Programs and Partnerships to Prevent and Reduce Wasted Food

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Enormous quantities of food are wasted throughout the food provision system from producer to seller to consumer. This comes at great expense: $165 billion in food wasted annually by Americans, or about 20 lbs per person per month. (source) And 1.3 percent of American GDP is spent growing processing and disposing of food that is never eaten.(source) In Canada, the value of wasted food is estimated at $31 billion. And about 3% of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions come from wasted food. (source)

In this segment Last Week Tonight with John Oliver discusses the shocking amount of food we don’t eat:


According to the ReRED Roadmap, which proposes reducing wasted food by 20 percent, 27 cost-effective, feasible, and scalable initiatives could help to avoid nearly 18 million tons of GHGs, generate 15,000 new jobs, provide 1.8 billion meals and reduce 1.5 percent of freshwater use annually -- in the US alone. These strategies fall into 3 categories: prevention, recovery and recycling.

Prevention strategies have the greatest economic value per ton of food and require low capital investment. These include standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns, waste tracking and analytics, and packaging adjustments. Recovery presents the greatest opportunity to feed hungry people and includes strategies such as donation tax incentives, standardized donation regulation, and donation matching software. Recycling strategies offer high potential for reducing GHGs but require high levels of infrastructure investment for government agencies and do not address the upstream issue of overproduction. Recycling solutions include centralized composting and anaerobic digestion, municipal water resource recovery facilities and commercial anaerobic digesters for vendors and restaurants. (source)

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

According to the ReFED Roadmap, the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas impacts by preventing and recycling wasted food are significant:

...a recent EPA study concluded that the social benefit of a 1-ton reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions ranges from $11 to $56 per ton. Using this estimate, the Roadmap’s projected 18-million-ton emissions reduction would generate an additional societal value of $200 million to $1 billion per year. (Source)

Other major social and environmental benefits of preventing wasted food include meal recovery, job creation, and water conservation. (Source)

Potential City Roles

  • Promote --  Create information campaigns that support reducing wasted food. Promote composting for agricultural applications to improve soil health and mitigate the effects of drought for home gardens as well as commercial and industrial applications such as roadside vegetation, slope stabilization, and wetlands rehabilitation. 

  • Support -- Provide grants and tax incentives to help expand secondary food resellers in low-income neighborhoods with less access to fresh foods. 

  • Develop programs/services -- Support organics diversion by providing centralized composting facilities and infrastructure. Provide updated training for health inspectors. 

  • Make policy changes -- Reduce permitting barriers for compost.

  • Incentivize and Regulate -- Enforce programs through incentives or fines.

  • Advocate -- Ask higher levels of government to Implement Standardized Donation Regulations and Standardized date labelling across states. (Source)

Implementation Challenges

The ReFED Report sites several implementation challenges to prevention of wasted food:

  • ORGANIZATIONAL SILOS: Implementing prevention solutions requires collaboration between different departments within participating businesses, including buyers, merchants, store managers, chefs, waste managers, and financial analysts. Employees in different parts of an organization may not be aware of the fully loaded cost implications of waste.

  • INFORMATION GAPS: There is uncertainty about where food waste occurs, how much is being wasted, and its associated value. During distribution, crates and packaging mask sight and smell so rapidly ripening produce cannot be separated out and moved to customers faster.

  • LACK OF SOCIAL LICENSE: Consumer expectations for variety and cosmetic perfection constrain businesses from streamlining product selection, offering cosmetically imperfect food, reducing portion sizes, or even investing in proven approaches such as cold chain and inventory management. Food waste and its consequences are largely invisible to the public.

  • MISALIGNMENT OF COSTS AND BENEFITS: There is limited reason for businesses to implement a new technology or process if another part of the supply chain receives the benefit. For example, businesses may find it hard to build a business case to invest in Packaging Adjustments, Spoilage Prevention Packaging, or Standardized Date Labeling when consumers get most of the cost savings and the effect on enhanced brand equity is unclear.


ReFED analyzed 27 options for reducing wasted food and using food waste in the areas of: 

  • Prevention: Stopping waste from occurring in the first place;
  • Recovery:Redistributing food to people; and
  • Recycling: Repurposing waste as energy, agricultural, and other products.

Their analysis provides data on the most effective strategies for greenhouse gas emissions reductions , job creation, waste diversion, and economic value per ton for each strategy. Centralized composting, consumer education campaigns, and waste tracking and analytics were found to provide the highest potential for GHG reductions of the strategies analyzed in the study.  

Further Resources