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How to accelerate global food waste reduction: 7 key takeaways

By Steven Finn, Vice President of Food Waste Prevention.  ///  May 3, 2021


Leanpath CEO Andrew Shakman recently joined three other leaders of the global food waste movement – Tristram Stuart, UK-based activist, author and Feedback founder, Dana Gunders, Executive Director at ReFED and author of the key U.S.-focused report Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill, and culinary expert Jonathan Deutsch, Drexel University Professor and Director of the Drexel Food Lab and President of the Upcycled Food Foundation – in a special educational session on accelerating food waste reduction organized by faculty at Boston University’s Gastronomy and Food Studies program.

With Covid-19 exposing the fragility of the global food system while also disrupting the considerable momentum on food waste reduction from the prior decade (especially on awareness-raising and education), the session was designed to reenergize emphasis on moving to transformational action on food waste reduction – which is essential if the world is to meet the looming Sustainable Development Goal (Target 12.3) of halving global food waste by 2030. 

Given the high level of urgency for substantial food waste reduction in just a few years, the central question explored was: How can we ignite efforts to truly make this a pivotal decade of action for global food waste reduction?

Drawing on the expertise of these four leaders (and longtime colleagues), the session included review of the many food waste reduction successes of the past decade with the intention of exploring leverage points, identification of stubborn barriers to be overcome, and a go-forward focus on how to pull these many themes together to advance food waste reduction in a transformational manner within a more systemic frame. 

As expected, building on a combination of more than six decades of expertise on food waste reduction from the panelists, the session was incredibly rich in content, and served to educate and inspire the viewers.  Here are seven key takeaways:

(1) We need a more sustainable food system.  Given its massive impact, it is easy to focus on food waste as a solo issue.  But as Tristram Stuart reminds us, food waste is the critical symptom of a “fundamentally broken” food system – the result of a “productionist paradigm” emphasizing ever-increasing food production at immense environmental cost to the planet (a paradigm underpinned by excessive waste).  So it is essential to take a systemic view, reframing the pressing food waste challenge as part of a larger need to create a truly sustainable food system.  At Leanpath we discuss this theme in terms of a cycle of overproduction and excessive waste, and we seek to reduce waste to enable a shift to responsible production versus overproduction.  

(2) Change the culture of abundance.  It is no secret that our culture of abundant food hinders us from properly valuing our food, thus making it too easy for us to discard it.  Dana Gunders reported being stunned by the magnitude of the food waste figures she encountered while researching her seminal paper (noted above), and also by the “numbness” of food sector individuals to those waste levels – and their general acceptance of them.  Leanpath’s Andrew Shakman concurred, noting his early discovery that for years, foodservice organizations had been working around high levels of waste as if they were immovable – a condition which he dubbed “the elephant in the kitchen.”  Significantly reducing food waste requires moving away from our culture of abundance to a culture of responsibility toward our food.    

(3) Adopt an action focus.  Citing ReFED’s recent development of the Insights Engine, a data and solutions hub designed to aid food waste practitioners in research and solutions-focused work, Dana stressed the importance of organizations getting “really clear” on food waste reduction goals, what they will do about them, when they will do it, and expecting to be held accountable for them.  At Leanpath we often refer to this theme of making, and critically, adhering to food waste reduction goals as “closing the commitment gap.”

(4) Make food waste a safe conversation.  Food waste is an issue that everyone struggles with to some degree – in foodservice kitchens, in restaurants, and in the home.  As Andrew noted, it is an issue that is closely tied to our behaviors and habits (especially with chefs), and there is often an emotional, fear-based challenge in talking about it, let alone acting on it.  He emphasized that it is important to step back and make food waste a safe discussion zone as a first step toward seriously acting on it. 

(5) Embrace measurement to make food waste visible.  Seventeen years ago, Andrew’s early discussions on food waste reduction with chefs in their kitchens often yielded responses that they had no waste, although a look into their trash bins revealed otherwise.  That led to the realization that food waste needed to be visible, with transparency about flows and waste levels to unearth opportunities for reduction.  By implementing a practice of daily measurement with data-driven solutions, Andrew noted, organizations can create hyper-efficient operations while changing kitchen culture to prevent the occurrence of waste. 

(5) Be mindful, be responsible.  Jonathan Deutsch built on the importance of valuing food, and the visibility theme, with an important framing of mindfulness.  He stressed the importance of considering the many potential high-value alternatives for excess food in our kitchens – food that is in front of us every day – and actively considering the actions that we can take to give that food additional life versus discarding it.  Noting that this food is tangible, and not abstract, he emphasized that this is an issue that we can all do something about.   

(6) Address risk, address doubt.  Andrew noted that food waste in foodservice operations is often the result of choices around managing risk, such as overpreparing to ensure that there is no chance of running out of food or discarding it too quickly on food safety grounds.  Citing the often-used phrase “when in doubt, throw it out,” he emphasized the need to change that mindset to “when in doubt, address the doubt.”  Harnessing the associated data from daily food waste tracking can enable that shift.

(7) Embrace the connective power of food.  As Andrew noted, food fundamentally creates opportunities for social connection, noting that it is a “binding component” of our world.  As such, the fact that we waste so much of it across the globe is deeply unacceptable to him.  The idea that “food connects everything” is a core Leanpath operating philosophy, and returning to the food system frame, Andrew reiterated the importance of connecting food waste to larger food system challenges – such as climate, hunger, and biodiversity loss.  Concluding, he stressed that food waste is a nexus issue – and we should be grateful that it is – because as such it gives us “one big button to push to bring positive outcomes to multiple sustainability needs. 

That’s a useful summary framing, let’s all take action to push that big food waste button to accelerate transformational food waste reduction. 


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Topics: Food Waste News