This article was co-authored by Chris Cochran, Executive Director of ReFED.
Labor Day is synonymous with hot dogs, burgers, corn-on-the-cob, and coleslaw. It’s a day to celebrate workers, but also of serious consumption—and with it, food waste. On average, New Yorkers will, together, waste nearly 5 million kilograms of food (11 million pounds) over the three-day weekend.
That’s the equivalent of 48,000 empty hot dog carts or 129 NYC subway cars. Over Labor Day weekend nationally, Americans will waste more than 495 million kilograms of food (1.1 billion pounds), weighing as much as 2,400 Statues of Liberty or 2,700 Boeing 747s.
Globally, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of total food production is lost before it even hits the market.
Some 800 million people across the world go hungry every day. And 1.4 million residents of New York City are food insecure—among them, 430,000 children. FAO estimates that if we managed to eat all the food we currently waste, we could feed every hungry person in the world—four times over.
In these uncertain times, no matter your political affiliation, food waste is one issue that Democrats, Republicans, and everyone in between can agree needs solving.
Fortunately, there is enormous potential to recover food in danger of being wasted.
Organizations across the nation know how to prevent this waste: Eaters can donate fresh produce and vegetables to #GiveHealthy or Ample Harvest. Consumers can purchase food that would be otherwise wasted through Hungry Harvest, or buy excess food up to 80-percent more cheaply through Food for All.
The NYC government can look to Tennessee, where the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the city of Nashville are testing a set of local food waste policies and compiling a toolbox to help local businesses cut waste, redirect unusable food, and repurpose leftovers.
Even when food can’t be recovered, it can become an important resource. NYC has a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030, and the city’s current strategy focuses on diverting wasted food from trash cans to compost bins. Every day, local nonprofits are helping achieve these goals: GrowNYC runs compost programs at 42 locations throughout the five boroughs, and CityHarvest rescues and delivers about 150,000 pounds of food each day. Cutting food waste also has enormous job-creating potential, according to ReFED.
Preventing waste before it happens also saves the resources that went into growing, storing, processing, and transporting that food. Two new food waste policy bills in front of the city council aim to help streamline recovery efforts. Int. 1514 directs the city to maintain a web portal on which prospective food donors and recipients can coordinate and Int. 1439 requires food confiscated by city officials be offered to food rescue organizations before disposal.
To cut on-farm waste, the NY State legislature included a first-of-its-kind Farms to Food Banks Tax Credit in this year’s budget. Proposed by a coalition of more than 150 agriculture and anti-hunger groups, the legislation feeds the hungry and supports farmers’ bottom lines.
Some economists argue that the most cost-effective strategy to prevent food waste is to standardize expiration date labeling on food packaging. Right now, U.S. consumers see a confusing variety of under-regulated labels which, according to an industry-conducted survey, causes 90 percent of consumers to unintentionally throw away food that is still edible.
To accelerate the adoption of new standards in the U.S., ReFED’s Date Labeling Working Group developed a guideline tool to help manufacturers determine which label to use. Currently, a draft of the tool is in consultation with more than 40 food safety experts.
But the effort doesn’t end there—this Labor Day weekend, the solution to food waste lies in our backyard barbecues and neighborhood picnics. Whether we’re composting food scraps, donating extras, or simply shopping conscientiously, we can all put in a little more work this Labor Day on behalf of our planet and its people.
The nonprofit Food Tank, in partnership with ReFED and with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and The Fink Family Foundation, is hosting an all-day Summit with the theme of “Focusing on Food Loss and Food Waste” on September 13, 2017, in New York City. The event will be livestreamed worldwide on FoodTank.com and the Food Tank Facebook page.