So let’s start with your past experience: while working at the NRDC, on which programme did you work?
I was part of the Food programme and working in the sustainable agriculture context, when I stumbled upon some numbers behind food waste. This fed an obsession, and led me to publish a report on it.
What is the main message behind your 2012 report: Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40% of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill?
The report painted a picture of the waste all along the supply chain, making the numbers understandable. Although the average consumer is still not thinking about it, the report drove the food industry to think about the issue, which they continue to do today.
For some, food safety is of a higher priority than food waste. What’s your take on that?
The subject of of food waste is very different depending on the culture or country. Europe is much more active and a little bit ahead culturally. In the UK there’s a study every year, and food waste concern has consistently ranked higher than food safety. This is not the case in the USA, because the prioritisation is different. The US has stronger community-driven food donation and charitable food collection policies, and is somewhat of a leader in that respect. In the UK this is more of a government role.
What’s the latest going on with the standardisation of expiration dates in grocery stores? Who will regulate what date is used by manufacturers?
I think we’ve made some headway on that topic. Labels cause confusion and the industry is starting a standardisation process. There are voluntary guidelines that some companies are opting to follow, and there’s a political discussion around a farm bill, impacting food and agriculture, but we won’t have true standardisation without regulation.
So ReFed has come up with some interesting solutions to reduce waste: in your opinion, could tax incentives be a motivating solution to instigate food recovery from restaurants?
I do believe this is the case for some institutions. Others don’t want to be bothered with paperwork, although donating food leads to tax benefits. There are other policies driving reduction, and 6 US states already restrict food going into landfills.
And would food waste tracking in restaurants help conserve water further up the supply chain?
The instant effect is not going to save water. Essentially, changing practices in the food system reduces purchases, which will lead to using water resources more efficiently.
I recently watched your spotlight on Munchies, where you talk about what we can do in our personal homes to combat food waste. Do you see a substantially positive effect on reducing food waste by targeting individuals? Does that make a difference?
It’s not as quick as the energy industry. Food has a much longer lead time, but we can start to see a difference year-over-year. We can look at what farmers grew last year and compare this to how much was bought to serve a market, ultimately changing the way we grow food.
How involved are you in policy making, and is there a lot of pushback from decision makers when it comes to the topic of food waste?
I’m primarily a constituent when it comes to decision making. There’s not much going on due to our federal climate. In California, an interesting law passed last year, creating new goals for avoiding food in landfills - 75% of organics cannot go to landfill by 2025 and 20% of edible food must be recovered by 2025. This encourages food donation, but beyond that, the state needs to know how much is being wasted in the first place, and measure how much of that people are recovering. So this calls for measurement technology.
You have been deemed “the woman who helped start the waste-free movement.” Is this an added pressure or rather a motivation for you?
Not sure it’s either - it’s really exciting, but I don’t feel ownership. I’m just excited that this movement has taken off and that there’s so much going on that I can’t keep track anymore. The 2012 report helped get the snowball rolling, and now it’s snowing!
Dana is a leading expert on food waste reduction and is deemed "the woman who helped start the waste-free movement:" For almost a decade, she was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) and one of the first to bring to light just how much food is wasted across the States. Dana is the author of Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, is behind a national media campaign that has generated over $60M in donated media to date, and is a founding member of ReFED's Steering Committee.