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Why Food Waste Is the “Dumbest Problem Ever” — and the Fascinating Ways We Might Actually Solve It

Originally written by Mara Weinraub and posted on The Kitchn on 4/19/2022.

“This is the dumbest problem ever and it is completely solvable,” says Dana Gunders, the Executive Director of ReFed. She’s talking about food waste. And she’s been talking about food waste for more than a decade — long before it was even a blip on most people’s radars.

Gunders hasn’t solved the country’s food waste problem. No one has. Each year, we waste up to 40 percent of all food that’s produced in the U.S. That’s the equivalent of every person in the country throwing more than 650 apples into the garbage every year. 

This isn’t just a moral issue of wasting food that could feed people who need it. It matters to our bottom line. The average American throws away $1,300 of food a year, according to a recent study. We’re also wasting the water, energy, and labor that goes into the growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food, which just makes already-rising food costs rise more. Meanwhile, one in seven Americans, many of them children, are indeed food insecure. Food waste is a big problem. And, as Gunders says, on the most fundamental level, an extremely dumb problem that benefits no one.

While it’s a problem that persists, it’s not for lack of trying to both diagnose and solve the underlying causes. Ten years ago in 2012 Gunders created a groundbreaking report for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The report, which made headlines at the time, was one of the first to project the massive scope of the food waste problem in the United States. In 2016 she released a second report, while working at ReFed, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste across the U.S. This time she also outlined a variety of solutions to the growing food waste problem.

People listened, it seemed. In 2015 the U.S. announced its first-ever domestic goal ​​to cut food loss and waste in half by the year 2030. The following year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions to “recognize businesses that have made a public commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their operations.” And a few years later, the former president signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, which, for the first time ever, “includes a wide range of provisions to curtail wasted food.” 

These were encouraging signs that made it seem like, as a country, we were moving in the right direction over the past few years. We set goals! We made commitments! We passed laws! 

And yet, minimal progress has been made, according to last year’s report from the EPA. How minimal? Two percent. That’s how little we’ve decreased our per capita food waste since 2016. (Reminder: The goal is 50 percent by 2030.) “The United States has a long way to go to reach that goal and we will need many interventions to really move the needle,” says a spokesperson at the USDA. 

Food Waste Is Your Problem (but Not Actually Your Fault) 

To understand why this dumb problem is so tough to improve, you have to understand where food waste happens. Individual households like yours and mine make up 37% — the greatest part by far — of the food wasted. But it’s not entirely your fault. 

“Much of the food waste coming from consumers occurs because of decisions made by other actors throughout the supply chain,” according to ReFed. In other words: 

  • We’re tempted to buy foods we’ll never consume to get better deals. 
  • We get confused by expiration dates, and so we toss food before it’s actually gone bad. 
  • We have limited access, if any, to recycling and composting programs. 
  • We’re forced to buy packages that are way too big.
  • Etc.!

Like many other systemic issues of sustainability, individuals get blamed for the problem, but change can only come through wholesale systems changes. Not only will the “interventions” by our government, favorite grocers, and manufacturers reduce their food waste, the interventions will help us reduce ours.

So what would actually change the state of food waste in America today, and put that lost $1,300 back in your pocket? We talked to a wide range of industry experts in the food and grocery industries, including some of the country’s biggest grocers, and discovered, to our surprise, that major grocers have made far more headway than the country at large in improving food waste. In hindsight this isn’t surprising, though, as grocery margins are razor thin, and grocery stores are highly motivated to waste as little food (and profits) as possible. 

The successes of these grocers and business have some surprising innovations that have the potential to make a big difference — and show how all of us could waste a little less. Here are the smartest, most impactful things happening that show what the future could look like.

Fix Expiration Dates, the Biggest Problem of All

We can’t talk about food waste without discussing the number-one driver of unnecessary waste: the food date labeling requirements. What, exactly, are we talking about? Open your fridge or your pantry and check the labels on your groceries. Chances are high you’ll see some mix of sell byuse bybest if used bybest beforeexpires on, and maybe a few other phrases, or none at all. What do they all mean? Probably not what we think they do. Generally, date labels are not intended to indicate a food product’s safety, but rather, freshness. In fact, with the exception of infant formula, product dating is not required at all by federal regulations.

Still, more than 80 percent of us discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because we misunderstand these labels. This confusion is also the leading cause of food surplus at retailers, which results in more food waste because these items are also often deemed ineligible for donation.

Representative Pingree of Maine calls this “the most cost effective, easiest thing to change, that would reduce the amount of food waste in our system.” And, guess what?! “It’s got the most widespread support,” with 90 percent of consumers on board.

If food labels don’t actually indicate food that needs to be thrown out, then why not fix them comprehensively? Attempts have been made. In December 2021, The Food Date Labeling Act was reintroduced in the House (sponsored by Representative Pingree) and the Senate. The bill would, in effect, simplify the word salad down to just two standard phrases, indicating either the peak quality (“BEST If Used By”) or safety (“USE By”). 

It has not passed, yet. And it won’t this year, confirms Representative Pingree. She did point to the 2023 Farm Bill as Congress’ “opportunity to actually cement this.” (Next year’s Farm Bill will be integral in determining where we focus our resources, and discussions about its provisions are currently underway. Later this month experts at ReFed, NRDC, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, and World Wildlife Fund will put out a joint report that includes the 22 things they want to see in this bill. More to come!)

What’s also interesting, though, is based on analysis by Harvard’s FLPC, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA could act on their own to mandate these standards,” says Emily Broad Leib, Founder and Director of the clinic. 

Instead, some states have bills of their own — there’s one pending in Massachusetts — that would mimic the Food Date Labeling Act; and some retailers and manufacturers are voluntarily updating their labels. Kroger, Sprouts, and Walmart use this two-phrase system on their private-label products, unless a food safety or regulatory reason prevents it. (Frustrating fact: There are actually a number of states, about 27, that have existing laws that would prohibit these standard labels on certain foods, according to Broad Leib. Montana, for example, requires a sell by date on milk.) It would be great if we could finally see universal and compulsory measures put in place on this one, widely agreed upon, issue.

Use Better Technology to See What (and Where) Food Is Wasted

You may have heard: Technology is the future. This is especially true when it comes to reducing food waste. The government and industry organizations are investing in tech and it’s helping them, first and foremost, get a better understanding of the scope of the problem (you can’t solve something you don’t fully comprehend). It’s also helping them find creative, nerdy, but brilliant fixes, to things like inventory management, food packaging, and accessibility. And so far, the fixes are, well, fixing things.

Let’s start in the produce department, where most surplus food getting tossed into landfills — 32.6 percent — comes from. For years, produce managers have been “using clipboards and pen and paper, and their best estimations” to figure out how many cases of bananas they need to order, explains Katherine Harris, Marketing Coordinator at Afresh Technologies. If this method sounds outdated and inefficient, that’s because it is! 

That’s where companies, like Afresh Technologies and Shelf Engine, enter the chat. While the two companies operate slightly differently, both use artificial intelligence to give retailers a better idea of what’s selling and what’s going to waste, so that they can order as close to the perfect-world amount as possible. (In the case of Afresh, the company monitors sales data, pricing and promotions, and external factors — including weather and time of year — and provides retailers with a report card at the end of each month. The data is then used to plan ahead.) 

Major retailers, including KrogerAlbertsonsSave Mart CompaniesTargetWhole Foods Market, and more, have partnered with these predictive companies. Afresh, for example, is currently in five percent of Albertsons stores and will be in all 2,253 stores by the end of this year, while Kroger is currently rolling out its partnership with Shelf Engine across its organization. 

The results are immediate, cost effective, and scalable: In an interview with Forbes, Shelf Engine’s CEO, Stefan Kalb, spoke with one grocer’s senior executive who told him the company’s produce waste was 12 percent; at launch Shelf Engine discovered it was actually 54 percent, which means the grocer was wasting more than it was selling. Afresh, meanwhile, reduces food waste in produce departments by up to 25 percent, according to the company’s 2021 Impact Report. The company also plans to expand to other fresh departments in 2023, including meat and seafood, prepared foods, bakery, and deli.

Quit Plastic! Package Food to Help It Last Longer

Companies are also exploring new packaging that can extend the life of perishable groceries, and, in some cases, render plastic obsolete. (Plastic, BTW, is a major obstacle in food waste reduction. One study by the Waste & Resources Action Programme found that fresh produce packaged in plastic wrappers often forces people to buy more than they need. And according to Walmart, “associates have to separate food contents from packaging to leverage the current recycling program.” In fact, “depackaging solutions” is the number one thing Walmart pointed to when we asked where they’d like to see more resources and attention going.) 

This packaging game is a big one and lots of manufacturers are playing. “I feel like I can’t go a week without seeing a multimillion-dollar investment in some new company in this space,” says Gunders.

Take Hazel Technologies, which is USDA-funded, and SAVRpak. Both companies developed plastic-free products that can be placed in a produce box, bag, or container to keep the contents fresh for longer. Similarly, SoFresh created “active packaging” that prevents mold on all bread products, and is looking to expand to berries, cheeses, and meats.

In the case of SAVRpak, the compostable packets, also called Drop Ins, absorb condensation and keep berries, leafy greens, and even cucumbers from wilting or growing mold for anywhere from four (microgreens) to 14 (butterhead lettuce) additional days, if not longer, depending on the item. When we spoke, Grant Stafford, co-founder and co-CEO, said he’d recently eaten a Persian cucumber that was 28 days old (as part of a proof-of-concept demo for a now new client). And, according to Stafford, shoppers should be able to buy Drop Ins to use at home later this year!

Other companies, including Apeel Sciences and Mori, created products — a plant-based and silk-protein coating, respectively — that act as a protective layer. Both are sprayed directly onto foods after they’ve been harvested to slow the natural spoiling process. You might have seen an Apeel sticker on avocados, which the company first launched in 2019, as well as limes and organic apples in the U.S. (This coating is also used on several types of citrus in Europe, too.) 

Apeel produce is in more than 10,000 grocery stores in 11 countries, including Kroger, Harps Food Stores, and CUB Foods in the U.S. And it’s proven to reduce waste and boost sales: Retailers in the U.S. and Europe have seen a 50 percent reduction of waste on average for avocados, according to Jessica Vieira, Vice President of Sustainability at the company, and “a lot of our partners have seen an increase in sales when they started carrying a produce treated with our products.” The company is also launching a product in North America for long English cucumbers this summer, which will eliminate the use of plastic shrink-wrap on these items entirely.

Discount Food More Dynamically 

Inevitably, though, some of the bread, berries, and avocados won’t sell before new ones arrive or their best by date approaches. Fear not! There are several, tech-based solutions for grocers to mitigate that situation as well. Wasteless, an AI pricing engine, dynamically reduces the prices of aging products and, according to the company’s site, helps retailers reduce their food waste by 50 percent and increase revenue by at least 20 percent.

There are also apps for that, including Too Good To Go and Flashfood, the latter of which is currently operating in more than 1,200 stores in the U.S. and Canada, and is essentially a way to quickly sell food “that otherwise wouldn’t get sold or donated in its last 48 or 72 hours,” explains Josh Domingues, CEO at the company. All sort of items get put up for grabs: fresh produce and herbs, prepared foods, meats, cheeses, snacks, and more. 

“One of our stores, early on, posted 11 of those [Cedar plank salmon steaks] at 6 p.m. and marked them down from $23 to $9,” says Domingues. “We sent a notification out and they all sold within three minutes.” To date, the company has helped retailers, including Meijer, Tops, Family Fare, The Giant Company, Stop & Shop, and others divert more than 34 million pounds of food from landfills and provided $100 million worth of savings to shoppers.

Turn Not-So-Pretty Food into Very Pretty Deli Meals, Snacks, and More

Some retailers — including Sprouts Farmers Market, Whole Foods, AldiKrogerMisfits Market, and others— are also finding ways to turn surplus lemons into lemonadelemon curdlemon bars, and more. Upcycled foods are hitting shelves in nearly every department. Sprouts makes protein boxes, chicken salad, and even sandwiches from leftover rotisserie chickens, shares Natasha Tofil, Sustainability Analyst at the company. Whole Foods turns the remaining bits from cut-to-order fish filets into seafood soups and candied smoked salmon, and uses bruised produce in smoothies, baked goods, and other prepared foods, explains Caitlin Leibert, the company’s Vice President of Sustainability. 

Misfits carries Oreos in Olympics-branded packaging after the games have ended, according to Holly Eagleson, Vice President of Marketing, and, during the pandemic, the company sold broken chocolate bars and movie-theater popcorn from suppliers that had lost their retail outlets. In 2021, the Kroger Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation‘s annual Innovation Fund focused on entrepreneurs with ideas for upcycled foods; three winning products are in stores now with (hopefully!) more to come, according to Denise Osterhues, President of the Foundation and Senior Director of Sustainability and Social Impact at Kroger.

It’s worth noting here that, while the term “upcycled food” was officially defined in 2020, both the Upcycled Food Association (UFA) website and Turner Wyatt, its Chief Executive Officer, acknowledge the philosophy is ancient. It was just the wording that was different. People used words like spare and rejuvenated and the language was confusing to shoppers. UFA simplified the message to one word (upcycling) and created a unified definition. Spoiler: It’s working.

Its Upcycled Certified Program, the third-party certification program for upcycled food ingredients and products, has been around for roughly nine months and in that time the “certifying body has accounted for more than 800 million pounds of annual food waste prevention,” says Wyatt. It will also be launching in Canada soon. 

Similarly, retailers, manufacturers, and consumers are ditching the conventional idea of “perfect” produce. Stores and shoppers are buying the sweet potatoes with a funny little curve to them that would have made them undesirable a few years ago. Manufacturers — like The Ugly Co.Barnana, and ReGrained — are making new groceries with imperfect foods and even scraps that would otherwise be wasted. 

Grocers are also offering smaller and customizable amounts. You may have noticed more once-bundled vegetables, like carrots and mushrooms, now sold loosely in Whole Foods and other stores. Sprouts’ bulk department carries approximately 200 items, including staples, like rice and flour, snacks, and more in scoopable containers, explains Tofil. There is also some evidence suggesting retailers should move away from “buy one, get one free” promotional idea and try something like “buy one, get one free later.” (So that things don’t spoil at home due to overbuying.)

Cut the Red Tape Around Food Donations

Now. What about the still-edible food that isn’t sold or upcycled? It will likely become part of The Emergency Food Assistance Program and go to food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies. It sounds well meaning, but it’s a fundamentally flawed system we’ve created in the U.S. See, the best way to feed people experiencing food insecurity, as Gunders explains, is to “actually take feeding those in need, as a serious responsibility and make sure that they have enough food that is dedicated to them from the start.” It’s not about giving people what’s left over. It’s about making sure people can afford the food that goes through the primary system. (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and food pantry memberships are examples of this). It will require a major overhaul and is something we will continue to advocate for.

In the meantime, the question, err, questions then become: “If a retailer wants to donate all of their food, who picks it up? Who drops it off? Who pays the price? Who guarantees the safety?” asks Domingues.

Despite these pretty serious logistical, financial, and legal questions, the food retail industry is the largest non-federal provider of donations, making up 22 percent of sourced food, and providing 1.7 billion meals (out of 6.6 billion) to Feeding America in 2021. Kroger directed 640 million meals to individuals and families in need across the country in 2020, and is looking to expand the list of eligible items for donation, particularly with hot and deli foods, which are harder to donate because of temperature issues. Sprouts partners with more than 400 food rescue agencies across the country, according to Tofil, and aims to have partners pick up food five days a week, as does Kroger. (More frequent pickups mean more food donated and less food wasted!) Both noted that the five-day metric can be challenging at times, especially during the pandemic when volunteer participation shrank.

In general, the U.S. has some of the strongest federal liability protections and enhanced tax deductions in place, though there is room for improvement. (The same can be said for laws around feeding food scraps to animals.) For example, Congress could pass a law protecting nonprofit organizations and its donors that sell donated food directly to people. (Late last year, a bipartisan coalition of senators and representatives introduced the Food Donation Improvement Act of 2021 to address such issues; it has yet to pass.)

Some states have enacted a patchwork of more comprehensive liability protections and tax incentives — New Hampshire and California have strong policies, respectively — to alleviate the obstacles ​​donors and food recovery organizations face. But more states should, and many of the ones who have, could strengthen their existing laws.

The Final Fix: Put Spoiled Food Back in the Earth, Not the Landfill 

Once surplus food is deemed inedible, there are few places it could go next: animal feed programs, anaerobic digestion, composting, or landfills — the latter being where most discarded food ends up. Food, in fact, takes up more space in U.S. landfills than anything else, which makes the initial goal set by the U.S. (to cut food loss and waste in half by the year 2030) feel even more ambitious.

“In many ways in the last decade, our recycling system has sort of fallen apart,” says Representative Chellie Pingree. And while she is talking with the new EPA administrator about the broader picture of recycling, food waste (or what people generally just call organic waste), as she explains, “should be a really big part of that.” That could be federal legislation, according to Pingree, or it could be assistance, meaning funding for a composting operation or bio digester. The Zero Food Waste Act, a broad bill that would provide such funding to address these issues, was introduced in 2021 in the House, where it remains.

States are, once again, passing laws on their own. Nine of them, and Washington D.C., now have organic waste bans and waste recycling laws in place to divert food from landfills. Implementing these laws, however, is proving to be a challenge.

Meanwhile, some retailers are putting a concerted effort into basic outreach among their employees — the people on the front lines determining what will or won’t get tossed in the trash. Kroger, for example, is updating its stores’ backroom signs for both its food rescue and food waste recycling programs this spring, according to Osterhues. These signs provide employees with clear guidance and are a constant reminder of what can and cannot be donated, and what steps to follow. (The last time the company did a full outreach like this was three years ago.) Osterhues think the update will help a lot.

Some retailers are also exploring more novel solutions, like increasing the number of stores and tying performance to incentives. A recent study suggests that grocers in certain cities should consider adding more stores to achieve “ideal food source density” and help reduce food waste, particularly by consumers, according to Modern Farmer. (People who travel shorter distances to get to a grocery store make more frequent trips for smaller grocery hauls, and, in turn, waste less.)

Onto incentives! In 2019, Sprouts partnered with Waste Management to develop a customized diversion scorecard, which calculates the total tons being diverted from landfill on a monthly basis, explains Tofil. In addition to identifying opportunities for improvement, the scorecards generate “friendly competition amongst stores” and even “impact the stores’ ability to bonus at the end of the year.” Similarly, we heard about at least one food service company that ties senior executives’ bonuses to performance on food waste reduction. 

Another idea we heard about and absolutely love: Companies are providing cameras and scales to measure and monitor how much food is being tossed.

These Smart Fixes Actually Work — So Let’s Help Them Grow 

It might be surprising to hear that, while many retailers are chipping away at their goals, some have already reached them, thanks to the techniques mentioned above. Sprouts, for example, achieved its goal of 50 percent food waste reduction (ahead of the 2030 deadline), and is currently working to minimize waste, in general, across the whole company. Last year, Hannaford Supermarkets, which operates more than 180 stores in the Northeast, became the first large-scale supermarket retailer in New England and New York to send no food waste to landfills. 

And both Kroger and Walmart — two of the three largest grocery retailers — set goals to achieve zero waste, including food waste, by 2025. In 2020 Kroger reached 48.3 percent food waste diversion (81 percent total waste diversion) and Walmart diverted 82 percent total waste from landfills in the states. Kroger has also reduced the amount of food it generates in stores by 20 percent, according to Osterhues, who said the company still has more work to do. “The message is, literally, zero food should go in the trash.” We couldn’t agree more. 

We have eight years left on the clock to figure out what to do with 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food. It’s an ambitious goal, one that will require our collective effort to achieve and maintain. And whether or not we meet that goal, we’ll still have more work to do in the years beyond.

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