Halving U.S. Food Waste: from lofty goal to practical reality
Published September 15, 2016
Most of our food-related stories are about what we eat – but, a year ago tomorrow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to focus on the food we don’t eat. Together they announced a remarkably ambitious goal of reducing U.S. food waste by 50 percent by 2030 – a goal firmly in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that soon after were adopted globally.
Unsurprisingly, given the growing recognition that roughly 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted annually – a crisis which must change, urgently – the national food waste reduction goal received broad support, including from The Rockefeller Foundation and ReFED.
Just a few months after the announcement, The Rockefeller Foundation launched YieldWise: a $130 million global initiative to prove that the 50 percent reduction goal isn’t just achievable, but within reach. As the first initiative to tackle food waste and loss systemically, YieldWise is working with private, public, and nonprofit actors across the supply chain – from the world’s largest multinational corporations to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Foundation-funded initiatives are addressing everything from how farmers grow and store their crops, to how global corporations account for food waste and loss, to how consumers understand and can change their own habits.
While work has been ongoing globally to support the SDG regarding food loss and waste – particularly in Europe, where some countries have made substantial progress – the U.S. is just beginning its journey, with many questions about how we will collectively achieve this monumental target.
Six months ago, ReFED (Rethink Food Waste), a multi-stakeholder collaboration of more than 30 leaders representing businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and government, presented a clear answer with the release of . The report, which provided the most comprehensive analysis of U.S. food waste to date, revealed that the country wastes 63 million tons of food, at a cost of $218 billion, every year. As a core funder and strategic partner of ReFED, The Rockefeller Foundation supported these efforts by bringing its global learnings to the U.S. To drive true systemic change on this issue, the Foundation and ReFED are working to create more coordination among food system actors, to highlight and showcase that food waste is an untapped asset, and to encourage policy, technology, and business mechanisms that will help realize the value of the food we waste.
Even with the challenges inherent in effecting systemic change, the Roadmap offered reason for great optimism; through rigorous, data-driven analysis of the food waste problem, the report identified 27 cost-effective, scalable solutions that could be implemented immediately. Collectively, these solutions would be capable of reducing food waste by 20% within a decade, generating $100 billion in economic value, creating 15,000 new jobs, and putting the U.S. on track to meet its 2030 goal.
In the year since the USDA-EPA announcement, significant progress has been made toward achieving the goal, including these notable milestones:
- ReFED itself constituted an unprecedented collaboration of truly diverse stakeholders in the food waste arena; the Roadmap was created with expert input from an advisory council comprised of leaders in food retail, food production, philanthropy, advocacy, and government.
- ReFED and The Rockefeller Foundation partnered with OpenIDEO on a Food Waste Challenge, which uses crowdsourcing to uncover big ideas with the potential to dramatically cut waste globally. The Foundation will work with IDEO to take the winning ideas from concept to reality.
- Together with the Ad Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a strategic advisor to the Roadmap, launched Save The Food (savethefood.com), a massive national media campaign designed to raise public awareness about food waste, and to provide consumers with ways to reduce their own waste. A grant from The Rockefeller Foundation is also helping the NRDC work in three U.S. cities to understand specifically how and where waste happens – including digging through trash bins to understand what’s really being tossed to the curb.
- This effort will provide critical data to cities that signed on to a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution to strengthen food waste reduction initiatives within cities. The resolution was co-authored with ReFED and the Closed Loop Fund using insights from the Roadmap to highlight priority actions that will increase financing, partnerships, and innovation to cut city-level food waste in half.
- Leaders in food retail, government, research, and advocacy have joined to collaboratively work with ReFED toward implementation of standardized food date labeling, which was identified by the Roadmap as one of the most cost-effective solutions to the problem. This is the first effort of its kind, bringing together all relevant stakeholders to reach consensus and accelerate impact in 2017 – 2018.
- This work complements the efforts of Feedback Global, who have expanded their campaigns to the U.S. this year with the support of The Rockefeller Foundation. Through their Feeding the 5000 events, Feedback has been working to raise awareness on wasted food in cities across the U.S., including NYC, DC, Denver, and Portland, ME, as well as encourage local retailers to shift practices that result in food waste, such as date labeling and aesthetic standards for produce.
Eliminating roughly 32 million tons of food waste annually depends on the ongoing commitment of a diversity of stakeholders. We invite leaders within industry, government, philanthropy, and advocacy to join with us and continue to support solutions capable of reducing food waste at scale. Specifically, in the next year we hope to accomplish:
- The start of a cultural shift where people see food waste as unacceptable and are empowered to do something about it.
- Industry leaders across the food supply chain beginning or increasing efforts to reduce food waste, including measuring and tracking their food waste internally.
- Implementation of zero-waste initiatives in cities across the country.
- Adoption of standardized date labels in the food sector.
- Entry of new foundations and investors dedicating resources toward reducing wasted food.
- Social enterprise and entrepreneurs creating value from wasted food in novel and innovative ways.
We look forward to a day when we can return to telling stories about the food we eat. Until then, we’ll continue to tell stories about the food we don’t eat – because few problems are as solvable as this one, and with multiple benefits. Reducing food waste is good for the environment, it’s good for food security, and it can grow the economy, too. It’s also not that hard to do, if we all commit to change.