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Fighting Food Waste in America’s Cities

Dana Gunders — Former Senior Scientist, Food & Agriculture Program, NRDC

A year or so ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, set out to undertake first-of-its-kind research to better understand wasted food in cities. Why? Because 40 percent of food in this country is never eaten—wasting massive amounts of water, energy, land and other resources—yet 41 million people don’t have enough. And that makes no sense.

This paradox exists in every city across the country, but cities—as major population centers—are also uniquely positioned to drive change. We saw this when 350 mayors across the U.S. committed to upholding the Paris Accord in their cities after the federal government pulled out of it. And we see the same opportunity for these resilient cities to lead the charge toward sustainable food goals, too.

Today, we are excited to share the results of our research, which provides a critical first step that can help cities get started.

Our research—compiled in two reports—explores the extent of wasted food within cities, as well as the opportunities to boost donation of surplus food to people in need. The results provide local insights, but also trends that can help cities nationwide better understand the issues.

For our first report, we wanted to learn what, and how much, food was going to waste in American cities, using Nashville, Denver, and New York City as our test cases. Among other things, we found that an average of 3.5 pounds of food per person was wasted at home every week in all three cities. That’s equal to a day’s worth of meals per person per week. Even worse, two-thirds (68 percent) of that was potentially edible. Across the three cities, households and restaurants/caterers are the two sectors generating the most wasted food with other substantial contributors including food wholesalers and distributors, food manufacturing and processing, grocers and markets, and hospitality.

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A survey of households accompanying that report also shed light on why this is happening—identifying a significant perception gap among consumers. More than half (57 percent) indicated that they think their actions make a meaningful difference in reducing the amount of food going to waste, yet 76 percent believe they already throw out less food than the average American.

These findings suggest that consumers want to do the right thing, but they don’t know that they have a problem. Raising awareness about the amount of food wasted by city residents, and providing them with more tips and tools to reduce this waste—from meal planning to shopping, storage and creative recipes—can go a long way. NRDC, together with the Ad Council, is currently in the midst of a national public service campaign called Save The Food that seeks to empower consumers with just that kind of information.

Up to 68 million additional meals could be donated annually to citizens in need.

In the second report we’re releasing today, NRDC examined how much surplus food from consumer-facing businesses could be redirected to citizens in need—instead of sent to landfill. We found that up to 68 million additional meals annually could be donated across the three study cities alone. Grocery stores demonstrated the largest untapped potential for increased food donation among the sectors reviewed, mainly through expanded donation of nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and deli items. Institutions like hotels, healthcare, universities and K-12 schools also have strong potential, followed by restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses.

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To demonstrate to cities that tackling these problems is achievable, alongside the reports we also compiled a collection of case studies from around the country, showcasing government agencies, nonprofits and private companies using innovative ways to address hunger and/or reduce waste—sometimes while creating jobs and career development opportunities for low-income and at-risk individuals at the same time.

Nashville, Denver, and New York City are now equipped with powerful tools to both reduce the amount of edible food that is discarded and to redirect that food to the people in their communities who need it most. With this information, these cities can more effectively work across agencies to tackle these universal food challenges.

We hope these lessons catalyze action, and that cities across the country will join them.

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