Preventing Wasted Food

Food waste costs billions, but can be significantly trimmed through prevention programs.

Enormous quantities of food are wasted throughout the food provision system, from producer to seller to consumer. This comes at great expense: a study by the NRDC[1] revealed that $165 billion in food wasted annually by Americans, or about 20 lbs. per person per month. And 1.3 percent of American GDP[2] is spent growing, processing and disposing of food that is never eaten. In Canada, the value of wasted food is estimated at $31 billion.[3] And about 3% of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions come from wasted food.

This segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver highlights the shocking amount of food we don’t eat:


According to the ReFED Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste, 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. Generally, strategies to address wasted food fall into 3 categories: prevention/source reduction, rescue and recycling/recovery.

Prevention/source reduction 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. 

Rescue presents the greatest opportunity to feed hungry people and includes strategies such as donation tax incentives, standardized donation regulation, and donation matching software. 

Recycling/recovery strategies offer high potential for reducing GHGs but require high levels of infrastructure investment for government agencies and do not address the upstream impacts of production, processing and consumption. Recycling solutions include centralized composting and anaerobic digestion, municipal water resource recovery facilities and commercial anaerobic digesters for vendors and restaurants.

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

Food consumption is a very personal and intimate activity making it a high-leverage opportunity to promote changes in consumption behavior. The popularity of farmers’ markets, farm-to-table dining and urban agriculture suggests that the public is rediscovering the value of food and efforts to prevent wasted food can have a high resonance. Local governments can harness this interest to deliver programs aimed at food businesses and consumers that highlight the life-cycle environmental impacts of food and the value in reducing and preventing wasted food.

Potential City Roles

  • Promote—Create information campaigns that support reducing wasted food.
  • Support—Provide grants and tax incentives to invest in food measurement and tracking, storage and recovery infrastructure.
  • Develop programs/services—Provide technical assistance to food businesses to reduce wasted food.
  • Prioritize—Be strategic in targeting wasted food with the biggest environmental footprint such as meat and dairy. This can leverage long-term diet shifts to lower impact foods.
  • 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.

Implementation Challenges

Effective programs to prevent the wasting of food can address everything from business practices to consumer behavior. Understanding the drivers behind the generation of wasted food can help local governments design programs and interventions that take into account the barriers and opportunities across the production-consumption continuum. Research by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality sheds new light on wasted food behavior. A five-part study[4] on wasted food generation focused on 1) understanding the informational, psychological, socio-economic, and structural drivers that contribute to the generation of wasted food, and 2) testing and validating measurement methodologies. The project includes results from qualitative research, a state-wide survey, commercial case studies, a kitchen diary study and summary report.


A 2017 report prepared on behalf of Champions 12.3 [5] provides some early indications of the value of programs to reduce wasted food:

  • After launching a nationwide initiative to reduce household food wastes, the UK achieved a 21 percent reduction in household food waste relative to 2007 levels. Every £1 invested in reducing household food waste produced savings of £250.
  • During 2012-2013, local government programs to reduce wasted food resulted in a 15 percent reduction, with a benefit-cost ratio of 8:1. For every £1 invested in the effort, £8 was saved by the local government. The benefit-cost ratio was even higher, 92:1, when the financial benefits to households were included.
  • The study analyzed 1,200 business sites across 17 countries and more than 700 companies, representing a range of sectors including food manufacturing, food retail (e.g., grocery stores), hospitality (e.g., hotels, leisure), and food service (e.g., canteens, restaurants). Virtually all of the sites earned a positive return on investment with half of the business sites earning greater than a 14-fold financial return. For every $1 invested in food loss and waste reduction, the median company site realized a $14 return.

Further Resources