On December 8-9, 2014, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine convened a group of agronomists, lawyers, academics, farmers, economists, gleaners, psychologists, entrepreneurs, gardeners, scientists, composters, restaurateurs, chefs, grocery retailers, food industry representatives, faith-based organizations and anti-hunger advocates to discuss the growing issue of lost or wasted food, a $161 billion burden on the United States and an even greater problem on a global scale.
Two Food Policy Center staff members, Ashley Rafalow and Jan Poppendieck, attended and here they highlight some of the key themes, trends and ideas to emerge from this two-day conference .The goal is to spur discussion on how New York City can build upon its efforts to feed the hungry, minimize food waste and divert solid waste from landfills. The presentations and resources from this conference are available here.
Globally: The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 1.3 billion tons of food are lost or wasted each year. At the same time, we are far from reaching the goal of the 1996 World Food Summit to reduce the number of people suffering from malnutrition, and that is without an anticipated population bump to 9.2 billion people by 2050.
Nationally: The estimated total value of food loss in the United States is approximately $161.6 billion. In 2010, 31% of the available food supply was lost- 10% at the retail level, 21% at the consumer level.
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Where does waste come from? In higher income countries, it’s often easier to throw food away than to eat, reuse or recycle it. In lower income countries issues including storage, transportation, infrastructure are sources of food waste. USDA data suggests that a majority of food loss in the U.S. occurs at the consumer level, with vegetables comprising the highest percentage of food lost. 
Production, where portions of crops may be left in the field because of the demands of mechanical harvesting, or because growers are selecting for specific traits that are desirable in their market—small cucumbers suitable for pickles, for example.
Transportation, where inadequate refrigeration or poor information about market opportunities and requirements can result in rejections of truckloads of otherwise wholesome foods. Processing, where by-products are not always claimed and used.
Retailing (grocery), where products may pass perceived windows of freshness and safety, and storage and handling errors may lead to degradation Restaurant and food service where overproduction, mishandling, and miscalculation may result in excess supplies in pre-consumer production, and diner preferences and behaviors result in plate waste.
Household, where overbuying, lack of cooking skills, lack of time, and family norms may lead to waste in food preparation and in meal consumption.
Throughout the conference attendees and presenters agreed that a new level of awareness has set in among the many stakeholders in our food system. Recent reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) UK highlight the impact and implications of this waste and the need across the world to work collaboratively address this problem.
While waste at the farm, transport, and manufacturing stages tends to be the product of logistical challenges, equipment design, and market fluctuations, waste in the grocery store, the restaurant and home kitchen and at (and after) the dining table reflects widely held values, perceptions, and practices in our society. Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, a book credited with raising awareness of the food waste issue, offered a compelling overview of what he called the drivers of food waste:
Abundance. Our society produces so much food, and displays it so ubiquitously, that people have lost any sense of needing to be careful. Most people alive today in America have not experienced food scarcity.
Beauty. American consumers have been led to value the appearance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, and to reject any items that are blemished or even just different; there is an expectation of homogeneity and near perfection.
Cost. Food is comparatively cheap; we spend a smaller proportion of our income on food than at any point in human history.
Loss of food knowledge. We have lost kitchen knowledge—not only about how to cook and prepare food, but also about how to tell when food has become unsafe. We do not feel confident to rely on our senses.
Expiration Dates and other labels. Labels that say “best if used by” or similar vague formulations vary from place to place and product to product and are widely misinterpreted to mean that food is unsafe when it is still usable.
Massive portions. Norms for serving size, especially in restaurants, routinely provide customers with too much food.
Hospitality. Restaurants and grocery stores alike want to provide the last customer of the day with the same range of choices that the first customer encounters. It is not considered acceptable of run out of menu items or products.
Looking at food waste as an economist, USDA’a Director of Sustainable Development Elise Golan pointed out that food is “a logistical nightmare.” It is variable, highly perishable, and characterized by a “lumpy production stream”. (That is, all the watermelons in a given area ripen in a short period of time. Food becomes available in bursts, not as a steady stream.) As a result, wasting food may be and often is the least-cost option for individuals, firms and organizations. Individual costs and benefits, however, do not always align with societal costs and benefits, especially with regard to food security, environment and climate change.
Food loss, food waste, and other similar terms have not been clearly defined. Estimates vary but certain data are not being adequately captured. Chefs and restaurateurs can be resistant to the idea of monitoring their food waste, perceiving it as a measure of failure, and few chefs or restaurants quantify their food waste. Farmers have little incentive to weigh or measure what is left in the field. USDA does not capture food donations from grocery stores. Putting food conservation on the same scoreboard as food quality and proper sanitation for food retail and food service would mean that food waste would get measured, often a prerequisite to improvement.
The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a “Food Recovery Hierarchy,” an inverted pyramid with the “most preferred” actions at the top and the least preferred at the bottom. Conference presentations illustrated actions at all levels of this hierarchy. Source Reduction refers to practices at all stages that reduce the volume of surplus food produced. The source reduction discussions at the conference stressed the need to begin by measuring waste in current practices and analyzing its sources. Practices range from second gleanings to recover vegetables not collected by mechanical harvesters, to converting today’s leftovers into tomorrows soups and stews in food service operations and home kitchens to retailers who reduce the price of blemished produce or day old bread for quick sale.
Feed Hungry People: Food waste on this scale presents a host of problems, but also opportunities. Perhaps huge gains in food production are not needed to feed our growing population – is there enough food already being produced? Food rescue agencies, entrepreneurs, anti-hunger advocates and many other constituencies are beginning to reap some of this “lost” food, through gleaning, using “out of grade” (or grade “B”) products, and food recovery networks.
Feed Animals: Food scraps from many sources, and residues and by-products from food manufacturing—wet grains and hops from brewers, for example—can be components of animal feed. Great care and considerable expertise are required to do this well. Industrial Uses: Food scraps and expired food can be rendered to obtain oils and processed in anaerobic digesters to recover energy as in methane gas.
Composting: allows food to degrade into a nutrient rich medium useful for enriching soils. Composting can occur at the household, neighborhood, municipal and even regional level. Landfill and Incineration: should be the last resort.
Having explored sources and contributors to food waste, food, education has emerged as a tool to engage, inform and influence consumer behavior as well as provide industry, producers and retailers the tools to reduce food waste. Several National (and local) programs are underway. The US EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge, provides resources, technical assistance and data management tools for tracking and managing food waste to many actors in the food system, including producers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, communities and other government agencies. Last year the EPA partnered with the USDA to implement the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, building off of the Food Recovery Challenge and broadening to include a range of activities intended to reduce waste in the school meals program, consumer education, and new technologies to reduce food waste. USDA also works with industry to simplify procedures for donating wholesome but misbranded meat and poultry products, to increase donations from imported produce below quality standards, to update national retail-level food loss estimates, and to pilot-test a meat-composting program. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Food Too Good To Waste Brand new program targeted at the consumer level using a Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) approach to foster food consumption behaviors that reduce food waste.
This new series of toolkits includes a message map, implementation guide and behavioral change and outreach tools. Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a partnership of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the National Restaurant Association, established in 2011. This trade initiative includes measurement and assessment of food waste across these industries, exploration of emerging solutions, policy analysis and advocacy and dissemination of information to government and non-governmental stakeholders.
Institutional food service to children and young adults in the form of public school K-12 meals and post-secondary education is an important source of nutrition for many, and also an important source of food waste. It is increasingly clear that involving youth in the process- raising active eaters – is critical to the success of these feeding programs and also to our collective future. If children and young adults can be educated but also participants in growing, harvesting, preparing, choosing, eating, composting, and evaluating the food they are served each day, a more holistic view of our food system will emerge. It is this holistic view that will enable us all to make strides in reducing food waste and in the process, reducing hunger, greenhouse gases, and the many other ill-effects of food waste.
At the end of the conference, the leader of the organizing committee, Dr. Zhengxia Dou, a Professor of Agricultural Systems at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, pointed out that while some cities and organizations have established goals for the reduction of food waste, the United States as a nation has not done so. She proposed and 20% reduction by 2020, and called on conference participants to support a formal call for a US food waste reduction target.
Two members of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College staff attended the conference and were struck by the absence of significant discussion of the role of municipal government. These agencies are essential to this conversation and should have seats at the table to help shape emerging solutions and a food-secure future for all.