The nonprofit ReFED recently launched a new waste reduction plan, along with a suite of solutions and digital tools, that may help the food industry make a bigger impact on reducing waste.
ReFED’s new analysis shows the amount of food going to waste in the United States is no longer increasing each year but has leveled off since 2016. And while food waste most likely surged at the beginning of 2020 as COVID-19 threw supply chains into disarray, the pandemic has also presented new opportunities to lessen waste in the home—the largest source of food waste in the country. These findings were published in ReFED’s Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50%, which the organization released alongside its Insights Engine, a set of five tools to guide policymakers and players in the food industry.
The Roadmap builds on ReFED’s 2016 plan to reduce food waste in the U.S. by 20 percent.
“We’ve been excited by the progress we’ve seen since the launch of the original Roadmap,” ReFED Executive Director Dana Gunders tells Food Tank. Despite the encouraging data, Gunders says “much more needs to be done” for the U.S. to reach its goal of a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030, which prompted the development of the updated roadmap and Insights Engine.
The Roadmap to 2030 presents more than 40 food waste solutions, modeled for impact and cost-benefit, up from 27 in the initial report.
One new solution Gunders highlights is Enhanced Demand Planning, where grocery stores use machine learning to forecast their stock better. “It’s a perfect application of big data because it identifies patterns for each of the 40,000 different items a store carries that humans never could, ultimately resulting in more accurate forecasts and fulfillment,” she says. ReFED estimates a potential savings of US$5 billion if the whole industry were to adopt the planning method.
The Insights Engine comprises five digital-first tools that will be updated regularly. The Food Waste Monitor shows how much food is being wasted in the U.S., why it’s happening, and where it goes. The Solutions Database provides a comprehensive analysis of food waste reduction solutions based on impact goals. The Solution Provider Directory features a vetted list of over 700 nonprofit and for-profit organizations. The Impact Calculator, quantifies the impact of wasted food on the climate, natural resources, lost meals, and the economy. Finally, the Food Waste Policy Tracker keeps tabs on current and upcoming food waste-related policies at the federal and local levels.
ReFED estimates that 24 percent of food in the U.S., or about 54 million tons, goes to landfills, incinerators, down the drain, or left in fields to rot. But one of the most exciting findings from the Insights Engine, Gunders says, is that per capita food waste has decreased by two percent over the last three years.
“I think it’s difficult to point to one cause for this–there’s no doubt the collective consciousness around food waste and the need to reduce it has risen among food businesses, individuals, and all sorts of other actors,” Gunders tells Food Tank. “So, I think the bend we see in the curve is all of the small and big actions starting to show results. I like to think of it as that we’ve passed ‘peak waste.’”
And consumers may be changing their food behavior for the better thanks, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers generate the largest share of food waste in the U.S.–37 percent, or 30 million tons annually.
Gunders cites a survey from the Food Industry Association, which found 36 percent of U.S. grocery shoppers felt they have become better at avoiding food waste during the pandemic.
During an episode of Food Talk Live, Gunders lists several reasons consumers may be less likely to waste food during the pandemic. More people are cooking, and they’re trying to stretch food further, either because of finances or out of a desire to minimize trips to the grocery store.
“There’s certainly been an increase in attention,” Gunders says. “People who had some additional time on their hands used it to learn to cook or get closer to food in some way.”
Ultimately, however, for the food industry to start making a serious dent in waste, more capital is needed to fund the adoption of solutions, scale promising initiatives, and develop more innovations–US$14 billion in total each year. “But the good news is that investment would result in US$73 billion in annual net financial benefit,” Gunders tells Food Tank. “Over ten years, it would create 51,000 jobs — and it would achieve our 2030 reduction goal.”