ReFED’s Roadmap: 27 Solutions to Solving the U.S. Food Waste Problem
by Emily Summerlin @etsummer
In early March, the release of ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste brought together a diverse audience at Stanford University to celebrate the launch of the report and discuss solutions to the country’s prevalent wasted food issue. Foodstand ambassadors Emily Summerlin (@etsummmer) and Jenna Zimmerman (@jrzimmer) were in attendance and share their experience.
The United States “spends $218 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP, growing, processing, and transporting food that is never eaten.” Put simply by Sam Kass, NBC’s Senior Food Analyst, “that is insane.”
In addition to the huge economic costs this problem incurs for the country, this is tragic not only in the sense that one in seven Americans are food insecure, but also in that this wasted food emits a harmful stream of greenhouse gases as it decomposes in the landfill, further contributing to global climate change. It is incomprehensible that this issue, so monstrous and detrimental to our economy and human and environmental health, has only recently emerged into the mainstream spotlight and found its way into the consciousness of American eaters, largely thanks to a segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight last summer.
Fortunately, this momentum has come at a perfect time, coordinating with the recent release of ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste, a comprehensive report laying out the plan to reduce the country’s food waste by 20% through a number of feasible, cost-effective, and scalable solutions. The report boasts a new approach to looking at the food waste issue, being the first comprehensive report to examine the food waste problem and lay out solutions using economics and data analysis.
In early March, fellow Foodstand ambassador Jenna Zimmerman and myself were lucky enough to join the folks behind the ReFED report as well as a number of other good food professionals and innovators at Stanford University on the day of the report’s launch. The half-day summit was a gathering of around 150 individuals from diverse backgrounds—farmers, chefs, policymakers, entrepreneurs, students, etc.—all in attendance to find a way forward to put an end to the food waste debacle. The joke was made several times that it felt like we were at a family wedding, not solely due to the intimate seating arrangements, but because the mood in the room was light and celebratory. We were coming together to send this revolutionary report out into the world.
A number of speakers and panelists took the stage to cover the basics of the strategy and actions the report lays out, which are organized under the four pillars of education, policy, innovation, and financing. After a welcome and opening remarks from ReFED, Sam Kass gave a brief address in which he laid out the problem of food waste, and made the remark mentioned above addressing the complete absurdity of this issue. However, he finished up with the inspiring statement that with the publication of the report, “We now have momentum which is the most important thing. Once you have momentum, everything is possible”.
Several panels followed throughout the afternoon, giving insight into the possibilities behind each of the proposed solution areas. Without getting too into the weeds, the bottom line finding after the extensive research and modeling that went into the creation of the report is that “an $18 billion investment in 27 solutions to reduce US food waste by 20% will yield $100 billion in net societal economic value over a decade,” a figure that includes tons of food recovered, gallons of water saved, business profit, consumer savings, tons of greenhouse gas emissions reduced, and jobs created.
One key image the presentations kept returning to was a curve laying out 27 solutions ranked by their potential impact vs. cost in three categories: prevention, recovery, and recycling. The solutions that came out on top for greatest economic value per ton were: standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns, and packaging adjustments; while the solutions with most diversion potential were: centralized composting, centralized anaerobic digestion, and water resources recovery facilities with anaerobic digestion. While the solutions with most diversion potential do require a large amount of planning and capital investment, something that ReFED accounted for in their economic analysis and section on financing, the diversion that will come from consumer education campaigns is not insubstantial.
What does this mean? It means that as individuals, we can take action right now and make a huge difference. At present, 43% of food waste occurs in homes, which equals 27 million tons of food wasted each year. Hopefully, with the release of this report, date labeling laws and consumer education campaigns will begin rolling out soon (proposed legislation on expiration labels is already popping up in San Francisco), but right now it is in the consumer’s hands to educate ourselves and do everything we can to reduce food waste in our own lives.
The first step in doing this is to change our attitudes about food waste, and think instead in terms of wasted food. The word “waste” implies something old, useless, and without value, but the 63 million tons of food being wasted in the U.S. is perfectly edible, nourishing, and delicious. There are numerous resources where you can find tips on smarter grocery shopping and how to cook with parts of fruits and vegetables you normally wouldn’t utilize. Additionally, look for organizations in your area that focus on fighting food waste through food recovery, either through saving “ugly” produce from rotting in the field or by facilitating donations to food banks. Acting on these individual solutions will enable us to in turn scale up the solutions as a society and touch on the three pillars of the solution that ReFED lays out beyond education: policy, innovation, and financing.
I walked away from the ReFED summit feeling truly inspired not only by the hard work put in by the team on the report itself, but also by the stories and thoughts of all the stakeholders seated in the room around me. The collaborative nature of the production of this roadmap, which boasts a list of nearly 100 contributors from backgrounds as varied as the USDA to Walmart, drove home the point that this is a truly pervasive issue that not only affects every person in our country on multiple levels, but on the positive side presents numerous areas for improvement.