Getting to the Root of Food Waste

In the U.S., food waste consumes 21 percent of landfill volume. Here are a few organizations that are tackling the issue by focusing on the food that is unnecessarily scrapped before it even gets to the meal-prep stage.

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Five thousand Calgary residents were invited to one in downtown’s Olympic Plaza on June 15, no strings attached. On the menu: carrot soup, chickpea salad, Panzanella Greek salad, and potato salad, topped off with bread pudding with compote. The cost to feed the crowd was well below even the most constrained F&B budget: $380. 

That’s because Calgary participated in a Feeding the 5000 event, a global initiative to serve up meals made entirely from perfectly edible food that otherwise would have been sent to landfills, largely because it doesn’t meet aesthetic standards. Launched by Global Feedback Ltd. in London in 2009, Feeding the 5000 events have circled the globe in an effort to raise awareness of food waste.

Volunteers prepared a lunch for 5,000 people.

Working with LeftOvers Calgary, the Calgary Regional Partnership, and the Recycling Council of Alberta, Calgary Chef Andrew Hewson rescued food rejected by growers, grocers, and restaurants. Instead of being discarded, oddly shaped peppers, potatoes with sprouts, and bread and dairy items nearing their expiration date were brought into the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre kitchen, where they were sorted, washed, chopped, and cooked by a team of volunteers from SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology), restaurants, caterers, and the Hyatt Regency. The only items purchased for the fresh, healthy, locally sourced, and zero-waste meals were spices, herbs, and oil.

Waste360 took a similar approach to serving lunch from food scraps to a much smaller group at its WasteExpo 2017 show, working with Centerplate at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. 

But most of the time, efforts to reduce food waste at events have centered around donating prepared food that doesn’t get consumed by attendees to shelters and community food banks. Organizations like Global Feedback and Brooklyn, New York–based ReFED — a think tank that “rethinks food waste through economics and data” — are trying to get people to pay attention to food that winds up in the trash before even making it to the table. 

ReFED Program Manager Katy Franklin told Convene that the “fairly young” organization (formed in 2015) is now moving from an information-dissemination phase — last year, ReFED published the Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste report — to implementation. For instance, ReFED is focusing on bringing the food industry together around date-labeling, which Franklin said is one of the most cost-effective solutions to food waste.

Since there is no federal regulation for labels stamped on food products, those “best by,” “sell by,” and “expires on” dates create a lot of consumer confusion, she said. “The goal from the industry is to standardize those into a quality date, to say that peak freshness will end at this date, so we recommend that you eat it by then, and then also a safety date. Some of the challenges there are that it requires an investment and change made by manufacturers and retailers,” she said, “but the benefits are reaped by consumers.” 

Franklin also sees a “lot of opportunities around more strategic prevention” when it comes to event F&B. “One of the really common challenges that we’re hearing from food-service companies isn’t necessarily that they don’t know what the solutions are,” she said. “Most of them know there are some key prevention solutions around procurement or knife skills — and then moving into donation and recycling opportunities.”

 

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.