Food Waste Stump Speech

I’ve always loved traveling to colleges and conferences to speak on the impact and opportunity of wasted food. There’s something special about meeting new folks, bringing together interested people and groups, making eye contact on a key point, and, occasionally, hearing a chuckle on a joke.

The pandemic squashed that. Like we’ve all done, though, I’ve adjusted and made friends with the remote presentation. While I hope to return to in-person talks soonish, I wanted to share a recent remote talk to give a sense of how that looks and sounds. Enjoy, and definitely reach out if I can be of service.

April 5, 2021 | Posted in General | Comments closed

Dumpster, Guarded

When 12 police officers are guarding a food-laden Dumpster, it’s worth reassessing the chain of events.

Here goes: Portland store loses power due to snow and ice storm. Store throws away lots of food. Word spreads in city where 300,000 lack power. People come to grab food from dumpster. Store employees prevent dumpster diving and call police when people refuse to leave. Police guard trash, but eventually leave. People snag discarded food for themselves and the many free fridges around the city.

First, what a sad saga, in an especially hard time for so many Portlanders and Americans. Second, there are no real winners here.

Edible food should never end up in the trash; it should be donated via non-profits to those in need or, at worst, composted. The conflict here stems from the words “edible” and “non-profits.” With the latter, supermarkets are free from liability–as outlined in the Good Samaritan Act–only if excess food is donated to a 501(c)(3) hunger relief org. Stores also don’t want people digging through their trash, which is technically trespassing (if food is in a Dumpster). Yet, the edibility of the tossed food gets at the heart of the matter.

The Fred Meyer, like any chain, would have strict food safety guidelines. Their power outage (no backup generator??) meant that refrigerator and freezer temperatures inched above the allowed temperature. At that point, the store sees that food as inedible and a potential food safety hazard. Even though it was freezing outside, it wasn’t in the store. Yet, those food safety rules contain, to borrow a phrase the store used, an “abundance of caution.” It is likely that the food was fine, and would remain so after being discarded, given the winter freeze that had prompted this entire saga. Yet, that common sense, five-second-rule-ish approach to edibility will never trump the bureaucratic, “time and temperature” rules of a grocery chain.

Meanwhile, the pandemic-induced hunger and the powerlessness (literal and figurative) of many Portlanders only made the saga worse. Juxtaposed against that need, the edible abundance being dumped was incredibly galling, especially for those looking to feed hungry families, friends, and neighbors. Hence the frustration outside the store, which led to the police being called.

There’s so much legitimate debate these days on the role of the police. But protecting the contents of a dumpster would seem to be pretty widely accepted as a subpar use of police officers. What I mean to say is–come on!! Twelve police officers guarding a store’s trash!?! Not a great use of civic resources to have a dozen cops ensure that a store’s trash doesn’t become any citizens’ treasure.

Once it became clear that the power outage would threaten so much food, the store management could have been more proactive. For example, they could have called their local food recovery organization for an emergency pickup or even brought food outside to keep it at temperature. The store may say that moving that food from the cases would have required too much labor. But they reportedly had nine employees guarding the dumpster before the police arrived. How much food could nine employees have prevented from reaching that end?

Procedural failings like this one are even harder to stomach in this time of great need. Especially when the alternative is chucking boxloads of beef, seafood, and produce. While stores regularly donate some foods, they could improve by preventing perishable, nutritious goods from being dumped. Instead of guarding gourmet trash, supermarkets should devote that time, energy, and resources into preventing that food from reaching it.

— — —

Note: The Oregonian article mentioned that one person referenced the date on a carton of juice found in the Dumpster. The date label on a food item ceases to be relevant if it’s not kept at the right temperature.

February 19, 2021 | Posted in General | Comments closed

Chatting on Food Waste Day

And you thought September 29 was just National (U.S.) Coffee Day! The UN declared this day to in fact be International Day of Awareness for Food Loss and Waste. Who am I to argue? Instead, I joined the UN FAO’s Twitter chat.

While I’d appreciate a shorter acronym next time to alleviate the Twitter character crunch (#IDAFLW), the Day was a nice chance to illuminate the solvable problem of wasting food. But, because Tweets are a tad fleeting, I wanted to share (immortalize?) the Twitter chat on this eternal blog. Keep in mind these are actual, unedited tweets.

Question 1: Why should everyone care about food loss and waste?

We should care about #foodwaste b/c it has harmful ethical, economic, and environmental consequences (the 3 E’s). Wasting food is a terrible squandering of resources–with horrible GHG impact–when that food could be used to help alleviate global malnutrition.

Question 2: What are the social, environmental, and economic impacts of food loss and waste?

a. wasted food = lost opportunity to feed malnourished ppl: About 11% of global population underfed while 33% food is wasted.

b. #foodwaste –> Climate change! 8% of global GHG emissions stem from #foodwaste.

c. Global #foodwaste has a $2.6 trillion impact

Question 3: What are some of the key drivers behind food loss and waste?

Abundance alters mindset–we don’t need to value our food

Beauty–markets demand perfect, homogenous food

Low cost — Food is cheap in much of the developed world

Lack of Knowledge on how to store, use, maximize food


Question 4. Are there initiatives in your neighborhood, organization, or school encouraging the reduction of #foodwaste?

Most important step against #foodwaste: stop teaching kids that food is trash. Let’s reach the next generation–to change mindsets AND empower kids to bring home love food/hate waste message. Reduce via share tables, redistribute excess. See: @food_rescue @FoodRecovery

Question 5. How can public sector programs & investments accelerate actions to reduce food loss and waste?

a. Invest in food waste *reduction* via awareness campaigns

b. Ban landfilling of food, like several US states have done

c. Encourage/facilitate food redistribution via tax incentives

d. Enable composting/anaerobic digestion infrastructure

Question 6: What innovative business models & private sector initiatives have been successful in reducing food loss and waste?

a. Measuring #foodwaste is key, to know amount/kind food squandered –see @Leanpath

b. Redistributing excess to those in need (tax benefits!)

c. Selling food that otherwise would be wasted @DailyTableMkt

d. Transforming excess food

Question 7: How can we all play our part in reducing our food waste footprint?

Reducing our #foodwaste footprint is vital–and easy!

a. Shop Smarter–take inventory, don’t buy too much

b. Store Properly–avoid clutter, freeze excess

c. Be wise on Portion size

d. Love Leftovers

e. Never landfill food–reuse, give away, feed animals, compost.

September 29, 2020 | Posted in Environment, Food Recovery, General, International, Leftovers, Storage | Comments closed

Food Matters!

For years, I’ve been saying that we need to teach kids that food isn’t trash. That food isn’t just like any other commodity in our throw-away culture. That food is special. That food…matters!

I’m thrilled to say that there’s now a great resource to teach that message. This past year, I’ve helped create an amazing (and free!) toolkit to do just that–the Food Matters Action Kit!

The fun, fact-filled resource is brimming with diverse activities, lessons, and games to help teachers and youth leaders bring the topic of wasted food to life. Food Matters covers food waste prevention, redistribution, and recycling. And there’s something in there for young people of all ages, with a module for kids ages 5-13 and youth ages 14-25.

Food Matters is a project of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a North American organization spanning three countries and three languages. So the kit is available in English, French, and Spanish. And participants can join in the online community with peers from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.

You can learn a bit more about the topic and see some preliminary Food Matters participants here:

And of course, you can download it (free) and peruse it at your leisure. Give it a look, and–hopefully–help teach kids that food matters!

May 2, 2019 | Posted in College, School | Comments closed

Minneaturizing School Food Waste

Minneapolis Public Schools are a national leader in food service. MPS has renovated nearly half of school kitchens and pledged to bring on-site cooking to all schools by 2025. It serves food without high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors, or preservatives. Yet, MPS hasn’t focused much on tackling wasted food. Until now.

MPS Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services Bertrand Weber realized that the above improvements would mean little if students kept wasting food at the current, mind-numbing rate. Nationally, the USDA National School Lunch Program squanders about $5 million every day through discarded food. With that in mind, Weber hired me as a consultant (along with the NRDC’s ace JoAnne Berkenkamp) to create a food waste prevention plan for the district.

The result is now out–a three-year plan called True Food, No Waste. While much of the plan is specific to MPS, any school can glean some wisdom from the document.

The plan follows the traditional EPA Food Waste Reduction hierarchy, with an emphasis on reducing the amount of surplus food. One primary plank will be establishing “share tables” at all schools, allowing students to leave or pick up unwanted food items. As of now, fewer than 1 percent of US public schools have share tables. That’s astounding, given how incredibly low-tech and affordable share tables are–just add a horizontal surface!

Other neat parts of the plan:

  • Creating partnerships to donate excess food to community partners (non-profits)
  • Establishing signage to engage students on reducing wasted food
  • Prompting competition between schools to see who can waste the least
  • Facilitating lunch line sampling to allow students to try entrees before taking them
  • Implementing pre-consumer waste tracking software
  • Improving MPS food scrap recycling program, currently at about half of MPS schools

For other educators interested in fighting food waste but perhaps looking for a slightly…pared-down version of the MPS plan, here’s some lighter reading: Wasting Less Food in K-12 Settings, which I helped create along with NRDC.

Additionally, stay tuned for a very hands-on toolkit with lessons and activities for teaching food waste prevention called Food Matters. That CEC educational tool will be released later in March. (I’m part of the team creating it.)

In any case, let’s dedicate ourselves to teaching kids that food is special, not trash. Because outside of Minneapolis and a few select districts like Oakland, the school food waste status quo is failing (as in, getting an F).

March 1, 2019 | Posted in School | Comments closed

State of the Food Waste Union

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to report that the state of our Food Waste Union is strong! I’m not really sure whether that conveys that we’re wasting a lot of food or making progress on the issue, but, oddly, both are true!

The occasion of the actual State of the Union address provides the perfect opportunity to consider our progress on wasted food in America. So…how are we doing?

In the US, we’re making great strides in building awareness on how much food is wasted. And we have an ambitious federal goal–50% reduction by 2030–without much of a plan on how to achieve it. Yet neither the increased awareness nor that goal has translated into tangible progress–yet!–on minimizing the amount of food wasted. We’re ninth out of 34 nations ranked on the Food Sustainability Index for food loss and waste.

With an optimistic outlook, here are some highlights from the last year or so:

  • Drawdown listed reducing food waste as the #3 solution to global warming. Plenty of motivation there!
  • The superb Save the Food ad campaign continued to lead the way, drawing attention to excessive purchasing and date labels in various markets across the country.
  • The Further With Food site launched to provide shared resources on our favorite topic.
  • While launched in 2016, the Food Loss & Waste Protocol began to flourish in 2017. This standard sets requirements for measuring food waste, enabling apples-to-apples comparisons on waste levels.
  • ReFED, having previously provided a roadmap to minimizing 20% of US food waste, just found in a new report that food waste represents an $18.2 billion profit opportunity for US grocery retailers.
  • NRDC released an updated version of its Wasted report (full disclosure: I helped write said report).
  • NRDC also quantified the untapped potential in US cities for more food recovery–almost half of the annual food needs for Denver and Nashville!
  • Wasted, a well-publicized documentary produced by Anthony Bourdain, had no reservations about calling out the stupidity of wasting 40% of our food.
  • The Rockefeller Foundation and many other family foundations are funding expanded work on the issue. In fact, I just heard an estimate that there was $18 billion available in private and government funding for food-waste-fighting initiatives 2017.
  • WWF published Fighting Food Waste in Hotels and is helping to do just that.
  • WWF also published the excellent Food Waste Warrior Toolkit, a free series of resources to teach children about wasted food.
  • Various actors in the food industry are now doing their part. For example, Ikea has the Food is Precious initiative. And retailers Delhaize and Kroger each have ongoing campaigns.
  • Sales of “ugly produce” boxes zoomed on, as Hungry Harvest branched out to three new markets on the East Coast. Imperfect Produce did the same on the West Coast and added Chicago as well.

There’s so much happening, it’s safe to say that the state of our Food Waste Fighting Union is strong indeed!

February 1, 2018 | Posted in General | Comments closed

Learning from ‘Lo Spreco’

I recently had the opportunity to help lead a Penn course on sustainability and the food-water-energy nexus, with an emphasis on food waste. The bulk of the course consisted of a week-long trip to Italy.

Why Italy? First, why ever not? Second, course instructor Steve Finn wanted to explore food waste through the lens of Italy’s passion for food, especially in the wake of EXPO Milano 2015.  And explore we did!

We held sessions with UN FAO staff in Rome, interfaced with professors and students at the University of Bologna (like the amazing Silvia Gaiani), and visited the Food Innovation Program in Reggio Emilia. These exchanges were educational and enlightening, especially in promoting cross-cultural interaction. Each time, it felt like we were at the UN, and in one case we were!

The class engaged in plenty of experiential learning, too, visiting a Parmigiano Reggiano maker, a balsamic vinegar producer and a supermarket hell bent on preventing food waste via the Last Minute Market program.

Another exceptional experience in Italy is simply eating. Anywhere. We observed a pervasive passion for food in Italy. I won’t soon forget the care and theatrics that a Bologna waiter exhibited when tossing and serving a Tagliatelle Bolognese.

You’d assume that that passion would translate into less wasted food. And you could say the same about lingering memories of Italy’s post-World War II poverty and hunger. Yet, Italy’s food waste score ranks below that of the US and many other European countries in a recent sustainability index.

How can waste, or “lo spreco,” be so prevalent? The coexistence of Italian food waste and food infatuation illustrates the global spread of negative culinary trends. Bigger supermarkets and large package sizes enable and entice over-purchasing. Food costs are artificially low. Hospitality often leads to over-serving. There’s little appetite for leftovers or doggy bags. And maybe, just maybe, Italian food passion leads to perfectionism and picky purchasing.

Fortunately, Italy is doing its best to combat wasted food. In 2013, the government created a national Food Waste Prevention Plan to tackle waste. In 2016, the Italian Senate passed a more specific bill that offers incentives to businesses who donate food to charities and funds programs to tackle food waste in schools and hospitals. Meanwhile, public opinion is firmly against waste, as roughly half of Italians believe too much food is wasted.

Leading activists have run the Zero Waste (Spreco Zero) campaign since 2010. Italian retailer Coop collaborated with Slow Food to create the 100 Faces Against Waste selfie campaign. And Last Minute Market, operating since 1998, has streamlined the process for supermarkets seeking to minimize excess food and donate the rest to charities.

We visited an “ipermercato” (a hypermarket–certainly a more fun term than ‘superstore’), to see LMM in action. The market we visited was a Conad, which was fitting because Last Minute Market’s creators launched the idea in that chain. The store had multiple 50%-off sections to sell older goods. The items that didn’t sell after a day there would then be donated. Additionally, we observed imperfect produce and items with damaged packaging set aside for donation. To facilitate those tactics, the store has one employee, Mary, who dedicates half of her work time to minimizing waste and tracking food donations.

As we left the market, I reflected on the dual nature of our visit. It was both energizing and sobering. It was exciting to see the depth and breadth of the Italian food waste movement. Yet, it was both disappointing and puzzling to see how Italy–the home of Slow Food and dozens of regional cuisines older than the U.S.–had come to waste so much food. Because if the weed of waste can prosper in the garden of food-loving Italy, it can do so anywhere.

May 9, 2017 | Posted in Campaigns, History and Culture, International, Personal | Comments closed

Wasted Food Dude–Backyard Methane??

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude, which also runs on BioCycle‘s site and their e-bulletin, BioCycle Food Recycling News

Related: send questions! All food-waste-related queries are welcome–big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or @wastedfood. I bet we could all use a diversion from politics…

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
Does a backyard composter produce methane? If so, should I / can I do something to reduce it?
— Kai R., Arlington, VA

Hi Kai,
The shortest answer is: yes. Yes to all of your questions!

While it doesn’t have to, backyard composting usually does produce some methane. The uber-simple version is that when your food scraps don’t have access to oxygen, methane is created.  Commercial composting operations ensure that their materials have steady exposure to oxygen, whereas backyard composting requires us to make that happen. And we the people are not infallible, sadly.

How much methane does backyard composting create? Study results aren’t exactly piling up (compost joke), but in general, “Home composting can be a significant source of methane,” explained Sally Brown, soil scientist and Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington. “Home composters are less likely than municipal or regulated facilities to monitor aeration.”

Given that unfortunate reality, you have two choices: 1) dedicate yourself to turning your compost pile to ensure aeration; or 2) leave it up to the pros! Almost all commercial composters have that aeration thing figured out. They’ll also be able to compost meat and dairy scraps because their compost pile gets hot enough to process those. Then again, you’ll save money and carbon emissions (unless they’re collecting by bike!) by composting in your backyard. Decisions, decisions.

You also asked if you should do something about composting’s methane output. Hang on a sec — let me put on my Ethicist Dude hat. Doesn’t really fit, but here goes: Given methane’s harmful impact as a greenhouse gas and the scary reality on climate change, you really should. Methane is about 23 times more potent at trapping heat in our environment than carbon dioxide.

And part of the reason you really should try to limit composting methane is because it’s not a huge deal. Basically, you make sure you have about twice as much brown (leaves and other dry materials) in your pile to green (food scraps). From there, you basically just stir it around every so often. Just a hint of effort needed.

Still, some readers might hear that composting could create methane and opt out altogether. Backyard composting — with or without methane emissions — is still miles better than not composting. All of the food sent to landfill creates methane emissions (because it decomposes without air). Opting out is like choosing an SUV over a hybrid car because the latter isn’t an electric car. If the perfect is the enemy of the good, the bad is a much bigger foe!

Finally, it’s worth noting that processing your own excess has several intrinsic benefits. Composting forces you to notice the waste you’re creating, prompting behavior changes. It creates a personal, local supply of useful soil amendment. And there’s something to be said for self-reliance. That concept, like composting itself, is inherently virtuous.

Just remember, compost happens. But it happens better with a little effort.

Keep turning that pile,

February 1, 2017 | Posted in Composting, Environment, Wasted Food Dude | Comments closed

Wasted Food Dude–Composting Conundrum

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude, which also runs on BioCycle‘s site and their e-bulletin, BioCycle Food Recycling News

Related: send questions! All food-waste-related queries are welcome–big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or @wastedfood.

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
My composting facility takes in food scraps as well as yard trimmings, soiled paper and compostable liner bags. I recently attended a food waste workshop and was surprised to hear comments that composters compete with food rescue groups for wasted food. What’s up with that? I’m a big supporter of rescue and donation!

—  Perplexed in Pennsylvania

Hey Perplexed,

What IS up with composters and food rescue groups competing? The words “composting” and “competition” so rarely even inhabit the same sentence! Sadly, it does happen, and leads to some real tension.

Explaining that tension raises those classic questions of theory vs. practice and ideals vs. profits. In theory, most organics recyclers would rather not compost edible food because it defies the “reduce, reuse, recycle” axiom summarized by the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy. Ideally, they’d only take scraps and food that were clearly inedible.

In practice, though, it can be difficult for composters to tell what foods could have been donated. And they are at the mercy of their customers’ practices. Still, I know many composters who are proactive here, notifying customers when they have large amounts of edible food in their bins. Some composters will even help their customers link with local food rescue groups (find yours here), to ensure edible food reaches those in need, not a compost pile.

Fortunately, the type of retailers, restaurants and institutions that divert to composting are prone to welcome food recovery, once they learn about that option. But inertia is powerful. Getting compost customers to separate edible from inedible — like organic from landfill — isn’t easy. Many potential donors find that the time, effort and storage space for potential donations can be real barriers. And unreliable collection by often-volunteer-staffed food recovery groups can be problematic.

Another factor at play is whether or not this “wasted food” can even be donated. If we’re talking about food kept at the right temperature and following all food safety protocols then all efforts should be aimed at redistributing it to hunger-relief agencies (who may even pick up that food). If not, following the EPA Hierarchy is best.

In some ways, organics recyclers don’t have much agency here. Aside from notifying these “overcomposting” customers and connecting them with local food recovery organizations there’s only so much a composter can do.

In addition to logistics, self-interest plays a role here. All businesses, including organics recyclers, need revenue. There is such a thing as cold, rational economic behavior. Since composting operations are paid by the ton, they don’t always quibble over the optimal destination of those materials. In the game of tonnage, the bottom line can supersede the optimal hierarchical action, especially when donation (or source reduction, feeding livestock, or anaerobic digestion) is not easily achieved.

You mentioned that composters are competing with food rescue groups for the same wasted food, but I wouldn’t think of it that way. The overlap is usually a small amount of what a composter is picking up. And that competition is almost unavoidable. To avoid any competition, a composter would forgo most customers and condemn all of those operations’ organic waste to the landfill.

Returning to the question of tension, I’ve spoken with organics recyclers about the friction between composting, source reduction and food rescue. Composters do receive money for accepting food waste, no question there. But for the most part, composters are on board with the EPA Hierarchy. As one North Carolina composter told me, “I don’t hide the fact that reduce and reuse come before recycling,” said Amy Brooks, of Brooks Contractor. “People say, ‘if we only had more food waste, we’d have more compost.’ But are those couple buckets of apples in your one cubic yard roll-off really going to make more compost? Not really. You’ll get a bit more tip fee, but there’s a better use for it.”

Take ‘er easy,
Wasted Food Dude


December 8, 2016 | Posted in Composting, Food Recovery, Wasted Food Dude | Comments closed

Wasted Food Dude–Using Up Dressing

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude, which also runs on BioCycle‘s site and their e-bulletin, BioCycle Food Recycling News

Related: send questions! All food-waste-related queries are welcome–big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or @wastedfood.

Dear Wasted Food Dude,

It seems that we can’t get through more than half a bottle of salad dressing without getting tired of the flavor. I hate to throw it out or let it expire, but it’s getting gross. For example, I have half a bottle of an Italian that was too tart and half a bottle of raspberry dressing that is too sweet. Besides as a marinade or taking to a party, any suggestions on how to use these up?                        -—Danielle C., Northern California

Howdy Danielle,

I thought your tale would end like an old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ad, and you’d be praising Raspberry Italian dressing. But no.

How best to use up those bottles? Well, you may be asking the wrong dude, as I’m not a big fan of dressing. I eat my veggies raw and spend most days in pajamas. But it’s not about me. It’s about me using the internet to help you!

My reflexive advice is always smoothies and soups. The former won’t work here, but the latter could. I plugged in Italian dressing on and it spit out 1,488 recipe ideas! To be fair, plenty of recipes use dressing as a marinade or as…salad dressing.

Still, there were heaps of useful ideas, like using dressing to make pasta salad, cole slaw, and “Texas caviar.” The possibilities, like a black hole and the internet, are endless.

Also, I was kidding about the raspberry/Italian dressing mashup, but it may be worth trying. The blend may mellow both the tart and sweet, and it can’t be too different from your average raspberry vinaigrette.

The best way to avoid this situation in the future, other than dressing abstinence, is to buy smaller containers. And that is decent universal advice for food purchases. Any savings realized from buying the larger size evaporate when that item isn’t finished.

If you’re already buying small-ish containers of dressing and can’t seem to use them up — a problem for many people who live alone — I’d recommend whipping up your own small batches. And by small, I mean making enough for one or two bowls. I find that experimentation is rewarded with salad dressings, so just follow your heart!

Making your own salad dressing (or most anything), will save money, avoid waste, and allow you to experiment with minimal stakes! Just keep in mind that you have some time to ponder what to do with your dressings, as most kinds contain vinegar, a curing agent that makes bottles last, approximately, forever.

You’re berry welcome,
Wasted Food Dude


November 7, 2016 | Posted in General, Household, Wasted Food Dude | Comments closed