Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Metropolitan regions are “really important players in this whole picture,” says Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
When Dana Gunders was working on a report on food waste back in 2012, she thought there was something funky going on with the numbers. They can’t be right, she figured. More than 60 million tons of wasted food, at an annual loss of $160 billion? Gunders, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, couldn’t wrap her head around the discrepancy between staggeringly high figures and a pin-drop quiet public reception. “Nobody is talking about food waste,” she recalls thinking. “If these numbers were true, everyone would be talking about it.”
That gulf between data and public knowledge shrunk in 2016—and cities helped bridge it. Dinged, oddly shaped, or surplus food can battle the pernicious problem of urban hunger, dished out at pay-what-you-wish cafes, reduced-price supermarkets, or redistributed from restaurant kitchens via apps. This coming spring, a British town will start tapping in to a slurry of degrading scraps as a power source.
There were steps forward on the policy side, too. Back in June, the World Resources Institute backed the Food Loss and Waste Protocol, a multi-agency effort that rolled out a comprehensive framework for standardizing terms and accumulating data, helping researchers gauge what’s working and what isn’t. Earlier this month, the USDA issued new, streamlined date labeling guidelines for manufacturers, in an effort to curb major customer confusion about parsing those stamps.
“We’re in a foundation-setting moment,” Gunders says. “That will continue over the next year, for sure.” CityLab caught up with her to chat about food waste’s high-profile year, and what lies ahead for 2017.
What were some of the biggest victories this year for reducing food waste at the city and federal levels?
In 2015, we saw the Obama administration setting targets to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. The year before that, the USDA had announced a food waste challenge. Both of those set the stage for a lot more attention and activity over 2016. The USDA food waste challenge, for instance, now has over 4,500 participants who have made some sort of commitment to reducing food waste. Just a few weeks back, 15 big food companies announced commitments to join that federal goal—companies like Conagra Brands, General Mills, Kellogg Company, companies that manage a lot of food. That’s a big deal, because they’re committing to cut their food waste in half, which is pretty bold and aggressive.
Also this year, NRDC launched our Save the Food campaign. The goal of that is to provide both inspiration and information to people to waste less food. It’s a national public service media campaign: We have TV and online video ads, as well as billboards and bus ads. Our goal is to seed a shift in the cultural paradigm of wasting food, and get people to feel compelled to not waste food in their own homes. We’ve had great pickup across different cities—the campaign has been on buses in Chicago and waste trucks in California. Someone just sent me a picture from a bus stop in Manhattan. We’re hearing about it from all over the country.
This year, cities stepped up to tackle the problem of food waste associated with large-scale events. There were interventions around the Olympics, as well as the political conventions. How might cities deploy their infrastructure or resources going forward?
We’re working on a cities toolkit that we’re hoping to release next year. Cities are a really important player in this whole picture. Not only do they often manage waste, but they’re also trying to adjust to food insecurity within their borders. Given the federal context, it’s unclear how much support this issue will get federally. It really is an important time for cities to be ramping up their engagement and taking things into their own hands.
Cities can be setting targets in their community, and elevating the profile of the issue and raising awareness. That’s a nice foundation. They can take a look at their waste policies. Some types of municipal waste policies are more effective in trying to get residents to reduce waste. One, for instance, is pay-as-you-throw, which more closely matches your bill with how much you’re throwing away.
Cities can also do consumer education or provide information to businesses to help them make sure they understand where they can donate food, or put resources into the food rescue system within the city. One thing we’re seeing quite a bit of is more and more cities rolling out curbside collection of organics. New York is the biggest one that’s been doing it this year. Put together, those make for a nice suite of options for cities. I often think of it as the reduce, reuse, recycle approach to food waste: some to prevent the waste in the first place, some to look at rescuing it, and some to look at recycling, which is often composting.
Congress looked at a few food waste bills this year, some of which discussed how curbing this habit could help the U.S. comply with the waste reduction goals set forth at the COP21 conference. President-elect Trump is famously pretty unconcerned with climate change. What does the landscape look like for this agenda under the new administration?
We’re still trying to feel that out ourselves. I think the truth is that not wasting food, while it does have the benefit of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of our overall food demand, also has more tangible, in-front-of-you benefits like saving people money and feeling like morally the right thing to do. Food waste is not a partisan issue; it’s a human issue.
I don’t think [the issue is] at major risk with the new administration, because I think a lot of people care about it from a lot of different angles and for different reasons. But when you look at the administration’s priorities, I don’t think they’re going to lead with something like date label standardization. Nevertheless, in the end, I think it’s a change that would simplify things for both industry and consumers, and I think that’s appealing.
The other thing we have coming up is the Farm Bill. Discussions are going to begin this coming year. I think there are aspects of different policies that can be promoted as part of the farm bill that will have the effect of reducing food waste. For instance: One of the bills that was introduced last year was Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s Food Recovery Act. One of [its components involves] providing more value-added financing or grants, helping to build up infrastructure to allow produce to be processed in some way that will extend its life. That could be everything from small facilities that make jams or freeze things, all the way up to bigger facilities. Adding that capacity both for the private sector and for food recovery is something that can reduce food waste and add value to products.
Since the election, we’ve seen protestors rallying around issues such as immigration and reproductive rights, which they feel may be imminently threatened. The ecological consequences of food waste unspool on a longer time frame. How do you keep the issue on the radar?
I’ll be really honest: I think reducing food waste is something really important to start now and continue to do for a long time. But for the first 100 days of this administration, there are some issues that, even in my opinion, are more pressing that need to be worked out.
We will continue to work on this topic and work on getting the word out there, because we think this is something that’s actually really empowering in terms of what people can do in their daily lives to make a difference right now. I think some of us feel disempowered by what’s going on at the federal level. For that reason, I think it’s a great thing to keep working on and keep talking about. I also think it also has a lot of promise as a bi-partisan issue, and may be something where we can really get something done.
But at the same time, I’d be the first to say that given all of the environmental protections that are at risk, and the human rights things that are risk, those are going to need to be the focus of some of the more progressive groups out there at the start of this administration.