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BEYOND FOOD WASTE CITIES

US Action to Fight Food Waste

Kat Heinrich
18 July 2018

What is the world’s largest economy doing to tackle food waste? I attended the 2018 US Food Waste Summit to find out. 

This event, hosted by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and ReFED, brought together food waste businesses, policymakers, innovators, investors, foundations, and non-profits.

There are so many food waste initiatives taking place. Here’s a few that caught my attention.

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MealConnect is an online platform where businesses can donate surplus food to people in need.
Photograph sourced from Generalmills.com

Innovation in Food Donations

Food relief agencies play an important role in preventing food waste. They redistribute surplus food (otherwise destined to landfill) to people in need. Sadly, 1 in 8 Americans faces food insecurity. So there’s a huge demand for their services.

The US has a well-established network of food banks and pantries called Feeding America. Last year they delivered 4.2 billion meals to 46 million people. This is a big achievement made possible by the hard work of many passionate people.

These agencies are tasked with finding the right variety of food and distributing it in time. Feeding America is assisting these agencies to meet this challenge through partnerships and technology.

Let’s start with how they’re helping agencies to source the right variety of food…

Dairy is the number one item requested by food relief agencies in the US. Feeding America launched an initiative that allows milk processors to donate their surplus milk. This was done in partnership with the Dairy Marketing Institute and the Centre for Innovation. Milk processors receive financial compensation for making the surplus milk into a distributable, consumable form. 

Meat is another product in high demand by food relief agencies. Feeding America has developed meat packing facilities in two food banks. These facilities safely pack both raw and cooked meat, which was previously destined to landfill.

Next, the challenge of finding and distributing food at the right time, before it goes off…

Feeding America launched a platform called MealConnect with funding assistance from General Mills. This allows smaller, consumer-facing food businesses (like cafes) to donate directly to agencies. They can log onto the platform and register their donation. They then receive a confirmation letting them know what time the food will be picked up. 

Truck drivers can also use the platform to donate rejected loads of food straight to agencies.

MealConnect has been a huge success with more than two million transactions completed so far. It allows food with a short shelf life to move faster, preventing food waste. It also benefits food businesses who save on their waste bills and can receive a tax deduction for their donations. 

These are great examples of how innovation and partnerships can assist with food relief efforts which prevent food waste. 

More than two million transactions have gone through MealConnect. This food waste previously destined to landfill. Now it is donated to Americans facing food insecurity.

Reducing Food Waste For Profit

Food relief agencies are not the only ones driving down food waste volumes in the US. At the summit, ReFED presented several companies that are reducing food waste for profit.

One such organisation is ZestLab. They have developed technology to reduce early spoilage of food throughout the supply chain. Traditionally food is distributed based on the assumption that everything harvested on the same day has the same spoilage date. But this is not true. The rate that food deteriorates is affected by oxygen levels, temperature and a host of other factors. So, ZestLab has developed a dynamic date label that measures the deterioration of food to an 85% accuracy level. The distribution of food to markets can be prioritised based on its deterioration. This application reduces food loss while helping improve the profit margins of farmers.

Another innovation reducing food waste is from BlueCart who’ve revolutionised the way that chefs order food. Traditionally chefs place orders using a pen, paper, and their intuition. This method is open to human error – especially when orders are placed over the phone in the wee hours of the morning (when the Fishmonger is available). BlueCart has developed an online platform that reduces order errors by 90%. This reduces food waste and the number of headaches involved with managing returned food. The platform also allows wholesalers to notify their customers when they’re offering discounted produce. For example, discounts on cosmetically imperfect vegetables, which may otherwise go to waste.

Other companies I came across worth checking out are ReGrained (making snacks by upcycling beer grain), Baldor (a large food manufacturer who’ve developed markets for blemished food and offcuts traditionally considered waste) and Spoiler Alert (helping food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to manage unsold food). 

BlueCart has revolutionised the way chefs order food, reducing order errors and food waste.

Photograph sourced from BlueCart

Government Action

There’s clearly lots of action being undertaken across the private and non-profit sector. How about the government?

A handful of states and six municipalities have introduced either a mandatory recycling law or a landfill ban for organic waste. One such State is Massachusetts and this has proven to be a gamechanger.

In 2014, Massachusetts banned food waste disposal from large commercial and industrial generators. More specifically, they made it illegal for waste companies to contract for disposal of organics from these organisations. Consequently, the volume of food waste diverted from landfills has more than doubled (from 100,000 tonnes up to 260,000 tonnes). This food is sent for donation, composting or anaerobic digestion. It has resulted in 900 jobs and $175 million in economic activity for the region.

In my experience, legislation can be very effective in driving big jumps in food waste diversion. Another example is San Francisco. The city introduced mandatory sorting of organics, which led to a large increase in food waste recycling levels. You can read about here. Communities with a long history of recycling programs seem to accept this legislation as an extension of what they already do. I expect it could be more challenging to introduce this kind of legislation in other parts of the US.

More work is needed at the state government and city level. There is a need for public procurement of recycled products (like compost). This point was raised during panel session by Kathryn Garcia (Commissioner of the NYC Department of Sanitation). Read about NYC’s food waste collections here. I strongly agree with Kathryn. There is no point collecting food waste to make compost if no one uses it. State and local governments can provide markets for compost by using it on public parks, gardens and projects.

There is also a need for national standards for food date labeling. Currently, labeling standard varies from state to state. According to ReFED, confusion over food date labels leads to 20 percent of edible food waste by consumers. At the Federal level, a Food Date Labelling Act has been proposed by Rep. Chellie Pingree.

Rep. Chellie Pingree has also proposed the Food Recovery Act. The US Farm Bill is currently under renewal. This bill includes a few food waste measures from the Act. Among them are a milk donation programme to provide farmers with reimbursements for their donations, investment in food waste research and creating a food waste liaison in the USDA. 

Beyond Food Waste

The challenge ahead to significantly reduce food waste is massive. It requires a redesign of the food production and consumption system. There is so much more work to be done. But there are a few reasons to be hopeful.

First, food waste is a bipartisan issue, meaning both sides of government are working together to solve it. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Congressman David Young recently launched a food waste caucus. The caucus will look at ways to promote food reduction across the supply chain. It will provide educational opportunities to congressional members and staff and support efforts to reduce food waste at federal agencies including EPA and USDA.

Second, the Summit demonstrated that there are many win-win solutions for reducing food waste. Initiatives to reduce food waste can improve the profit margins of food growers, distributors, retailers, and restaurants. 

Finally, there are many smart and committed people working in this space. Amongst them are the event organisers Harvard FLPC  and ReFED who are facilitating change in the US.  

 

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