The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is hosting its “First International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste” on September 29, 2020. As USDA’s Food Loss and Waste Liaison, I want to highlight some of FAO’s awareness-raising messages.
- The COVID-19 pandemic highlights that we now have an opportunity to rethink the way in which we produce, handle and waste our food.
Last spring as coronavirus rates rose, many restaurants, hotels and food service closed, which suddenly slowed the demand for food by that sector — the destination of an estimated 50-60 percent of the U.S. food supply, pre-COVID. Meanwhile, the demand for food at grocery stores and delivery services rose as consumers turned to these outlets to meet their food needs. This temporary mismatch in demand and supply led to repercussions in every step of the food supply chain and resulted in some unquantified amount of food waste.
The food industry had to quickly adapt and overcome simultaneous challenges, such as demand-side changes (e.g., increased demand for canned fruits and vegetables), supply-side changes (e.g., some imported produce was less available), logistics (e.g., refrigeration capacity to store excess food), and packaging needs (e.g., shift production and packaging from restaurant-sized to family-sized containers). The food industry rallied and made adjustments to get unsold and uneaten yet wholesome food to food banks and other hunger relief groups serving those in need. Many of these efforts ultimately reduced food waste. For example, Kroger Co. expanded its Dairy Rescue Program to redirect surplus milk from farms to food banks while Publix Super Markets redirected excess milk and produce.
The U.S. government responded to COVID with a wide range of efforts. One USDA response is the Farmers to Families food box program, which is purchasing up to $4 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products from American producers for delivery to food banks and other nonprofits serving Americans in need. Grassroots efforts are responding to the current challenge as well. When college campuses closed earlier this year, university students founded the FarmLink Project to get excess produce from farms to food banks. To date, they have moved over 10 million pounds of food. Many of these private and public sector efforts resulted in a triple win which helped: (1) America’s farmers and food system, (2) feed people in need through increased food donations, and (3) reduce food loss and waste (FLW).
Since COVID, survey data has shown that consumers are adding more cold storage, learning new recipes and cooking techniques, and honing their meal planning skills. In the process, they may be becoming more aware of the food they waste, and its value. Prior to COVID, USDA estimated that each year, the average American family of four loses $1,500 to uneaten food. Time will tell if new food habits are here to stay.
One silver lining is that COVID highlighted that we are all interconnected with the food supply and that consumers, food organizations, and government can all play a role in reducing food waste. With our expanded awareness of and new experiences in reducing food waste, there is an unprecedented opportunity to make real inroads in reducing food waste.
- Reducing food losses and waste provides a powerful means to strengthen our food systems.
In the United States, more than one-third of all available food goes uneaten through loss or waste. When food is wasted, so too is the land, water, labor, energy and other inputs that are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of the discarded food. These resources could have been used to produce something else of value to society. Reducing FLW is a critical tool to strengthen our food systems and both the private and public sector are taking action. Food industry members are finding or adopting new ways to operate (e.g., increased online ordering, delivery, and curbside pickup with family-sized offerings). Some of these activities also reduce food waste, such as improved inventory management to streamline the ordering process and production planning. In addition to getting excess, wholesome food to those in need, the food industry can prevent the remaining excess food from ending up in landfills, which is the worst case scenario in the Food Recovery Hierarchy as all the food’s embedded value is dumped into the ground. Instead, the food industry can work together and with other partners to make sure this excess food becomes animal feed or compost, is used to generate energy, or is used to make other valuable products.
Federal and state governments also have a role to play in facilitating and strengthening supply chain resilience. For example, throughout the pandemic, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been closely monitoring the food supply chain for shortages in collaboration with industry and other federal and state partners. USDA and FDA are in regular contact with food manufacturers and grocery stores and have issued guidances to ensure regulatory flexibility to safely reroute food that typically would be bought in bulk by food facilities and restaurants, like eggs and flour, directly to consumers. These efforts have also prevented food waste.
- Innovation, technologies and infrastructure are critical to increasing the efficiency of food systems and to reducing food losses and waste.
Technologies and infrastructure are important to extending the life and wholesomeness of foods and getting foods to markets and ultimately to consumers in an efficient manner. Examples of these technologies include temperature-controlled supply chain technologies and state-of-the-art packaging. Infrastructure examples include food transportation networks and cold chain logistic centers.
Innovation is a major driver to reduce food waste. Innovation can help stimulate economic development and job growth by turning food waste into an economic opportunity. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Program on Product Quality and New Uses supports innovation by conducting research on new technologies that reduce spoilage of fresh foods and develop new products from waste materials at food processing facilities. For example, this research has led to the patenting, licensing, and commercialization of several new food products, including bars, wraps, and dehydrated vegetable and fruit snacks made of unmarketable produce that would normally be discarded. This research is often in collaboration with industry and academic partners.
In February 2020, USDA announced the Agricultural Innovation Agenda (AIA), a department-wide effort to better align USDA’s resources, programs, and research to provide farmers with the tools they need to be successful. The mission is to increase U.S. agricultural production to help meet future demand, while cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half. The Agricultural Innovation Agenda has specific goals on water quality, carbon sequestration, renewable energy, and reduction of food waste. It calls for advancing our work toward the United States’ goal to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent in the United States by the year 2030, from the 2010 baseline. Under this agenda, USDA recently announced it is seeking public- and private-sector input on the most innovative technologies and practices that can be readily deployed across U.S. agriculture.
In summary, we now have an opportunity to rethink the way in which we produce, handle and waste our food. Collectively, the food waste reducing actions by individuals, food businesses, and the government can make a difference as we strive to reach our national goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. In the process, reducing food waste can help strengthen our food systems.