Food Waste: Words Matter

By Steven Finn, Vice President of Food Waste Prevention.  //  January 18, 2018

At LeanPath, we often say that food waste matters – after all, our mission is to end avoidable food waste. So we believe it, and we act accordingly.

In addition to actions, we also believe that words matter, and that it’s an appropriate time to step back and comment on terminology. And this isn’t just an academic exercise. Groups like the World Resources Institute are working with international stakeholders to define food waste terms so that when we talk about this issue, we’re using the same language, and when we compare data, we’re comparing wasted apples to wasted apples, so to speak.

Food Loss

Broadly, food loss tends to refer to the production side of the food supply chain: food that is produced but does not get consumed by a person because it does not make it to market, often (in the developing world, especially) due to inadequate refrigeration, storage, or distribution systems. Food loss conveys the notion that external factors prevented the food from being consumed – such as weather or pests destroying a portion of harvest, or food rotting due to failed refrigeration (in effect, the producer didn’t really have a choice in the matter).

Food Waste

This typically refers to food that is available for consumption, at market or at homes, which was ultimately discarded rather than being eaten. Food waste implies that we had the opportunity to consume the food, but we failed to do so. Examples include food that we discard from retail stores as blemished or out of date, or food that we discard from our plates and refrigerators. Food waste implies a level of responsibility, of conscious choice. In simple terms, we blew it. There are social, environmental, financial, and moral implications of that choice.

Excess Food

Food that is available for consumption, which could ultimately be wasted if it is not repurposed or redistributed. Excess food is a valuable resource, and like all scarce resources, it can and should be put to the best possible use before it becomes food waste. Most food waste warriors understand the distinction, and we would probably all benefit from thinking more along the lines of excess food as we go about our work

But an unfortunate new word seems to be creeping into the lexicon, an inappropriate catchall for any type of food loss or waste: “garbage.”

For example, an individual at a high-profile food event recently questioned whether there was inherent difficulty in significantly advancing food waste reduction, theorizing “we’re talking about garbage essentially, right?” Such a statement is extremely misguided – it alienates all food system stakeholders, including culinarians working to avoid overproduction, hard-working members of food recovery organizations who capture and redistribute excess food resources, and especially hungry people to whom that food is delivered. As Doug Rauch, founder of Daily Table, once noted: “Nobody wants another plate of food waste.” That’s the correct mindset. No one wants a plate of garbage, either.

Further, a recent post out of Canada picked up on the very fine work of Jonathan Deutsch and the Drexel Food Lab in recovering excess food items from local sources and converting them into value-added products. These “upcycled” products can be sold at a profit in conjunction with social enterprises – thus creating social, environmental, and financial benefit from wasted food. It’s just the kind of creative entrepreneurial spirit needed to put food resources to optimal use – and it conveys responsibility based on a proper valuation of excess food. Unfortunately, the title of the post was “Eating Garbage.” While that may be a catchy headline – it deflates the good work being done at Drexel. It’s definitely the wrong message.

We’ll use the term food waste, because we’re driven by the responsibility that it conveys to prevent the loss of such a valuable resource. But you’ll never hear us use the word garbage.

Topics: Food Waste Musings, Food Waste Prevention Newsletter, commercial kitchen