The food waste problem has long challenged the US where as much as 40% of food is thrown in the trash, not to feed families. Now ReFED Insights Machine, a new online data center with detailed analysis of food waste (by sector, state, food type, cause, purpose and impact), hopes to provide solutions in front of investors, rather than sad statistics. This machine provides an in-depth overview of more than 40 solutions to reduce food waste, including extensive financial analysis.
In addition, ReFED, the national non-profit organization behind its new database, put out files Roadmap to 2030: Reduce US Food Waste by 50%. He argues that to accelerate efforts to reduce food waste over the next ten years, we must do so prevent (stop waste from happening in the first place), save (redistributing food to people at risk of being wasted), and recycle (disposing of waste as energy, agriculture, and other products) food is at risk of being wasted.
Dana Gunders, Executive Director of ReFED, provided more clarity about food waste in America and how ReFED is trying to build a movement for change.
Esha Chhabra: In 2019, a large 35% of all food in the United States was reported as unsold or uneaten. Where is most of this waste going?
Gunders Fund: This is wonderful! And it happens throughout the food system. Households still account for the largest share of food waste (37%), followed by consumer-related businesses such as restaurants and retailers (27%) and then agriculture at 21%. The reasons for food loss and waste differ at each stage of the supply chain – for example, a perfectly edible product is not harvested on the farm because of too tight buyer specifications or labor unavailability; food is thrown away in restaurants because the portion sizes are so large that customers can’t finish everything served – in fact, 70% of food left in restaurants is food that isn’t eaten on people’s plates; and many consumers are still not very good at managing their food, so much of what they bring home ends up being thrown into the trash.
The implications of wasting food are also enormous – including the greenhouse gases of 58 million cars and making food the number one product in our landfills.
Nonetheless, we saw some positive signs. The total amount of food waste has decreased over the past few years, and the amount of food waste per capita has actually decreased slightly. But we are still far from the national and international goals of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.
Chhabra: What innovations have you seen in business to address this? Is there a success story you can share that really shows traction?
Gunders: We know food waste is a problem that can be solved, and the good news is that solutions to reduce it already exist. One promising solution is enhanced demand planning, which uses artificial intelligence to help food retailers better predict their supply needs. The stock of typical American groceries is 50,000 items, but until now we have relied on guesswork to determine how many specific products will sell during the week. Implementing AI helps grocery stores to see sales patterns, weather, day of week, etc. To estimate more precisely how much inventory is needed. Fresh Thyme Market, for example, there was a 25 percent reduction in production losses using this technology.
Other promising solutions that have emerged include flash sale applications that help wholesalers and restaurants sell food at the last minute before dumping it, distribution innovations that send products with reduced shelf life to closer destinations, and innovative product lines that “improve” a byproduct of manufacturing into a food product that can be sold.
Chhabra: Why did you decide to create this online portal?
Gunders: We want to move the food system from awareness about leftovers for action, and in order to do that, people need to find information that is relevant to their situation. By building ReFED Insights Machine, We can create dynamic tools that allow users to filter data and solutions relevant to them so they can understand where opportunities exist to reduce food waste and ultimately take action.
There is also tremendous momentum to reduce food waste right now, so the timing feels right. Project Drawdown for 2020 Withdrawal Reviews named reducing food waste as one of the top solutions for reducing greenhouse gases. The United Nations, the US Department of Agriculture, and the US Environmental Protection Agency have aligned ambitious but achievable goals to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.We are starting to see more conversation around the impact of food waste on the environment, economies, and society on generally, however, to date there has not been a centralized center where players across the food system can access the information they need to implement food waste reduction solutions to drive meaningful change.
Chhabra: How difficult is it to get accurate data for all of this?
Gunders: Measuring food waste is much more complicated and less common than something like energy use. It takes a lot of work to collect and analyze data because everyone measures it differently – and many people don’t measure it at all, so you often fall behind on estimates from data collected for different purposes. That’s why we include data quality figures on all of our charts at Insights Engine. Engine Insights and Roadmap to 2030 is based on extensive analysis of public and proprietary data from the entire food system. Our analyzes come from more than 50 data sets and input from dozens of experts and practitioners from the food industry, trade professionals, solutions providers, academia and more. Even with the extent of our analysis, there is still much room for improvement and better data on this topic. There are also some interesting image recognition technologies emerging that could one day significantly increase the data in this space.
Chhabra: Where do you think the greatest progress has been on this issue?
Gunders: One area where there’s been a bit of progress is standardizing date labels – you know, the “sold by” and “use by” dates you see. They don’t show that food is unsafe, but many people believe that they do and end up throwing food away prematurely. Their standardization is the first step to addressing this, and the food industry has set guidelines for it and is in the process of implementing it. Another area of advancement has been with the cafe becoming “trayless”. Because people tend to take in more food when the tray is available in an all-you-can-eat situation, moving the tray can reduce waste. While not many of those situations are operational right now because of COVID, if and when they return, most major food service companies have removed trays at most institutions.
Chhabra: Where do we still need to continue working on food waste?
Gunders: It may sound cliché, but there is honestly a LOT of work to be done at every stage of the food system. Our analysis only achieves the goal of a 50% reduction if everyone adopts the solutions that are relevant to them. One of the things that underlies all of this is culture – I could walk down the street and throw half a sandwich right on the sidewalk and people would get mad because I littered, but if I dumped half of the same sandwich in the trash, they wouldn’t think as much. that. Until we fundamentally change our culture to make wasting food unacceptable, I don’t believe we’ll really make any progress.
Chhabra: Do you think this is an American problem or a global problem? Are other countries struggling with the same problem?
Gunders: Although ReFED’s work focuses on the US, food waste is a global challenge. The United Nations has explicit Sustainable Development Goals around this issue; countries in Europe, Africa and Asia are working on it; and global companies are also participating. We actually just heard from the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture that has used ReFED Roadmap to make their national plan! In addition, the world’s ten largest wholesalers have committed to the Champions 12.3 “10x20x30” initiative, in which they engage their 20 suppliers to reduce operational waste by 2030. We are pleased to see progress, but much more needs to be done.