Founder of Spare Food, a company uses culinary innovation to create new products and processes that use leftover food and food scraps to design new meals and menus. “It clearly demonstrates the commitment by the Foundation for New York’s Strongest to address the issue of food waste with innovative solutions at every point along the food chain.”

A new mantra: I am not waste. I was never waste. I am food.

The final takeaway from the NYC Food Waste Fair, inspired by McQuillan’s keynote address,  rang throughout the panel discussions, especially when Matt Jozwiak of Rethink Food NYC stated that “waste” is a banned word in their company’s kitchens. That statement alone makes it clear that we must decouple food and waste. Excess food must not be thought of as waste but rather as abundance that needs to find a new home.

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