By Carrie Staller, Director of Customer Acquisition, REV
When was the last time you threw away some food, whether it was leftovers from a restaurant, some produce you couldn’t eat fast enough before it turned, or that bag of who-knows-what you just rediscovered in your fridge? If you’re like most people, you’re buying more than $550 of food a year that you end up not eating. Jonathan Bloom, food waste expert, calculated that the average family of four wastes about $2100 a year on food they purchase but don’t eat. You can stop wasting money on food you won’t eat this holiday season by developing new perspectives, habits and networks, and these shifts start by understanding why food waste happens.
WHY WE WASTE
Why are we throwing away so much food? At the household level, visibility is the biggest issue. Somehow, when food goes inside our fridges, it magically becomes invisible and doesn’t reappear until it has gone bad or we leave it uneaten until it’s good and moldy, so we can feel less guilty about throwing it out.
Another reason people waste food is lack of education around food safety. We no longer trust our own eyes and noses. We’re used to relying on dates on packaging to tell us when something is good or not. Those dates are actually “sell by” dates, not “consume by” dates, and they have confused a lot of people.
Also, we are so busy and our lives are so unpredictable that we don’t know how to plan our meals, and we buy more than can realistically consume.
So when you throw away food, what goes through your mind?
Most likely one of these thoughts:
Economic: “I hate wasting food! It’s a waste of money.”
Ethical: “I hate wasting food! It’s wrong and I feel guilty.”
Environmental: “I hate wasting food! It’s hurting the environment.”
ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMIC IMPACTS OF FOOD WASTE
Yes, food waste is also an environmental issue. Jonathan Bloom writes in his book American Wasteland that Americans throw away almost half the food we grow—that’s 160 billion pounds of discarded food annually. If you’re like 97.5 % of Americans, your discarded food ends up in landfills, where it slowly converts to methane gas, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Also, growing food takes energy. We’re not just wasting food, we’re wasting gas on transportation and powering farm equipment, in addition to labor, and time. For animal products, we’re more than doubling our waste because of resources spent on growing and transporting feed, in addition to the finished meat products. And of course we’re all hyper-aware that California is in a major drought and that wasted food means wasted water.
WHO IS AT FAULT?
Households aren’t the only problem. They account for about 40% of food waste. Anthropologist Timothy Jones calculated the combined food waste from our homes, grocery stores, restaurants and farms comes out to more than 100 billion wasted dollars a year in the United States. All of these points on the food distribution and production chain have food loss. But food loss is different than food waste. Bloom explains that food loss on farms can happen from harsh weather, disease, pests, spoilage in storage, and mechanical mishaps. Unfortunately, a lot of food never makes it off the farm because of market pressures, meaning the cost to harvest is greater than the price buyers will pay. Sometimes there are labor shortages, and food gets left in the field because there aren’t enough hands to pick it.
Our obsession with beauty doesn’t help either. If a piece of produce isn’t the right size, shape or color, it doesn’t get picked. Last week, the New York Times promoted Imperfect Produce, a Bay Area startup that is creating a market for “ugly” produce with a delivery service CSA model to homes and businesses for a fraction of the price of beautiful or “normal” produce.
For the lucky food that does make it to grocery stores, there are yet more issues. Boxes of produce are randomly inspected at grocery store receiving docks for size, shape, color, temperature, spots, softness, ripeness, worms, and other damages. If any of these problems are noticed whole truckloads of food can be turned away and rerouted to landfills.
Food also ends up in the trash daily because it has reached its sell-by date, even though it is still perfectly edible. A growing movement of dumpster divers recover small amounts of food from grocery stores’ dumpsters, but the number of people engaging in this or more conventional food recovery behaviors like volunteering to pick up food and take it to food pantries makes a minimal dent in the problem.
Restaurants also struggle with food waste. In 2013, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), in partnership with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance conducted a study of restaurants that found a loss of 3.3 pounds of food waste per $1,000 of company revenue because of a combination of challenges in inventory management, and food left on plates by consumers.
REDUCING FOOD WASTE SAVES MONEY
Depending on what industry you work in, addressing food waste at the grocery store, restaurant or farm level may seem overwhelming. The good news is, there is a lot of opportunity to do better at the household and office level which may feel more within reach.
Many years ago, I worked in a grocery store bakery and was shocked that we threw away bags and bags of breads every day. When I asked why, I was told that it was less expensive to make extra bread and throw it away, than it was to not have enough to meet consumer demand. I know now that for a business, food waste can be looked at as an opportunity to save money, reduce GHGs and give back to the local community, and the biggest barrier is that many organizations simply lack the knowledge to create food waste diversion processes.
How can reducing food waste become a cost savings initiative for a business? Anyone who has worked on the waste side of a business knows that it costs money to have trash hauled away. Food is particularly heavy and therefore costly waste because it contains water. Reducing food waste reduces waste removal fees.
WHAT YOU CAN DO AT WORK
The first step to stop food from ending up in the landfill at work is to set up a waste station that offers composting, trash and recycling. Begin by clearly label has all three bins, and place them right next to each other so no one has to hunt down the right bin. Better yet, take photos of what goes in which bin. Finally, the very best signage has actual objects that are regularly in your waste stream neatly attached, taking out the guess work.
The second step to reducing business food waste is to establish a baseline. The EPA has created this helpful guide to undertaking a food waste assessment and also the Food Recovery Hierarchy to help determine what to do with the food waste your business may have. Source reduction, the preferred strategy for food waste reduction, provides cost savings by better managing inventory and only buying what is actually needed to feed employees.
California has a higher poverty rate than any other state at 23.8%, according to the 2014 US Census. And according to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, including more than 15 million children. An organization can enjoy the savings from tax deductions from donating unused food to local food charities, which also supports rapport and trust building with the community.
One common barrier to this strategy is the perception about food safety liability issues. However, the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, protects businesses that donate food to charities. Feeding America has put together a great list of food banks and you can discuss concerns and opportunities with local partners. Other common barriers you may need to overcome are transportation constraints, limited storage capacity and lack of on-site refrigeration.
Building a network of partners and resources can help your business decide what approach is best. Consider resources like local municipalities, waste management, organizations like Food Waste Reduction Alliance, non-profits that are working to end hunger like Feeding America or Food Not Bombs or the Food Recovery Network who helps recover edible food and redirect it to hungry people and organizes an annual food waste conference.
Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appétit, a Bay Area based corporate food-service company operating in 33 states, has been “fighting food waste for a long time” and co-founded the certification Food Recovery Network who helps recover edible food and redirect it to hungry people and organizes an annual food waste conference.
For smaller businesses, partnering with other neighborhood businesses may allow commercial composting programs to become accessible.
Looking at landfill as a last resort for food waste dovetails nicely with a GHG emission reduction initiative. Because food converts to methane gas in the landfill, keeping it out of the landfill actually decreases GHG emissions for your business.
16 TIPS TO REDUCE WASTE
Reducing food waste at work provides an opportunity to meet corporate objectives, and reducing food waste at home provides an opportunity to align around shared values and save money. Here is a summary of tips for how to reduce food waste at work and at home:
- Set up a waste station in your cafeteria or break room with clearly label bins with photographs and regularly used objects.
- Understand your business’s objectives and consider how food waste fits in to meeting those objectives.
- Understand your city’s composting regulations. San Francisco was the first city to instate mandatory composting, and other cities have followed.
- Establish a baseline of how much food waste you have today and from what sources.
- If you have a corporate food service program, identify possibilities to improve inventory management.
- Find partners who can support you to reduce food waste.
- Engage employees who are passionate about this low hanging fruit sustainability issue, everyone loves food!
- Establish goals for food waste reduction as part of GHG reduction goals.
- Support more farmers to reduce their food waste by buying at farmers markets, and better yet, buy their funny looking produce!
- Grow your own garden so you can portion to your daily needs, and share your excess with your neighbors.
- Volunteer to pick up food waste from grocery stores for local food banks and nonprofits.
- If you live outside an area that offers citywide composting, compost in your yard.
- Be mindful of how much food you are buying, and plan your meals realistically. Shop with your schedule in mind: When will you eat out/be home?
- When you eat out, take your leftovers home.
- When you cook, save your leftovers. Make them into soup stocks and reinvented dishes.
- And finally, trust your eyes and nose and eat your leftovers! Or, there’s an app for that: share them with a neighbor using Leftover Swap!
Bon appétit and happy holidays from REV!
Carrie Staller is part of REV’s marketing team. She lives in Berkeley and has an MBA in sustainable business management from Presidio Graduate School. When not thinking about how to solve business sustainability issues, Carrie enjoys African drumming and dancing.