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ReFED: The Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste

Monica Munn — Former Senior Program Associate, Program Strategy, The Rockefeller Foundation


In the US, 63 million tons of food goes to waste every year, which represents $218 billion spent on growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten. And reducing this food waste could avoid nearly 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Unlike in sub-Saharan Africa, where food loss occurs primarily on farms and as produce travels to markets, in the US, 83 percent of all food waste occurs in homes or at consumer-facing businesses, such as grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants.

Waste in the US
63 Million Tons Food Waste

Earlier this month, I joined the launch of The Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste, a new report released by ReFED—a collaboration of over 30 business, nonprofit, and government leaders—containing guidance and practical solutions for foundations, investors, businesses, governments, and farmers to achieve a 20 percent reduction in food waste(or 13 million tons) in the United States by 2030.

“In the case of food waste, implementing waste tracking and analytics tools in restaurants, foodservice, and hospitality has the potential to divert 571,000 tons of food that goes to waste.”

As part of Rockefeller’s YieldWise initiative, we’re supporting organizations and projects that will reduce consumer and retail food waste in the US, and shift consumer behavior and corporate practices that result in food loss and waste in farms, homes, and businesses around the world, including Sub-Saharan Africa.

Twenty-seven priority solutions to prevent, recover, and recycle food waste were highlighted in the roadmap and at the event, ranging from composting and anaerobic digestion, to consumer education campaigns and standardized food donation regulation. Panels at the event went deeper on a few core, cross-cutting issues—leadership, innovation, and access to financing—that will need engagement from private, public, and investor stakeholders in order to successfully implement the solutions ReFED identified.

Source: ReFED. Economic value per ton diverted is the aggregate financial benefit to society (consumers, businesses, governments, and other stakeholders) minus all investment and costs per ton of food waste diverted. If you want to see more analyses, including the water saved, emissions reduced, and jobs created by each solution, check out ReFED’s site.

I was struck by many ideas and potential solutions discussed through the day, such as:

  • As the old axiom goes, “what gets measured, gets managed.” In the case of food waste, implementing waste tracking and analytics tools in restaurants, foodservice, and hospitality has the potential to divert 571,000 tons of food that goes to waste. Rolling out waste tracking tools can provide these businesses with the data on wasteful practices, reveal financial impact waste has on their bottom-line, and inform behavior and operational changes to reduce waste.
  • Local government can play a critical role in reducing food waste. Cities are uniquely positioned and incentivized to directly intervene in food waste “hotspots” given the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, and reduce municipal waste management costs. City-driven solutions include incentivizing prevention in retail businesses, supporting food recovery to address food insecurity, and investing in centralized composting and anaerobic digestion. Several of our 100 Resilient Cities, such as New York City and San Francisco, have already set ambitious waste reduction targets and put in place innovative programs and ordinances to prevent, recover, and recycle food waste within their city limits. However, many projects, such as building new food to energy facilities, are capital intensive and will require support from federal, private, and philanthropic capital, in addition to funding from municipal bonds, debt, or public-private partnerships.
  • Detailed consumer research can unearth insights on how much food waste is occurring in different types of households and help us better understand what is driving this waste—be it confusion over date labels on a carton of milk or buying packages of lettuce that are too large to finish in a week. This data can be used to inform the next general consumer products, packaging, appliances, and more that maximize shelf life and help consumers waste less food. ReFED estimates that adjusting packaging size and design alone could result in 208,000 tons of diverted food waste.
  • Creative partnerships between corporates and nonprofits can help bring these 27 solutions to scale. Beyond accessing the private sector’s capital, we should consider how other assets, such as operational infrastructure, technical expertise, and influence, can be leveraged. These types of partnerships are already emerging. Feeding America facilitated a collaboration between ProPak Farmers, the Food Bank of South Jersey, and Campbell’s, which has resulted in $250,000 in proceeds for the Food Bank from the sales of Campbell’s “Just Peachy” salsa. The salsa is made from peaches that were being left in ProPak’s fields. Campbell’s “donated” its facilities, manufacturing expertise and employee time, and packaging to convert this produce into a product that could support the Food Bank’s hunger relief programs and divert food waste.

These are just a few ideas that the roadmap has sparked for us and we’re excited to continue exploring these and other solutions to address US food waste, including supporting pilots to show that adoption of food loss and waste metrics can drive behavior change; or that by giving farmers, retailers, or consumers access to certain technologies, less food is wasted. Stay tuned here as we launch more of these kinds of pilots to see the long-term value proposition to the market and to catalyze widespread change.

Read the Report

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