By Lauren Cecilia Ojeda Behgam*
In September of 2015, the USDA and EPA announced an ambitious goal of reducing food waste in the United States by 50% by 2030. This announcement arrives in the midst of increasing conversations about the expansive challenge of lost, wasted and uneaten food in our industrialized food system. To put this challenge into perspective, an estimated 40% of food is wasted in the United States. Cutting this waste in half would amount to 66.5 billion pounds of food diverted annually from the waste stream in the United States.
How will the government and their partners in the private and public sector measure this change? There are two buckets in which we can define uneaten food. The first is food waste, which is defined as an edible item that is not consumed as a result of human action or inaction. The second is food loss, the decrease in edible food mass due to indirect human interference, such as pests and weather.
Food waste and food loss happen all along the food chain. It starts in the fields, with harvests that are lost due to market and labor conditions, standards for crop appearance, and increasingly extreme weather. In transit, food can be wasted due to distribution challenges. In retail operations, products are rotated often, displayed in abundance and deteriorate quickly. In homes and restaurants, consumers do not always finish what is on their plate or in their refrigerators. By the time food gets to the trashcan, it constitutes the largest single stream of waste in our landfills, creating methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Less than 1% of food is composted in the United States.
There are various intervention points in the food system in which stakeholders can work to minimize food waste, and the new USDA/EPA Food waste reduction goal represents an incredible opportunity to build a better food system. The USDA and EPA plan to partner with private and public partners for multiple activities, such as consumer education campaigns, storage and distribution streamlining, increased research, and strengthening donation programs of excess food, among other initiatives.
A particularly intriguing opportunity in the push to reduce food waste is food recovery, also known as food rescue. Food recovery means transporting excess, edible food to others in need. In this moment of increased funding and attention towards reducing food waste, I hope to encourage those working in the food waste sphere to critically reflect on the power dynamics of food recovery. Specifically, here are questions for consideration by existing organizations and those looking to enter the space:
- How can excess food be shared with communities in a way that respects the dignity of individuals and communities?
- How can food recovery empower communities rather than simply be an act of charity?
- How can organizations working to reduce food waste work in solidarity alongside communities in their networks?
There are examples of food recovery that practitioners can emulate and policy makers can encourage. DC Central Kitchen, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., uses recovered food for culinary job training programs. This food is then shared with community organizations in the area.
Existing food recovery programs can reflect on their donation practices as well. Are there ways in which those eating recovered food can be included and empowered in the food recovery process? And in regards to distribution, no donation would happen unless a community asks directly for it and distributes it as they see fit.
Food waste is a problem that is not going away any time soon. What we can do is empower individuals and communities by reducing and recovering otherwise wasted food. To meet the new federal goals of reducing food waste by 50% in 15 years, practitioners should commit to justice rather than charity in their programs.
* Lauren Cecilia Ojeda Behgam is a recent graduate of Brown University and co-founder of Food Recovery Network, a nation-wide student organization.