ReFED is a new initiative using economics and data to reduce food waste in the United States.
Food Tank had a chance to talk with Sarah Vared, a Principal at the project’s coordinator MissionPoint Partners, about the release of the Roadmap. Funded in part by The Fink Family Foundation, the Roadmap is a research-based tool that presents and prioritizes a variety of food waste solutions for many different stakeholders based on their potential environmental, social, and economic benefits. Vared discusses the Roadmap’s functionality, diverse support base, and some promising new developments in food waste reduction.
Food Tank (FT): Explain the ReFED Roadmap. What makes it an important tool for reducing food waste?
Sarah Vared (SV): With the roadmap, we aimed to lay out a clear path forward for reducing food waste in the US using actionable steps for different stakeholders, including foundations, investors, businesses, governments, and non-profits. There’s an entire ecosystem of people who are needed to drive change on this issue and [ReFED] looked at 27 unique solutions to reduce the problem of food waste and laid out an actionable path forward for each of those solutions. What makes the Roadmap unique and a great tool is that we’re trying to move the conversation from food waste as a problem to food waste as a problem with solutions that people can be using today to reduce it.
FT: How has the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy influenced the work of ReFED?
SV: We use the Food Recovery Hierarchy really as a framework for all of the solutions we analyzed. We categorize each solution as either prevention, recovery, or recycling, depending on where it falls within the hierarchy. We used the hierarchy to think about the different types of solutions and what opportunities exist within each.
FT: How does ReFED’s research influence the way certain food waste solutions are prioritized in the Roadmap?
SV: We tried not to start with any preconceived notions about how solutions could be prioritized but instead used an analytical framework and process. First, we identified solutions and came up with the scope or definition. From there, we estimated the cost of implementing the solution and potential diversion each solution could provide. We were really diligent throughout this process in reaching out and interviewing as many people as possible and engaging with an advisory council of industry experts to ensure that the numbers that we were putting forward were realistic and accurate when considering the potential for each of the solutions.
One of the interesting take-aways was that the prevention and recovery solutions are by far the most cost-effective but the recycling solutions are where you get the greatest diversion potential. When you look at the way the EPA’s hierarchy image is structured, you notice that recycling is at the bottom and is a very small part of the image. At the end of the day, for us to have a complete food waste solution in the US, recycling needs to be a really big piece of the pie.
FT: The report mentions a few new innovations for food waste that have been brought to the market. Is there one that you think is particularly promising?
SV: When we think broadly about innovations, we think about both business model innovations and technology innovations. Business model innovations include opportunities for either sharing costs in new ways or financing projects in new ways. On the technology innovation side, I think there is a lot of opportunity and potential in better IT and analytics. This includes waste tracking as well as transportation and storage and the moving of food in more efficient ways. As far as packaging, I think there are a lot of new innovations coming out to either enhance shelf life or to better consumers’ and retailers’ understandings of the shelf-life remaining on a product and to better communicate to consumers and retailers about the status of products.
FT: The EPA and USDA have set a food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030. Did that goal influence ReFED’s Roadmap goal of 20 percent?
SV: We actually started the process prior to the USDA and EPA’s goal being announced. At that point we didn’t have a specific number in mind but we were trying to understand what was cost effective, feasible, and could be achieved now. That’s ultimately where our 20 percent goal came from.
We also focused more deeply on consumer-facing businesses, as a key driver of action both up and down the supply chain. While we touched on consumer actions and on-farm opportunities, they were less of a focus, which would likely have resulted in us raising our 20 percent goal.
With the announcement of the USDA/EPA goal, we did identify a number of cross-cutting areas that we thought could help move us above and beyond the 20 percent goal to put the US on a path to 50 percent reduction in food waste. We thought specifically about the roles of finance, policy, innovation, and education as four key tools. If we’re able to really leverage those, we will be well on our way to moving from the goal of 20 percent reduction in food waste to 50 percent reduction and beyond.
FT: The Roadmap is funded by the Fink Family Foundation, among others. Why is it important for the funding and donor communities to invest in preventing food waste?
SV: Food waste is an issue that has really been flying under the radar until the last three or four years. Even as attention has been growing, it remains a relatively underfunded area. There are a lot of non-profits operating on extremely small budgets and doing really important work in this area, so additional resources are going to be critical for increasing the capacity of organizations to take meaningful and transformative actions.
From my perspective, investing in food waste is such a high impact use of funds for philanthropy and these investments can help increase the effectiveness of work that funders support in other issue areas like sustainable livestock, climate change, and healthy communities. We have an opportunity to address a root cause of inefficiencies in our food system.
FT: Do you expect that the diversity of ReFED’s supporters will contribute to the Roadmap’s success?
SV: Absolutely. This is not an issue that any one organization can tackle on its own. Food waste touches many different issue areas and is multi-faceted. Early on we recognized that, and tried to engage as many people as possible to get as many different viewpoints and opinions as we could. We also sought buy-in from a diverse set of organizations that would be willing to put resources to work in the future. We very intentionally tried to bring in as many people as possible.
We’re excited to see more big organizations getting involved. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation is starting to put funds towards this issue and has begun collaborating with ReFED.
FT: The Roadmap requires US$1.6 billion in annual funding, but you show its economic benefits far outweigh its cost. Please explain the areas in which the Roadmap’s food waste reduction will save money.
SV: There are two primary areas. The first is savings directly for consumers. These include things like spoilage prevention packaging and other new technologies that businesses can use to insure enhanced shelf life and to give consumers a longer time to consume the products that they buy. Better education and awareness around spoilage and best by dates can also contribute. The second big area of savings is for businesses. There are a lot of different solutions that they can be using to improve their bottom lines.
FT: ReFED notes that 40 percent of food produced in the US is wasted. That’s a startling number. Are there certain types of foods that make up most or a large portion of that waste?
SV: By far the largest portion of food waste is from perishable foods like meats, fruits, and vegetables. This accounts for up to 80 percent of the waste, in fact, of which fruits and vegetables are the largest portions. This is because fruits and vegetables are relatively inexpensive compared to other types of food categories and they quickly go bad.
FT: Did any findings in your research for putting together the Roadmap really surprise you?
SV: I was really surprised when we started looking at how much money is being left on the table due to food waste. The fact that businesses are missing out on US$1.9 billion annually, as our conservative estimations tally, is shocking. And you have to consider that there are a lot of solutions that we didn’t look at that could save businesses even more money. The businesses we focused on were institutions like college campuses and hospitals, restaurants, and grocery stores, but there are likely substantial savings for other types of businesses as well. Our research found that institutions and food service businesses had the greatest opportunity for capturing these savings.
While this is a major social and environmental issue, businesses should also want to address it for profit and business efficiency reasons.
FT: The Roadmap’s Stakeholder Action Plan lists solutions for everyone in the food supply chain. How can cross-sector collaboration be useful for reducing food waste?
SV: There are two things to consider about cross-sector collaboration. The first is that we often found the costs of reducing food waste are paid by one entity or type of organization while another group received the benefits. Packaging adjustment is a good example. Manufacturers bear the costs of making modifications to packages to reduce the quantity of waste for product users, but the benefits are going to retailers and consumers. Some level of cost or savings sharing is probably going to be necessary to really push change forward on certain solutions where a split of costs and benefits occurs.
The second is that for food recovery and recycling, it’s much less about a single solution that a single organization can take and much more about having a robust ecosystem in place to enable individual actions and activities to be successful. For instance, with recycling we often allude to a three-legged stool. We need generators to separate out their food scraps, haulers to be willing to pick up those scraps separately from traditional waste pick-up, and processors to recycle those scraps into compost or energy. If any one of those elements is missing, things won’t move forward. An added challenge is that they all need to move at roughly the same pace. Similarly, for recovery, we need three things: enabling policies that provide economic incentives for donation, clear education for businesses on the value of donating their food and instruction on how properly to store and handle it, and a robust infrastructure system for transporting, handling and processing recovered food.
FT: What barriers do you think will be most challenging to overcome in reaching the 20% reduction goal of the Roadmap?
SV: There are definitely many barriers. One is that food waste is still relatively invisible. One way we know this is because of some great case studies. For instance, in Massachusetts, they’ve recently put an organic food waste ban in place. As businesses have started to separate out their food waste – their food scraps from the rest of their waste – they think, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize I was wasting so much,” and then they take interest in prevention and recovery.
Finding more ways to make waste less invisible for people can help. Most people, both in businesses and as individual consumers, think that they waste less than they actually do.
Another significant barrier is the variety of regional approaches and infrastructures. Right now there is a patchwork of different policies in place related to recycling and recovery that makes it hard for businesses to implement food waste reduction strategies on a national level. That patchwork also makes it difficult to know if something that works in Massachusetts might work in Louisiana, for instance, because of dramatic differences in these regional settings and their infrastructures with respect to food waste.
FT: The Roadmap discusses the potential for food recycling and centralized composting in particular. What challenges exist to large-scale composting and how do these vary regionally?
SV: There is drastic variance between different regions, but some of the key challenges are creating efficient hauling and collection systems, and inevitable inefficiencies in collection and the corresponding increased costs.
Another key bottleneck is contamination. Composting facilities deal with a lot of contamination that lowers the value of their compost product. In addition, permitting for processing facilities can be extremely challenging, so even where there’s desire to recycle food scraps, a 3 to 5 year wait time to get a site up and running causes difficulties. Another barrier is high upfront project costs and acquiring financing for projects.
FT: What food waste research do you hope to see or be a part of in the near future?
SV: There are a few different research areas of interest. The first involves identifying additional solutions beyond the 27 that we analyzed. We chose a subset that we think represented a good portion of those with near-term potential, but there are a lot of other opportunities.
The second area would involve further breaking down the initial research from the Roadmap by type of business. We looked broadly at restaurants and grocery stores, but there’s a huge difference between a Mom-and-Pop Corner Store and a Walmart Supercenter. Trying to understand better the different opportunities for business of various sizes, and selling different types of products could be really valuable.
FT: What advice can you give consumers to do their part in reducing food waste?
SV: My best advice is to plan your meals and be a smart shopper. Beyond that, there are all sorts of tips and tricks about how to properly store food and ensure shelf life. One great resource is Dana Gunders’s Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, which presents a lot of those tips and tricks. One of my personal favorites is putting an egg into a bowl of water. If it sinks, it’s still good to eat, and if it floats, it’s probably best to compost it. I’ve done that with eggs that are three months past their date label and only once have I had to toss an egg that floated.