Under the Tent with Food Waste Innovators

Under the Tent with Food Waste Innovators

US Food Waste Summit and Innovator Workshop, June 25-27, 2018, Harvard Law School

Co-hosted by Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic & ReFed

With the $218 billion-dollar issue of food waste becoming a global priority, entrepreneurs, businesses, funders and policymakers around the world have taken notice. This has resulted in an exciting increase in innovative products and services that are turning wasted food into jobs, hunger relief, and environmental stewardship.

The Innovator Workshop and US Food Waste Summit brought together food business innovators and leaders, funders, and policy makers from across the country, in addition to strategic leaders from Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Japan. Connections were made between innovators and funders in order to propel the next level of investment in food waste solutions, both for-profit and non-profit.

Stewarding the Save The Food San Diego initiative in San Diego, our team from the San Diego Food System Alliance was particularly interested in creative solutions and collaborative opportunities for food waste source reduction, wholesome food recovery, and engaging consumer education.  

Chad Frischmann of Project Drawdown shared some powerful strategies out of the 100 identified solutions to reverse global warming by 2015. Eight (8) of the top 20 emissions-reducing solutions are actually food system related! And number three (3) is “source reduction of food waste”! Many people think of clean energy as having the most dramatic impact, but solar farms and rooftop solar are numbers 8 and 10, while geothermal and nuclear power are numbers 18 and 20.  Frischmann asserts that we need to employ all 100 of these strategies, but many people in the general public may be surprised at how relevant and impactful our work in food waste reduction actually is to the health of the planet.

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Just to put this in perspective – reducing food waste around the world has the potential to reduce over 70 GT of CO2e, which translates to providing clean electricity to over 10,500,000,000 average homes in the U.S. or taking over 15,000,000,000 passenger vehicles off the road. That is a lot of impact!

Measurement of food waste

Measurement of food waste is key to understanding how best to innovate new models of food recovery, and how to develop and implement federal and regional food waste policy. Kai Robertson, of the World Resources Institute, stated that “measurement is a journey”. Organizations should start tracking wherever they are in their own journey, but manual tracking only works to a point. It is important to “prove accuracy over time” and clearly state the sources of insecurity in the data for transparency.

Alison Grantham, of Blue Apron, is using procurement and sales data to identify and understand food loss in their production model. Beyond reducing food loss in their own business, Blue Apron may have the potential to reduce food loss at home by providing exact quantities of ingredients needed for their recipes, delivered to your door. In their model, they provide busy people and aspiring cooks the tools and ingredients they need to eat healthful and delicious meals prepared at home.

Nell Fry, of Sodexo, stresses the importance of communication with their contracted food services sites around food waste reduction opportunities. At Sodexo they encourage all sites to utilize the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge (FRC) resources, and are preparing to roll out more robust, data-driven food waste tracking at qualifying sites with LeanPath food waste tracking systems.

At the Alliance we are also utilizing LeanPath food waste reduction systems in our Smart Kitchens San Diego initiative. Andrew Shakman of LeanPath shared that making tracking a “daily practice” becomes a tool for efficiency and “management depth”. When we measure what food is disposed and why, we can make more informed upstream decisions to reduce both cost and waste.

Influencing consumer behavior

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Dana Gunders, of Next Course, LLC, and previously with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), clearly understands why we need to scale this conversation to the consumer. Consumers are “the largest contributor” to food waste. In addition, “convenience is king, and wasting less is not always convenient.” So how can we make it easier? Gunders asserts that “now is the right time to connect the dots and get things done”. Many solutions have already been identified, and food waste reduction has become a core pillar in sustainable food programs.

Aubrey Allison, a contributor at PBS NewsHour, points out that on a personal level we sometimes waste food because of “our expectations and habits”. Her personal ah-ha moment happened in the California Salinas Valley. A farmer there explained to her that an entire area of the cauliflower field in front of them, a very large portion, would not be sold, that no U.S. market would buy it. Because of its location in the field, the top leaf had blown off the plant and caused the cauliflower to yellow. The food was fine, just a bit yellowed in color from exposure to the sun. She knew then that our expectations as consumers contributes to this very large problem of wasted food, and that we can solve it!

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JoAnne Berkencamp, with NRDC, leads the Save The Food campaign, a partnership with NRDC and Ad Council. NRDC research shows some of the reasons why consumers waste food. A lot of food waste happens out of good intentions around eating in a more healthful manner or providing for those we love. There is also a lot of confusion about how to store foods and what date labels actually mean for food safety. Understanding the root causes of food waste at home helps us to develop messaging and resources that will be well received. One of the lessons learned is that “blame is NOT a motivator.”

Laura Moreno, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley has been collecting data to track this “social phenomenon” of household food waste. She is finding that we sometimes make “perceived choices”, i.e. using how food looks “as a proxy” for how good it actually is. She also finds that we feel “guilt alleviation” because of our “perceived benefit” of wasting foods, i.e. "to keep our family healthy we buy more produce than we may be able to use". Moreno asserts that people want impactful food waste reduction messaging where they are thinking about it, i.e. at the grocery store while shopping.

Jonathan Deutsch, of Drexel University, recounts the age-old food safety mantra, “when in doubt, throw it out” as one reasons behind food waste. He recommends being creative in using all parts of your food, because “it’s all food”. He also recommends considering “equity” when speaking about food recovery, i.e. NOT using phrases like “food waste to feed people”, and moving beyond awareness building to sharing solutions and creating demand, positioning retailers as “consumer educators”.

Food waste policy

By overwhelming consensus at the US Food Waste Summit, we need informed policy to successfully incentivize innovation and address food waste.

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Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Congressman David Young (R-IA) launched a bipartisan House Food Waste Caucus to explore opportunities to reduce food waste. They both felt strongly enough about the issue to record a message to the Summit attendees, encouraging each of us to reach out to our own representatives to encourage them to join this bipartisan group of national legislators, too.

The final version of the federal 2018 Farm Bill may include provisions such as a Food Waste liaison at USDA, a milk donation program, research on specialty crops and extending shelf life, local foods, composting, and funding for food waste prevention.

Kevin Smith of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formed a committee with other stakeholders at the Conference for Food Protection in April to add language to the FDA Food Code that outlines prevention-based standards and strategies to reduce food waste, and provide guidance on safe food donation and procedures.

States and local departments of environmental health typically adopt and/or adapt the Food Code. The state of Texas already has a comprehensive food safety in food donation rule, which includes temperature, packaging, labeling, and shelf life. The state of Vermont Department of Health published a comprehensive “Guidance for Food Donation”.

In the State of Massachusetts, thoughtful design and implementation of a food waste ban to landfill resulted in striking economic success with over $175 million in economic activity and supporting over 900 jobs in the community.

The State of Oregon via its commitment to Champions 12.3 and 2050 Vision has made formal commitments to “reduce the generation of wasted food” and will be publishing supporting research later this year, according to Ashley Zanolli, of the Oregon Department of Environmental Protection.

Innovation in food recovery

Innovators in the food recovery space are looking beyond silo’d solutions, to how upstream solutions and policy can address food waste source reduction and at the same time job creation to target poverty as a root cause of hunger.


But food recovery is not as easy as it seems. Steve Dietz, of Food Donation Connection, asks “how hard is it to give away free food? It’s damn hard!” Food Donation Connection  has been operating for 26 years and has facilitated 1 billion pounds of donated food working with 22,000 donors and 14,000 food recovery organizations across the U.S.

Whole Foods partners with Food Donation Connection across the regions where they operate stores, bake houses, and processing facilities, averaging about 1 ton of donated food per week per store. Karen Franczyk, from the North Atlantic Region, shared successful program components such as streamlined, consistent donation processes, and department-specific staff engagement.  

CommonWealth Kitchen operates as a food business incubator, but also provides culinary skills training and food processing. The 412 model of alternative food rescue is unique in that they develop food distribution within an existing network, taking rescued food to where people live, work, and learn.

Planetarians utilize protein and fiber from defatted seeds to make healthful, sustainable, plant-based foods. Defatted seeds are the dry matter left after oils are extracted from crops such as sunflower seeds, cotton seeds, canola, etc. ReGrained rescues the nutritious grain created during beer production. Brewing beer processes the sugar out of the grain, leaving protein, fiber, and “a whole bunch of micronutrients” to make delicious and nutritious “SuperGrain bars”.

At Harvard University Dining Services. they serve 25,000 meals per day. Crista Martin and her team been working on both source reduction and donation for years. They understand the importance of comprehensive measurement, as well as student and staff engagement. They continually work to reduce food waste in the first place, achieving a low rate of 1.5 oz. of waste per meal. But there is still excess food that can be recovered. Some students are even involved in preparing excess food for donation for their local non-profit partner, Food For Free, in a manner that provides “a meal with dignity”.  

ProduceGood, one of our Alliance members, is a gleaning organization that uses food recovery to empower community volunteerism. Since the incubation of their first grassroots program in 2010, they have blossomed into a thriving organization of 600+ volunteers who have rescued 240,000 lbs. of produce, or 720,000 servings of fresh, healthy food distributed to food insecure individuals.

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Another Alliance member, Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, works to mobilize the local community through innovative outreach, and consulting services to businesses and jurisdictions on food waste diversion and composting. Each year Solana Center reaches tens of thousands of San Diego County residents through its environmental education and community programs.

One of the innovative partner we are working with at the Alliance, Replate is helping to pilot test “willingness to pay” and tech applications for food donation pick up. Over the past two years Replate has recovered more than a million meals using their tech platform to match food donors with communities in need. They have a unique non-profit model that allows them to generate revenue and create jobs via fee for service, monthly subscriptions and licensing their technology.

Another partner working with us at the Alliance on piloting innovative solutions in the San Diego region is FoodRescueUS, who connects volunteer drivers for food recovery. We are piloting their volunteer driver platform with the San Diego Food Bank in parts of the county where there are not enough volunteer food recovery drivers to meet the demand from food donors.

Food Recovery Network (FRN) is the largest student movement against food waste and hunger in America, with 235 Chapters operating on university campuses. Regina Northhouse has expanded student engagement to include FRN Alumni leadership and empower more students around food recovery via their interest in environmental and social issues. FRN is also utilizing Save The Food assets to share tips, tricks, and recipes to reduce food waste.

K-12 schools are also innovating on food waste source reduction and donation. Nancy Deming from Oakland Unified School District has collaborated regionally and across the nation to share best practice and lessons learned. They also shared a their school district food donation guide on the Center for Food Loss and Waste Solutions’ Further With Food website.

Working with food businesses to manage unsold inventory is an upstream, business intelligence solution offered by Spoiler Alert. This technology allows food distributors, manufacturers, and retailer stores to get a better handle on their food recovery and waste diversion efforts, as well as creating a marketplace that facilitates real-time food donations, salvage sales, and organics recycling.

By joining together and learning from one another we can reach our national goal of cutting food loss and waste in the United States in half by 2030.

Moving forward

In the next few years we should expect to see both legal and policy barriers and opportunities, creative opportunities and partnerships for accessing capital, measuring impact, and mitigating unintended consequences of food waste reduction work---as well as a continued and more robust effort in fostering consumer behavior change.

Jesse Fink, of The Fink Family Foundation, and a driving force behind ReFed, spoke of the beginnings of this work and creating a “tent” for collaboration. We were in that expanded tent during the US Food Waste Summit and Innovator Workshop. We plan to continue to invite others to join this gathering under the tent, and remain open and inviting to new ideas and opportunities to reduce food waste, feed hungry people, and collaboratively address the root causes of hunger.

We have a big job ahead of us. We must embrace coordination and collaboration to scale for impact. As we move forward we will use food waste as a vehicle to address environment and nutrition. We will expand upon our place-based work as we clearly demonstrate our impact with relevant metrics and outcomes.

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Post by Barbara Hamilton, Director of Strategic Initiatives