Waste not, want not

Waste not, want not: we’ve heard these words countless times since childhood. In fact, most of us were raised learning to clean our plates. In a world where almost every culture teaches their children the same lesson, how can it be that a third of the food produced globally is never eaten?

Edible food falls out of the supply chain at far too many points on its journey to our plates, with nearly 85% occurring at consumer-facing businesses and in homes. From farm to factory and fridge to fork, food waste is a major issue with shared responsibility. Supermarkets cancel entire produce orders based on cosmetic appearances of fruit and vegetables, while shoppers avoid the misshapen apples on the fruit stand. Food manufacturers cut the ends off of string beans to create a uniform size; at home we cook broccoli florets and discard the stems. Corporations over-order for huge events; we order a big dinner for takeout and never eat the leftovers.

This cumulative problem has eye-popping results. Around 40% of the food produced in the U.S. winds up rotting in landfills, creating methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Precious resources – like the land, water, fuel, and labor it takes to produce that food – also are wasted. In all, more than $218 billion per year is spent on growing, processing, and transporting food that’s never eaten. These are just some of the impacts of a quiet crisis that too few understand.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement underfoot to make food waste a top-shelf issue in the U.S. and abroad. This May, in the space usually occupied by New York’s popular Union Square Greenmarket, The Rockefeller Foundation teamed up with the environmental nonprofit Feedback and a coalition of local organizations and chefs to serve 5,000 New Yorkers a free lunch – and thanks to City Harvest, an additional 5,000 meals were delivered to local food banks and soup kitchens. This wasn’t simply a delicious meal: it was made entirely from food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Known as Feeding the 5000, these festival-style events have been shining a spotlight on food waste in cities around the world for the past seven years. First held in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2009, Feeding the 5000 has since served more than 170,000 meals in 34 cities including Paris, Sydney, Amsterdam, Brussels and most recently, Washington, D.C. Each event depends on partnerships with local companies, organizations, and chefs to source, prepare, and present meals that are both delicious and resource efficient. In addition to a free lunch, educational programming and onsite cooking demonstrations show attendees tasty ways to use food that too often is wasted needlessly – prompting them to reexamine their relationship with food, including how they buy, prepare, store, and ultimately use it.

At the core of these events is the opportunity for attendees to advocate for food waste reduction in two ways: first, by calling on individuals to reduce their own waste, and second, to appeal to corporate citizens to do the same. This includes calling for a food date labeling standard to replace the dizzying array of unclear labels like “sell by,” “best by,” “expires on,” and others – which focus not on food safety but instead on peak flavor and freshness. Consumer confusion about these labels has drastic consequences, with 90 percent of Americans saying they discard food when it reaches the date on its package. An industry-led agreement on a safety-based label standard would greatly reduce food waste while creating a positive enabling environment for future policies.

Because it’s scalable, adaptable, and most importantly, fun, Feeding the 5000 helps create a positive civic movement to spark change throughout the food system. Such movements not only motivate people to make changes in their own daily lives, but they also create the environment for public and private sector actors – cities, industries, and entire nations – to take action on a massive scale. And big action is what’s needed if we are to achieve the U.N.’s global goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030 – a target which the U.S. also adopted late last year.

While the impacts in the U.S. are immense, they are even more massive across the globe. In Africa, hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers lose precious income when up to 40% of their crops fail to reach market, in large part due to unfair trading practices and cosmetic standards set by supermarkets in the U.S. and other industrialized nations. Meanwhile, 1.2 billion people go hungry every day around the world…a number that will likely rise as the planet’s population swells by 2 billion between now and 2050.

To confront this worldwide issue, The Rockefeller Foundation is working globally to attack it at every level through its $130 million YieldWise initiative. Working with private, public, and nonprofit actors across the food supply system, YieldWise seeks to prove that reaching the U.N. target of reducing food waste and loss by 50% is within our grasp.

YieldWise is enabling Feedback to bring Feeding the 5000-style events to other U.S. cities – including Los Angeles, Denver, and New York’s Hudson Valley – precisely because it opens people’s eyes to the problem of food waste and gives them a role to play in reducing it. Solutions like these can be customized in communities around the world, creating unexpected coalitions of chefs, public sector leaders, nonprofit organizations, and even businesses – all united toward a common goal.

Global food waste can no longer be an under-the-table issue. It was once acceptable to litter, but try throwing garbage out your car window today and see how wrong it feels. Soon enough, it’ll feel equally wrong to waste food on this scale.

Dr. Zia Khan is Vice President, Strategy and Initiatives at The Rockefeller Foundation. Tristram Stuart is the Founder of Feedback.