Claire Cummings, student activist turned garbage guru, is the first-ever Waste Programs Manager for Bon Appétit Management Company, the food service pioneer that operates more than 1,000-plus cafés for universities, corporations, and museums. Claire will be speaking at at the Seattle Food Tank Summit titled, “Growing Food Policy,” which will be held in partnership with the Environmental Working Group, Food Action, Garden-Raised Bounty (GRuB), the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Seattle University’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability on March 17, 2018.
In addition to doubling Bon Appétit’s food-recovery programs, Claire developed implementation guides for launching reusable to-go container initiatives, supported the development of a new kitchen-waste-tracking system, and helped launched Imperfectly Delicious Produce, a program that has rescued over 3 million pounds of produce from going to waste.
Claire was named one of Food Tank’s 30 Women Under 30 Changing Food, received Saveur’s “Activist” Good Taste Award, and has been featured in Bloomberg News, Sunset Magazine, and the New York Times. Claire’s passion for sustainable waste management began when she was a student dining at Bon Appétit café at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, and continued into her first job with Bon Appétit, as West Coast Fellow.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Claire Cummings (CC): I wasn’t always passionate about fighting waste; in fact, if you asked my Mom, she’d probably bring up how much food got wasted when I was a picky vegetarian kid in a carnivore’s world. But my childhood stint in vegetarianism led to a lifelong passion for exploring food. In college, this exploration led to a deeper understanding of the connection between my food choices and their societal and environmental impacts. Five or so years later, I started looking into how Bon Appétit could expand their food recovery efforts. Once I started digging into food recovery, I fell down the rabbit hole and dove into fighting food waste on farms, composting, single-use disposables…and I still haven’t climbed out!
FT: How are you helping to build a better food system?
CC: When people envision a more sustainable food system they often think about how food is produced, the conditions under which animals are raised, the mechanisms used to transport and distribute food, the true value and cost of food production, nutritional quality, and accessibility. All of these efforts are in vain if that food ends up getting wasted! That’s where I come in. My job is to ensure that Bon Appétit is doing anything and everything to reduce food waste. I work up and down our supply chain to fight food waste on farms and in warehouses, kitchens, and cafés.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
CC: Nearly half the food in this country gets wasted, yet 1 in 7 Americans is food insecure. Additionally, as the world population grows, more people will need to be feed. This is where food waste prevention and recovery come in. Solving the issue of wasted food so more people can be fed will be one of the most critical and important works of this century.
FT: What innovations in food and agriculture are you most excited about?
CC: We are on the cusp of a food waste revolution and at the heart of the movement is a greater acceptance of imperfect produce by consumers, retailers, and chefs. But it’s not enough to welcome wonky fruits, ugly vegetables, and underappreciated parts of produce into our lives. In order to truly save these products from going to waste, we need improvements to harvesting technology and innovative sourcing practices. We need better, faster ways to bring these products to market, and into the hands of creative cooks who will turn them into delicious meals.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
CC: Stop wasting so much food — be careful of what you buy, how you store it, and be mindful of making the most of it while it’s still edible. While you’re at it, refuse single-use disposables (i.e. anything you use once and then throw away) whenever possible!
FT: How can we make food policy more relevant to eaters so that the politicians representing them feel a mandate to act?
CC: Organic agriculture has succeeded in part because people see organic food as something that is much better for their children. Unfortunately, most eaters are still motivated by self-interest. The sustainable choice also needs to be the convenient and relatively cheap choice. If we bring sustainability to the forefront of attention, like we did organic, politicians would be more likely to support sustainable policies. Further, we need policies that make it easier for businesses to donate their excess food, for consumers to compost, and for farmers to find buyers for their cosmetically challenged, under- and over-sized vegetables and fruits.
FT: What policy areas or ideas would you like to see an increased focus on as the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations kick off?
CC: I would love to see more support for smart food recovery policies. In 2015, I wrote a GreenBiz op-ed about barriers to food recovery, and they still exist throughout the country. Donating excess edible food to the hungry should be easy, and simple changes can ensure that happens. For some of these ideas check out this list of recommendations from the Harvard Food and Law Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.