7 areas for taking action to reduce food waste

7 areas for taking action to reduce food waste

ReFED outlines seven key action areas to focus food waste reduction efforts over the next 10 years.

April 8, 2021

In 2019, 35 percent of all food in the United States went unsold or uneaten. That’s $408 billion worth of food with a greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint equivalent to 4 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions. Most of this became food waste, which went straight to landfill, incineration or was simply left in the fields to rot. Businesses, government agencies, funders and others are already making efforts to address this challenge.

Case in point, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the formation of the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions group in November 2016. This group is composed of organizations that have made a public commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their own operations in the U.S. by 50 percent by the year 2030. While these organizations, and similar entities committed to cutting food waste in half by 2030, embody great ambition, a massive acceleration is needed to achieve such national and international goals to meet this threshold.

Food waste is a systemwide problem, affecting all stages of the supply chain, so solving it will take a systemwide approach. ReFED’s “Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50 Percent” guide was designed to provide food businesses, governments and others with a framework around which to align their efforts. ReFED, which was founded in 2015, is a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste across the U.S. food system by advancing data-driven solutions.

The “Roadmap to 2030” outlines seven key action areas to focus food waste reduction efforts over the next 10 years. They align with the food recovery hierarchy of prevention (stopping waste from occurring in the first place), rescue (redistributing food to people when it’s at risk of going to waste), and recycling (repurposing waste as energy, agricultural and other products).

This blueprint places a focus on articulating prevention-related action areas, as they typically have the greatest financial and environmental impact compared to the investment required.


Optimize the harvest

Optimizing the harvest means aligning what is grown with what is ultimately harvested. This is accomplished by avoiding overproduction and then harvesting as much as possible. When it comes to wild-caught products—such as fish, some animals and certain types of produce—it means sourcing only what’s needed. Solutions for optimizing the harvest include finding new ways to sell and donate what’s left after harvest, such as developing innovative contract structures that don’t incentivize overproduction, and improving systems of communication that relay forecasted demands back up the supply chain to producers. Additionally, technological innovations that streamline individual, cross-sector and cross-supply-chain data sharing could amplify these benefits. While these solutions manifest in less waste at the production level, the opportunities and responsibility to implement them lie across all supply chain actors.

Enhance product distribution

Enhancing product distribution means maximizing freshness and selling time by harnessing the power of technology to create smart systems that efficiently move products to their destination. Solutions in this action area include embracing technological tools such as intelligent routing and sensors that aid in cold chain management. However, these innovations must be utilized with updated management procedures that prioritize remaining shelf life and intelligent routing practices that shorten transit times. These solutions lead to improved freshness and quality, where both suppliers and buyers benefit.

Refine product management

Refining product management means aligning purchases with sales as closely as possible, and when surpluses arise, finding secondary outlets to accommodate these excesses. It also means building out systems and processes for optimal on-site handling. Solutions regarding product management include employing tactics that simplify inventory management, such as implementing dynamic pricing via artificial intelligence to improve the use of products in stock and using software that enhances future demand planning to ensure that future product orders won’t lead to excess supply and waste. Product management solutions also include diversifying product outlets in case excess arises, establishing markets for last-minute products through alternative sales channels and employing innovative new approaches such as markdown alert apps.

Maximize product utilization

Maximizing product utilization means designing facilities, operations and menus to use the most of each product as possible. It also means rethinking the concept of “waste” by turning surplus and byproducts into food products through upcycling, which has opened new doors for innovation and investment. Solutions in this action area focus on using ingredients and products in their entirety, preventing waste through minimizing losses on a production line, extending product life, designing menus to use all product parts and more. Some of product utilization can be achieved through basic staff training, while other solutions involve the development of new food processing equipment.

Reshape consumer environments

Reshaping consumer environments means driving consumers toward better food management behaviors and less waste by creating shopping, cooking and eating environments that promote these behaviors. There’s also a big opportunity to shift the overall culture to place more value on food and to make sure that people truly understand the implications of food waste for our environment and economy. Retail locations, food service establishments and residential homes are environments where the narrative around food purchasing, consumption and management can be shifted.

"Food waste is a systemwide problem, affecting all stages of the supply chain, so solving it will take a systemwide approach." –Dana Gunders, executive director, ReFED

In dining environments, solutions that encourage less wasteful consumption patterns can include offering smaller portion sizes, using smaller plates or removing trays in an effort to help prevent consumers from taking more than they will eat. In shopping environments, solutions include integrating meal planning support into customer assistance programs or creating promotions that don’t promote over-purchasing. More broadly, awareness and education campaigns are an important solution to help shift the culture towards greater appreciation for food and the resources that went into producing it.


Strengthen food rescue efforts

Strengthening food rescue means furthering the rescue of high-quality, nutritious food by increasing the capacity of food relief agencies, addressing distribution bottlenecks and improving communication flow. A stronger food rescue system requires expanded storage, transportation and staffing capacity within food rescue organizations, as well as a consistent flow of goods from food business donations, which can be achieved by implementing solutions like promoting better business education. This can also be achieved by adopting coordination and matching technologies that make food donation easier. The capture and sharing of real- or near-time data can play a key role in enabling more food to be donated and identifying gaps to fill in existing infrastructure. As solutions regarding this action area are implemented, it’s critical to maintain an emphasis on the health and dignity of the end recipients—the more than 50 million Americans currently struggling with food insecurity.


Recycle anything remaining

Recycling anything remaining means capturing nutrients, energy or other residual value by finding the highest and best use for any food or food scraps that remain. Solutions in this action area range from mature practices of feeding food scraps to livestock to modern innovations such as insect farming. Solutions that make use of existing food for other creatures are preferable to the next category of recycling, which requires processes including composting, anaerobic digestion and co-digestion at water treatment plants to break down the materials for their more basic nutrients.

Alternatively, innovative markets for waste-derived bioplastics, agricultural inputs and other industrial uses model the development of circular economies that can capitalize on existing wasted materials for new products, fuels, packaging materials and more.

This article originally ran in the March issue of Waste Today. Dana Gunders is the executive director of ReFED. She can be reached at dana.gunders@refed.com.