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To Achieve Our Food Waste Goals, We Must Overcome Limiting Beliefs

By Andrew Shakman, Co-Founder & CEO  ///  June 3, 2022

On May 12, Leanpath Co-Founder and CEO Andrew Shakman delivered the closing keynote address at the 2022 ReFED Food Waste Conference. "Unfortunately," he states, "the scale of our movement does not yet match the scale of the food waste problem." Reflecting on 18 year of driving food waste change, Andrew identifies the limiting beliefs that are holding us back--and how we overcome them. Watch the video above or read the following transcript.


After this fantastic conference, everyone should be armed and ready to drive change.  And I hope we’re seeking not just any change: We want meaningful change. Big change. Fast change

As skilled change agents, it behooves us to anticipate obstacles that might lie ahead. So, today I’ll be sharing a few observations about overcoming challenges, based on many years working on food waste.

Food waste is clearly a compelling topic. We all know it’s a ”no brainer”, the very definition of a nexus issue. Unfortunately, the scale of our movement does not yet match the scale of the food waste problem. And this is not for lack of effort or lack of progress - this conference is testament to the collective advancements we are making. Progress is absolutely afoot. 

But I’ve observed myself, and have discussed with some of you, that this fight often feels difficult. More difficult than it should be given the magnitude of the problem. This has caused me to reflect on a central question, closely linked to our conference theme: What stands in the way of this movement achieving greater scale, at a faster pace?

I’ve reflected upon this and noticed one familiar dynamic that has appeared in various ways for as long as I have worked on food waste, at both the front line in the kitchen and the corporate office. And not just in foodservice, but in the broader dialogue on food waste. And which I continue to see today.

That principle is: People bring many limiting beliefs as they work on food waste, often unconsciously.

Many overemphasize the internal and operational risks they are managing today. And many underemphasize the external, long-range risks that face their organizations due to food waste. What are these: climate change and food insecurity. As well as related impacts including land conversion, soil health, nutrition and biodiversity loss.

This dynamic causes many to start with expectations that aren't as high as they could be. And aren’t as high as they need to be. Again, in working on food waste I see many well-intentioned, capable committed people overemphasize their operational risks, underemphasize their external risks and become constrained by limiting beliefs, often unconsciously.

Simply, many plans are based on managing too much to the wrong risks. These beliefs and lower expectations lead to smaller and slower food waste “bets” and less momentum for this movement.

I visited my first kitchen in 2004. It was a foreign environment to me at the time. I was in digital marketing, promoting consumer packaged foods from cereal to instant coffee to beer. In some ways, Leanpath is my atonement for years spent selling Cap’n Crunch to children and instant coffee to anyone.

I had a lot to learn at the onset, so I spent a lot of time in kitchens. 

At one point, I managed to get the general manager of a large convention center to allow me to come talk to them about food waste. He didn’t bother to give his chef a heads-up before leading me on a tour and into the chef’s office. He said: “This guy is interested in helping us with food waste. You should talk to him.” The chef did not look excited to see me.

The chef and I toured past bins where I saw a lot of food waste. He pointed throughout the tour to all the ways they were running a great food program with little waste. At the end of the tour, he said, “As you can see we don’t have a food waste problem here.” And with that he was clearly happy to be done with me. I was perplexed. I couldn’t reconcile what I saw with his summation. 

I committed to an immersion, traveling for the better part of a year every week to foodservice operations somewhere in the US. Along the way, I was touring the kitchen of a hospital. I am always interested in visiting the pot washing area as it's usually the collection point for food waste. On this occasion, I walked into that humid, wet room and met the pot washer. Like the chef from the convention center, he did not look excited to see me.

He said, “What do you need?” and I said “I’m Andrew and I’m here to look at the food waste.” And then he surprised me: he said, “It’s about time!” He went on to tell me how much food he threw away as part of his job and how much it pained him that he saw people in need of food when he volunteered every week at his church.

So the front line team members clearly understood food waste was a big problem..

Ironically, at the very same operation a day later, I arrived to present a pre-scheduled training only to find the general manager’s office locked. I sat in an uncomfortable chair for a long time. When the GM finally arrived it was clear she’d forgotten about the training – for which I had traveled cross country – and was visibly unhappy to allocate any time to work on food waste which was apparently a very low priority. 

Why could the pot washer see what the chefs and managers did not? I came to understand they each had different perspectives on what really mattered. The pot washer saw a critical risk in failing to feed people. What risks were the chefs and managers prioritizing above food waste? 

Initially, I knew there was some fear of reputational risk. Some chefs felt they would be judged harshly for having food waste. Surely, this stigma needed to be addressed. However, I noticed the issue went deeper. I wondered: Was food waste actually helping them somehow?

When I probed about overproduction, chefs shared several reasons why this was unavoidable: We cannot run out of food! The last customer through our buffet needs to have exactly the same options as the first customer! We cannot have food that is so sparse in quantity that it looks picked over and unattractive! 

They also talked about food safety. Food they would happily take home to eat they felt compelled to discard due to expiration policies that made so sense. But it was easier to simplify by just discarding items. When in doubt, throw it out. 

I realized that food waste was far from accidental and far from careless. Food waste was actually built-in as a business strategy. These teams were consciously or unconsciously mitigating and managing other risks by wasting food. They avoided running out by making more than they needed. They avoided food safety issues by throwing out good food. They ensured greater sales by over-merchandising food in displays. 

To their thinking, It was a necessary way of working. And they believed they were constrained to this reality. Food waste was filling a business need - serving as a lubricant for other issues. 

It did not need to be this way. Indeed, I learned over many years that the risks the chefs were managing were all solvable. Legitimate, to be sure. In need of consideration. Absolutely. Show stoppers; No. 

Working backwards from an intolerance for waste, I learned it was absolutely possible to rebalance the priorities, addressing both near-term operational risks while working on the critical long-term priorities. 

You could cook eggs to order at the end of a shift, provide all the buffet choices for a breakfast with better quality and zero waste. You could bake a pizza with two sets of toppings - one on each half - rather than making two pizzas. You could merchandise strategically, downsizing set-ups and creatively using smallwares. There were very few intractable solutions wherein food waste needed to be inevitable.

This is one context: the foodservice kitchen. It’s an important part of the overall waste equation, close to 20% of the problem by some measures. But the implications go well beyond that specific sector. 

These dynamics can exist in almost every setting growing, moving, processing, producing, handling, and merchandising food. These all have near-term operational and market risks to manage where food waste has historically been a great, low cost tool to solve other problems.

Once we shine a bright light, challenge the orthodoxy about what has to be, we can get to the work of change. But it has to begin with an intolerance of those limiting beliefs. 

And, while it’s great to solve a problem in one specific place, we need to do this work at scale. We need to be shifting limiting beliefs ubiquitously, across food service, food retail, food manufacturing, food distribution, and agriculture. We have to create literally millions of change opportunities.

This work needs to involve the largest organizations because the broadest system changes occur when the largest players change. We cannot deliver real impact, quickly and at scale without the largest organizations embracing food waste strategies. 

Fortunately, many of us are deeply engaged in driving change. But I know we also face a complex balancing act, too. It is different balancing than the kitchen, but large businesses are also susceptible to over-emphasizing near-term operational risks. This leads to different types of limiting beliefs.

What does this look like?

In the corporate business context this sometimes appears as a belief that we need certainty before scale. 

There is so much innovation happening in this space. Clearly not all new things work right out of the gate. Sometimes they never work. There is a legitimate need to test and prove that any food waste intervention, solution or strategy works before trying to scale-up and speed-up. But there is always a tension about the burden of proof - how much proof is certain enough to justify making a big corporate bet? 

Often, people set an unreasonable burden of proof as a requirement: innovation must be tested not just until impact is clear, but until virtually no risk remains and full buy-in has been obtained. This is, in most every domain, a way of blunting or preventing change.

This ensures slow and limited progress. Meanwhile, precious momentum and time slips away. Many understand this, but it takes senior leaders to set a tone. For example, Denis Machuel, the former CEO of Sodexo arrived at a conclusion that Sodexo had more food waste prevention pilots going than “Air France” and set an ambitious goal to deploy solutions across the company on a specific timeline.

I would challenge all business leaders to look for those moments when you know enough to “go for it” and move out of your comfort zone. 

Another limiting belief involves the scorecard we believe we must use to assess success. We talk about the Triple Bottom Line but don’t fully believe we can use it. We tacitly accept that many food waste innovation strategies will be held to single bottom-line standards, underwritten according to purely financial metrics. This addresses financial risk, but completely ignores the larger, external, social and environmental risks of climate change and food insecurity.

So, let’s change that. Let’s always demand a review of “ROI” includes all three. And, specifically, let’s challenge ourselves to complete the cross-walk between food waste and carbon, connecting the two worlds directly and quantitatively. 

Where net zero goals or science-based targets exist, let’s make sure food waste is explicitly part of that carbon reduction plan, including upstream carbon. That the food waste levers are locked in and defined by emerging standards such as those coming from Verra. 

And let’s not stop there. Let’s also look at food insecurity and challenge ourselves to set KPI’s for impact. And, in many cases, let’s try to cut down the overproduction and, rather than donating food somewhat accidentally, let’s prevent food waste and then use some of the savings to make targeted investments to impact food insecurity. 

We need to optimize for the triple bottom line because it’s the real bottom line, and represent our efforts maximally, not accepting we must shrink to fit the constraints of a one-dimensional financial business case.

I also see limiting beliefs about our ability to be transparent externally about our food waste initiatives and our specific food waste results. Some perceive that any disclosure creates confidentiality issues or removes critical flexibility. 

This over-emphasises the near-term risks: that a disclosure will reflect poorly on an organization, that it will lead to a loss of competitive advantage, or create unwanted accountability pressure, removing wiggle room. But these are not the real risks. The real risks come from NOT sharing. One may be seen as silent on a major issue. One could fail to attract innovators who can help you. One can be seen as inconsistent or insincere by internal teams who are aware of the quest for wiggle room. One can fail to benchmark progress. There’s also a lost opportunity to change social norms.

So, let’s focus on all we can gain from transparency, rather than what we might lose! 

Of course, limiting beliefs don’t appear solely in a kitchen or a corporation. As investors, governments, NGO’s, solution providers and academics we may also constrain ourselves unnecessarily.

I challenge all of us to be curious about our limiting beliefs. What does it mean to optimize for the long-term risks in your part of this movement? 

For example, as an investor you might reflect on your fund structure - is it structured to make truly long-horizon bets? Fast is important for food waste action, but solutions cannot move faster than market adoption. Are you flexible in your time horizon to match the pace of change? 

Or, as an NGO, what is your belief about appropriate levels of partnership with the private sector? I’ve certainly heard concern about endorsing for-profit solutions. Could you use your convening power to proactively lift up a range of for-profit solution providers? What is the downside?

The answers differ by context, and not every limiting belief is wrong. But there are many opportunities to prioritize for the near-term, taking greater comfort over greater impact – we need to resist that instinct. 

In closing, I ask you to imagine a future, where we consistently challenge our limiting beliefs by focusing on the long-term, significant risks. Because the true risk is not in any failure of an initiative or strategy. But in not taking all possible action on climate change and food insecurity, quickly and at scale.

Each of you are the change makers on food waste. What will be achieved will significantly be a result of people in this room, on the virtual conference, and those we collectively draw into this work. 

We need your transformational leadership, bringing your highest expectations for scale and speed, to whatever food waste mission you’ve selected. Let's think in terms of "yes, and." When we see a positive food waste initiative, let's say, “Yes, and let's think about how we can go further, faster and bigger?" 

This may be uncomfortable. Indeed, I would argue it SHOULD be uncomfortable. For we have no alternative to dealing with the long term risks. The future demands bold action now. And there’s every reason to believe that bold organizations and leaders will be rewarded by a stronger, sustainable bottom line, a healthy world and a grateful next generation. 

So, as you leave today, when you settle into that airplane seat or car, reflect on how you may face any limiting beliefs – I think we all do, I certainly do – and how you can be as aggressive as possible in prioritizing the long-term, real risks of Climate Change and Food Insecurity 

Please: Go big. Go fast. Go 100%. And take confidence that you’re doing nothing less than leading a critical transformation.

Topics: Sustainability