USDA and private sector teaming up to prevent food waste

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 4, 2013 - In an effort to prevent an estimated 30-40 percent of the food supply from going to waste, the U.S. Food Waste Challenge was launched June 4 to combat the issue. 

The first of its kind, the U.S. Food Waste Challenge is a campaign to prevent food waste from grocery stores, restaurants, and entertainment events.

The challenge is a partnership between the public and private sector, the USDA, the EPA, and several food companies such as Rio Farms, Unilever, General Mills, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, Feeding America, and Rock and Wrap It Up!. The U.S. Food Waste Challenge seeks to solve the problem of an estimated 133 billion pounds of food that entered the U.S. food supply, but never a consumers mouth. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said fixing this problem will benefit more than just the American food industry.

"The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on earth, but too much of this food goes to waste," Secretary Vilsack said. "Not only could this food be going to folks who need it - we also have an opportunity to reduce the amount of food that ends up in America's landfills.”

Lets Talk Food

Through company initiatives and consumer education via social media and other platforms, Vilsack said the USDA hopes to reduce food waste by informing consumers of simple things such as the true meaning of “sell by” and “use by” labels on their food. 

Federal analysts say that in 2010, about 35 million tons of food waste was generated in the United States, 97 percent of which was thrown away into landfills or incinerators. Four years ago, more than 14 percent of U.S. households did not know where their next meal would come from. In addition to the economic burden imposed on business and residences by wasted food, it also causes environmental problems, given that food decomposes in landfills to generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

 

“Most people don't realize that food waste goes beyond the moral implications - wasting food when one billion people go to bed hungry every night. It's also a major environmental problem,” says Ellen Gustafson, a co-founder of Food Tank, a think tank devoted to global food issues.

 

Challenge organizers also point out that much of the food thrown out is not waste, but instead is wholesome food that could potentially feed millions. Excess food, leftovers and scraps that are not fit for consumption and donation can be recycled into a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

 

Reducing food waste, officials add, conserves energy and resources, preventing pollution involved in the growing, manufacturing, transporting, and selling of food, as well as hauling the food waste and disposing it in landfills. Communities are supported by providing donated untouched food that would have otherwise gone to waste to those who might not have a steady food supply.

 

Earlier this year, FAO and the UN Environmental Program launched the Think.Eat.Save initiative, which is working with groups around the world to develop and coordinate projects to prevent the environmental problems that can result from food loss and food waste.

 

Domestically, the Food Tank cites a number of initiatives across the country, including an Austin, Texas Zero Waste Initiative, a city ordinance that requires all restaurants bigger than 5,000 square feet to separate all compostable materials from other waste by 2016.Smaller restaurants will have to undertake the initiative by 2017. In Washington, D.C., the Food Tank notes, the DC Central Kitchen recovered more than 800,000 pounds of edible food from organizations and restaurants and used it to serve nearly 2 million meals to those in need.

 

The Food Waste Reduction Alliance Project, a three-year initiative created by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), aims to get member firms to reduce the amount of food waste sent to landfills and increase the amount of food donated to food banks.

 

“The one good thing about food waste is that it's like low hanging fruit,” said Danielle Nierenberg, the other co-founder of Food Tank. “If we're really interested in protecting the environment while making sure that farmers are making money and improving food security, then preventing food waste is a great way to solve multiple problems.”

 

One of the major goals of the "Food Waste Challenge" is to take the food that previously would have gone to waste and see it put to sustainable use. Sec. Vilsack and EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe both mentioned renewable energy and donation of excess food as possibilities, and national food banks are excited about the possibility of increased donations. 

“The importance of capturing excess food and providing it to people in need is not a new concept,” Bob Aiken, President and CEO of Feeding America, who itself has been a beneficiary of rescued food in years past, said. “We can and we must do more to work together to capture valuable resource for our neighbors in need.”

This program will work to develop partners within the industry that agree to responsibly dispose of their excess, but still edible, food in a responsible manner instead of simply throwing it away. The goal of the USDA is to have 400 partner organizations by 2015 and 1,000 by 2020. 

Rock and Wrap It Up! is a program already working in to repurpose food that goes uneaten at a variety of events including sporting events, entertainment catering, and political rallies. In all, they work with 43,000 shelters and other places of need to box up prepared, but untouched, meals after high profile events. In all, this program has collected more than 250 million pounds of food and fed more than 500 million people. 

Although this may come across as a common sense proposal, Perciasepe said it will have obstacles to overcome, but he feels initial struggles will be worth it if the outcome is achieved. 

“This is so easy to visualize, but yet it will be difficult to continue to make progress on, and that's going to be our main challenge,” Perciasepe said. “Reducing the amount of food that is wasted will help feed people, not landfills. That's what we want to do.” 


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