Waste Not, Want Not: How to Reduce Food Waste (and Sustainably Feed the World)
BY LIZ CARLISLE
Imagine a strategy that could increase the world food supply by 50% while diminishing greenhouse gas emissions by 7% and saving $400 billion. Impossible? Actually, it’s surprisingly simple. We just need to learn how to reduce food waste.
Globally, a whopping 1/3 of food is never consumed, and the numbers are about the same—perhaps even a little higher—in the United States. Recover that unused food and we could easily feed all 870 million of the world’s hungry. So what’s stopping us?
The problem is a bit more complicated than it sounds, as food is currently wasted at several points along the supply chain: from farms, to grocery shelves, to restaurants, to our own kitchens. Wasteful practices have become so routine in our industrial food system that we often don’t recognize them.
The good news is there’s a concerted effort afoot to solve the problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently established a groundbreaking national food waste target for the first time in history, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030. California passed a law that will require large grocery stores to compost or recycle their waste, which could divert huge amounts from the landfill. And the United Nations made headlines last month by serving a unique lunch to world leaders, prepared entirely from food that would have otherwise been thrown out.
Inspired? It’s a global topic, but one region is making exceptional strides towards a solution: the Bay Area. Meet some key players that are taking a bite out of food waste, and some tips for how you can do your part—wherever you call home.
Supermarkets give shoppers almost endless choices, but 1/3 of this food will go uneaten. Photo courtesy of Purestock/Thinkstock.
UGLY IS BEAUTIFUL
Every year, U.S. grocery stores reject 20% of the nation’s produce just because it doesn’t meet aesthetic standards. That’s right—not all tomatoes are naturally as perfectly round as the ones you see in the market. What happens to the oddballs? Believe it or not, those six billion pounds of delicious but misshapen fruit and vegetables often get thrown out. Until recently, that is.
Inspired by the “ugly fruit” movement among farmers and consumers, a California start-up called Imperfect is working to give these unique harvests a home, by delivering boxes of them directly to customers. Consumers get their produce at a 30% discount and farmers gain an additional market for crops they would otherwise throw away. Ugly produce is a win for the environment, too: Imperfect estimates that each pound saves 25 to 50 gallons of water by eliminating the need to grow another pound of (perfect-looking) produce.
An apple by any shape is just as sweet, which is why food delivery start-up Imperfect delivers misshapen produce at a steep discount. Photo courtesy of Imperfect Produce.
CLOSING THE NUTRIENT LOOP
While Imperfect aims to reduce food waste on the farm, another Northern California company is helping grocery stores tackle the issue: by turning expired food into fertilizer. California Safe Soil, based in Sacramento, processes 3,750 pounds of supermarket food waste a day, converting it into a liquid fertilizer it calls Harvest to Harvest. Three years since its launch, the company estimates that it has already diverted 2.2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 3.2 million pounds, and eliminating the need for more than 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers. That’s dirty work—with a clean mission.
California Safe Soil takes recycling to the compost bin by generating fertilizer from food scraps. Photo courtesy of Pixavril/Thinkstock.
DONATING THE COMPANY LUNCH
The low-hanging fruit (so to speak) of food recovery, however, is at the downstream end of the food chain: the surplus food that consumers simply toss. Companies and event planners are particularly notorious for ordering large quantities of food, then ditching leftovers. Eager to see this food put to good use, San Francisco social entrepreneur Komal Ahmad came up with a simple solution. Ahmad’s app, Feeding Forward, makes it easier for businesses to donate their surplus to homeless shelters. Users simply enter where they are and what they’ve got, and one of Feeding Forward’s drivers comes to pick it up. Already, the San Francisco organization has recovered 728,000 pounds of food, feeding 606,000 people.
BRINGING IT HOME
So what can you do to reduce your own food waste footprint? Whether or not you live near these Bay Area food recovery fanatics, there are tons of things you can do from home. Here are a few tips:
1) Buy Less
Are you really going to use that whole bag of lettuce? The best way to reduce waste is to be more realistic about what we buy in the first place. Ideally, that means acknowledging that we’re probably not going to cook as often as we aspire to, and that bulk discounts are a false bargain when we end up buying more than we can use.
Want to reduce your own impact on food waste? You’ve got it in the bag. Photo courtesy of Dolgachov/Thinkstock.
2) Buy Ugly
If you’re in the Bay Area, consider Imperfect’s ugly fruit and vegetable boxes—or buy directly from a local farmer. Have no fear of the non-spherical apple! If you’re not sure where to find a nearby producer who can sell you their “seconds,” enter your zip code at Local Harvest and search for a farmers market or a Community Supported Agriculture operation that serves your neighborhood.
3) Get Creative
Do something fun with leftovers, rather than pushing them to the back of the fridge to languish. Challenge yourself to devise a meal using the three ingredients that are most in danger of spoiling.
Flex your creative chops by combining the odds and ends in your kitchen so nothing goes to waste. Photo courtesy of Polka Dot/Thinkstock.
Recognize when you’ve got more food than you can use before it goes bad. Donate to your local food bank, which you can look up at the Feeding America website. If you regularly order food for events in the Bay Area, sign up with Feeding Forward.
To tackle many of the biggest sources of food waste, we need to look beyond our kitchens. Does your city have a food waste reduction target? Does your state require large grocery stores to compost or recycle their food waste, instead of sending it to the landfill? Team up with your neighbors to find out, and advocate for a less wasteful food system.
What are your favorite tips to reduce food waste? Tell us in the comments below.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Liz Carlisle is a Fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute and the author of Lentil Underground.