Food Waste: Is Source Reduction Being Overshadowed by Food Recovery Efforts?

by Emily Nink

To prevent food waste, strategies should examine both social and environmental outcomes at all stages of the food recovery hierarchy, avoiding using food insecurity as a convenient rhetoric while protecting a culture of wasteful overconsumption.

Every year, about 40 percent of food, or roughly 133 billion pounds, is wasted from stores, restaurants, or homes in the United States. At the same time, 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure.

This urgent issue is getting more attention than ever before—and the social safety net is a large part of the national conversation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (UDSA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently joined forces in setting an ambitious goal to halve food waste by the year 2030.

And the link between food security and food waste isn’t lost on legislators.

“If we reduced the amount of food waste by 15 percent, and redirected it, we could feed half of the people who are currently in need,” says U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME).

Pingree is currently drafting a comprehensive food waste bill, in part aimed at addressing food insecurity through Good Samaritan tax policies that encourage food donations.

Many organizations across the country are stepping up to glean food from farms, link stores to food pantries, create new mobile phone apps for reducing individual waste, and recover leftovers for donation to the hungry in hopes of serving both environmental and social goals.

Grocery shoppers also care about food waste, more so than other prominent issues such as climate change and genetically modified foods, according to one recent poll.

Yet despite the best efforts of the national food recovery network—from the federal government to community composters—97 percent of food waste still ends up in the landfill. Lots of talk doesn’t necessarily translate into action, let alone make a dent in the persistent American problem of food insecurity.

And to some analysts, a focus on food recovery for donation isn’t a sufficient mechanism of addressing the root causes of food insecurity in America.

Food author Mark Winne writes that “the waste diversion fervor associated with feeding the hungry seems at times like a sanctimonious distraction from the more critical task of a moral society: ending hunger.”

Winne advocates for reducing waste upstream while focusing food security efforts on the more systemic problems of economic inequality and chronic hunger, acknowledging that this is a tall order.

While the goal to halve food waste by 2030 is laudable, and food recovery for donation should certainly play a large part in achieving this reduction, there may also be unintended consequences of increased government involvement in food recovery.

In California, for example, increased efforts to recover food resulted in stricter policies for food safety, resulting in traceability and approved source requirements that were too burdensome for food recovery networks and gleaning organizations. Nationally, as food recovery programs increase in number and scale, food safety will continue to be a concern, as will efficient distribution of resources and economic incentives through Good Samaritan tax policy.

Furthermore, food justice or equity is rarely a part of the conversation about upstream reduction of food waste. Yet these important strategies—which occur before food recovery to prevent the existence of waste in the first place—certainly have widespread implications for improving community food security.

Source reduction strategies focus not only on the production and manufacturing stages, but also include efforts to reduce portion sizes at restaurants, reduce food packaging, educate consumers on sell-by dates, and improve infrastructure for cold supply chains. These strategies should be the highest priority for preventing the existence of food waste in the first place, according to the EPA, because they save natural resources associated with food production.

This environmental argument for source reduction of food waste misses an important point. By reducing food waste at the source, these strategies can avoid a potential equity problem: shifting the burden of food waste from privileged areas to low-income communities and already strained emergency food networks.

The ability to absorb more perishable food and deal with an ever-increasing number of donors and food types may be a burden for pantries, and these efforts, while important, shouldn’t overshadow the need to limit overbuying, prevent waste in restaurant kitchens, and improve supply chain logistics. Despite the national strategy’s best intentions to reduce waste at all stages, from farm to fork, many stories highlighted in the news focus on recovery—from imperfect produce donations to apps that simply divert leftovers to existing food pantries.

Ultimately, all strategies are aimed at preventing food waste from reaching the landfill stage, a goal that certainly affects community health and environmental justice. For instance, effective composting models can provide communities with a valuable resource for urban farming and gardening, improving food justice through community ownership of food scraps in the form of compost.

Marginalized populations are historically more susceptible to toxins from waste incinerators and landfills. In fact, this issue was a large part of the origin of the environmental justice movement, providing early milestones for racial justice in environmental policymaking. Yet community composting, urban farming, and the geography of waste are less often part of the food waste conversation.

To actually prevent food waste and its associated natural resource use, strategies should examine both social and environmental outcomes at all stages of the food recovery hierarchy. Initiatives should avoid using food insecurity as a convenient rhetoric while protecting a culture of wasteful overconsumption.

Emily Nink is a second-year student in the Agriculture, Food and Environment program and a researcher for Food Tank.

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