Could This Be the Food-Waste Diet America Needs?

A new ‘road map’ would reduce what we throw away by 20 percent over a decade.
(Photo: Paul Mansfield/Getty Images)
Mar 10, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

By this point, you’ve probably heard about the problem: The United States wastes a huge amount of food, as much as $165 billion worth of it every year, or 40 percent of what is produced. In recent years, the issue has received increased attention from environmentalists, the media, and even President Obama, who set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. The question, however, is how do we get there? Some countries, such as Denmark, have made great strides—but there are deep-seated business practices and cultural attitudes toward food in the U.S. that make eating anything that could be categorized as trash, for example, difficult to sell.

Now, a new report published by the coalition of business, public health, and environmental groups called ReFED is proposing a food-waste diet for the country. The ambitious proposal would cut waste by 20 percent over a decade—and save consumers $6 billion annually.

ReFED lays out 27 solutions across the food chain, which would result in 1.8 billion meals recovered and 1.6 trillion gallons of water saved. The various means of conservation are wide ranging—from packaging innovations to changes in the cold chain—but the Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes prevention first, followed by recovery, and finally recycling. In other words, the goal is not to compost all of the $218 billion worth of food thrown away in the U.S. annually—it’s to have drastically less food that needs to be recycled in some manner.

The bulk of food waste occurs on the home front: American households throw out $144 billion worth of fruits, vegetables, and other items annually. Solutions outlined in the road map, such as standardized date labeling and consumer education efforts, have by far the highest “economic value per ton,” or bang for your buck. Misunderstanding of sell-by labels—which address quality and are set by the manufacturers and have nothing to do with food safety—results in 20 percent of the food wasted by consumers.

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“Changes to date labels require little upfront investment from businesses and can be enacted unilaterally by large food companies to reduce consumer confusion,” the report reads. “The best path forward is for a voluntary agreement of manufacturers to implement consistent language.”

The plan would cost $18 billion, according to the report: $8 billion in government support, $7 billion in private investment, and $3 billion in donations. That’s a pretty penny—and it would only result in a 20 percent reduction in food waste over 10 years, far less than the 50 percent goal the president hopes to achieve by 2030. But ReFED notes that the price tag is “less than a tenth of a penny of investment per pound of food waste reduced” and saves $5.6 billion annually by cutting back on food that’s purchased and goes uneaten.

Hitting Obama’s goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030 will take an all-hands approach, Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a contributor to the report, wrote on the NRDC blog. Policy changes, business changes, and cultural changes will all be necessary. “Nevertheless, the Roadmap gives us an excellent place to start,” she writes. “It shows that the president’s food waste goals are not only achievable, but meeting them will save billions of dollars every year. When we waste food, we waste all of the resources it takes to bring it to our plates—from money to farmland, energy and water.”

The report comes on the heels of news that both Whole Foods and Giant Eagle, a discount grocery chain based in Pennsylvania, will start small pilot programs selling “ugly” fruits and vegetables at a markdown.

“I think it’s really positive, because these are our first two big, large grocers who have tried it,” said Jordan Figueiredo, who runs the “Ugly Fruit and Veg” campaign, which has mounted a number of successful petitions around the issue—including one calling on Whole Foods to take up the cause.

But while gnarled carrots and oblong potatoes can help to raise awareness—and save shoppers some money—there’s a limit to what retail sales can accomplish. “It’s still just a drop in the bucket if they still have a huge island of produce” alongside a comparatively small display of “ugly” fruits and vegetables. The Whole Foods program in particular would seem to give the issue a new level of visibility—and indeed, the story of both chains has been picked up widely. But just five of Whole Foods’ some 430 stores will take part in the pilot.

To that end, Figueiredo not only wants to see more grocers embrace aesthetically challenged produce, but also for lawmakers to address the more systemic problems found across the food chain. So he’s throwing his support behind the food-waste reduction bill introduced in the House by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, earlier this year, which would offer legislative solutions to the issue—including measures that would make it easier for retailers and restaurants to donate food that would otherwise be trashed, and to reform “sell-by” labels that convince many people food has gone “bad” when it’s still safe to eat.

Figueiredo, a solid waste expert, is driving people toward a new petition calling on Speaker Paul Ryan to take up the bill, which does not have any bipartisan support. He believes the Pingree bill could put the U.S. well on the way to having the sort of comprehensive strategy to combat food waste as laid out by ReFED.