GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

TEDxTalk: Lehner "A Recipe for Cutting Food Waste"


According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans are tossing up to 40% of the food supply each year, along with all the resources used to produce food that never gets eaten. Food waste occurs at home, on the farm, and in supermarkets.

In this TED Talk, NRDC's executive director Peter Lehner explores some of the statistics on food waste in the U.S. and walks us through some major sources of waste in common food supply chains.

Waste is not always a major component of commodity chain analyses, but it is a very important (and large!) component of our food systems, and Lehner argues it is an area in desperate need of innovation and improvement.

A recipe for cutting food waste | Peter Lehner
Click for a transcript of "TEDxTalk" video.

PETER LEHNER: Food issues are very important to NRDC, from food agriculture production to environmental justice, from food safety to food waste. But today I'm talking to you about food waste and what we can do about it.

I started thinking about food waste back when I was climbing mountains. When you're carrying 30 days of food on your back or climbing to 21,000 feet, every ounce makes a difference. So before the trips, we would measure out the pasta and the beans and the oatmeal down to the tablespoon.

And when we were on the trips, we would lick every pot so clean that we barely had to wash them. This is a picture of me licking a margarine wrapper to get that last calorie. But when I came home, those good habits left me. I would throw away a slightly bruised apple. I wouldn't eat the heel of a loaf of bread. I'd order too much in restaurants.

Sometimes it even became a science experiment. We had a game we called "journey to the back of the fridge" where we'd would look for the multicolored, fuzzy mold growing on the old food. So like most of you, I always knew we wasted some food, but I never really gave it much thought.

Honestly, how much did we think about the wasted food at today's lunch? Although, I'm sure Diane has taken care of it and is going to do something good with that. But then NRDC's food program came up with this report that David mentioned. And what we found was shocking.

40% of the food that is grown in this country isn't eaten. That's almost half of the food that is grown is wasted. The average American family spends $2,000 on food that it doesn't eat-- $2,000 on food that it doesn't eat. There is waste at the farm, in transit, at supermarkets, and restaurants, at homes. It's everywhere.

And think of the consequences of that waste. 25%, a quarter of all the water consumed in the United States, is used on crops that we don't eat. One fifth of all the fish that are caught are thrown out before the boats ever get to the dock. And one fifth of all that goes into a landfill is food. That's food that isn't even being fed to animals or being composted.

This is crazy. It's like air conditioning empty buildings. And that is what got us thinking. You know, we've known about energy waste for a long time from gas guzzlers to leaky buildings to inefficient appliances. And now there's an explosion of solutions. We have LED light bulbs. We have hybrid cars. We have green buildings.

So we wondered, could we learn from those energy solutions to help us tackle food waste? And here's what we learned. Those solutions, those energy solutions, came about by design because governments design better programs to create incentives and opportunities for efficiency.

And as a result, manufacturers design products that do more with less. For example, today the average refrigerator is bigger, is fancier, and it costs less in real terms than a refrigerator 30 years ago. And it uses one-quarter the energy. Not one-quarter less-- one-quarter the energy.

Consumers now have a whole range of energy efficient appliances to choose from. And let me be clear, that didn't happen because there was some great cultural awakening about the dangers of energy waste or because manufacturers suddenly realized, oh, we're spending too much on energy. They don't pay the electricity bills of their appliances.

It came about because people like those here in this room-- advocates-- pushed the government to design better programs that would force manufacturers and encourage manufacturers to design better products. And that's the lesson we can learn here.

Here's how. It starts on the farm. Every year we waste 6 billion pounds of food. 6 billion pounds of crops go unharvested every year. According to one survey that was done, sometimes up to 30% of the food lies unharvested because of market fluctuations or pests or because it's not the right size, shape, or color.

One peach farmer told us that 8 out of 10 peaches he can't sell. You couldn't even tell the difference. Can't we do something with the second fruit? Turns out there is, and I have a personal example from managing a coffee farm-- a certified coffee farm-- down in Costa Rica.

We know that the world market likes coffee beans that are uniform, big, round, green, and nicely shaped. But about 5% of our crop every year, the beans are cracked and broken and black or have holes in them. Instead of throwing them away, we sell them to the local market at a reduced price. And I'll tell you the truth, I can't tell the difference between the export coffee and the local coffee.

Here's another market solution. We know you can make juices and jams with misshapen fruits. It doesn't really matter what they look like when they're in a jam. England has a program called Rubies to Rubble, which sets up kitchens next to farmers markets which takes all the unsold fruit and makes them into gourmet chutneys.

Can't those types of programs be repeated again and again? And of course, sometimes you can't have a market-- there's still good food out there. California started a program called From Farm to Family, which every year takes 125 million pounds of food and provides it to needy families. That's enough for 100 million families. Certainly, other states could follow that example.

Now, of course, most food does get harvested. And it goes to supermarkets where a lot of it is wasted. The average supermarket wastes 10% of its food. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $50 billion every year on food waste. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Jose Alvarez, the former CEO of Stop and Shop, realized that he could save money, increase customer satisfaction, and reduce food waste just by changing how he displays the food and a few other small things. You see, the traditional wisdom is that customers like to see plenty. Stack them high, watch him fly, the saying goes. So Stop and Shop employees would put several days worth of food out to make customers see the plenty.

The trouble is, it wasn't always fresh. Alvarez realized he could put out 4 fish fillets rather than 10. Or he could put out 20 avocados rather than 40 but maybe with a dummy layer to give the illusion of abundance. Within several months, customer satisfaction was up, waste was down, and Stop and Shop was saving $100 million a year.

Now, obviously, there will be some waste in a supermarket, some spoilage in a supermarket. But that doesn't mean it has to be wasted. A friend, a local Hudson Valley farmer, told me that he went to his local supermarket and said, could he take what they were putting in the dumpster to feed his animals? And he was told, no, they can't do that without a policy directive from above. Well, that's the type of policies we can change.

And then how about if you go inside the supermarket? How many of us have been confused by those expiration dates on the labels? Well, it turns out we're not alone.

A survey showed that 60% of Americans get confused by those labels and throw out food prematurely. And with good reason. There's no standards or guidelines for those labels. They're just what the manufacturers want them to be.

In the UK they realize this, so the government got together with the manufacturers and standardized the labels. No more display by, sell by, best by, and all of that. That simple change, consumer confusion went down and food waste went down.

See, these solutions don't have to be very complicated if they're well designed. And they can make a big difference. Let's think about other areas where a lot of food is served.

We probably all remember being in school. Remember taking the school cafeteria, piling our plate and our trays with all that food that looks so good. We probably don't remember how much food we chucked at the end because our eyes were bigger than our stomach. Well, it turns out that the food service company Sodexo piloted trayless cafeterias at 300 schools and colleges around the country. And that simple move reduced food waste by 30%.

How about sports stadiums. NRDC worked with 60 major league sports teams, including the New York Rangers. And they now box up the food that is prepared and uneaten and give it to needy families in the area. We've worked with the Yankees who now compost their waste rather than sending it to the dump.

And at a much, much bigger scale many of us probably heard Mayor Bloomberg just a couple of days ago establish a food waste composting program. He's going to start in Staten Island in the New York City schools. You see, this is following the hierarchy that many of us probably remember with garbage-- reduce, reuse, recycle.

First, you try to reduce food waste, then you try to feed it to people. And if not, to animals, and if not, to compost. Sending it to the landfills is just dumb. But that brings us now to the final frontier of food waste-- we, the consumer.

As some of us probably remember from being told in school, there's room for improvement. The average American throws out 25 pounds of food per person every month. That's as much food as I carried in my backpack for a month. For a family of four, that's like taking $170 every month and shredding it in the Cuisinart.

This is double the amount of food-- or 50% more than the amount of food we wasted just a generation ago. Now many of the trends that lead to this nation's obesity epidemic have also contributed to this increase in food waste. Portions have gotten bigger. The average cookie is four times bigger than it used to be. Even the average plate is 35% bigger. The Joy of Cooking-- a recipe that used to serve 10 now serves 7.

So does that mean we have to choose between obesity and food waste? No, in England they started a program called Love Food Hate Waste. They gave consumers some simple tips. Make a list, buy only what you need, freeze your leftovers. Most food holds up pretty well in the freezer.

And don't necessarily trust those expiration dates. Trust your nose. It actually does pretty well for telling when the food is still good. And when you go to a restaurant, take a doggy bag and get a free second meal. Following just these simple steps and a few others, consumers in the United Kingdom reduced food waste by almost a fifth.

Now those are simple solutions. What if we had technology on our side? Imagine a refrigerator that could tell you what's in your fridge when you're at the supermarket. Or that could tell you what's in your fridge that is on the verge of getting bad and give you a recipe of how to do it.

Well, it turns out that fridge actually already exists. It's called a Smart Fridge with these apps and even more. Imagine how technology could help us if we had the right incentives and paid attention to food waste.

So why does all this matter? Well, as I mentioned, 40% of our food is wasted. Think of the resources that would be saved if that didn't happen-- less air pollution, water pollution, climate pollution, toxic pollution. But in addition to that, if we were to reduce food waste by just a third, we would be able to feed all 50 million food insecure Americans their total diet.

Let me say that again. All 50 million Americans who don't have enough food could get their total diet if we just cut food waste by a third. That's why we have to get going. Now I've given you some ideas of some proven solutions. And you heard some others today earlier. And many of you in your own works probably have others.

The question is, how do we scale those up? Two key ways of how we can do that. One is to start the conversation. All of us heard President Obama a couple of days ago announce a national goal of reducing energy waste by 50% by 2030. Well the UK has already announced a goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2020. Shouldn't every city, state, and our federal government announce food waste reduction goals and get us going? Yeah!

And the second thing we need to do is measure it. When we did our report, our wasted report, one of the most salient findings was that nobody measured food waste from the farm to transit, supermarkets, or anywhere. Nobody really knew what was going on. And we know that if you don't measure it, you don't manage it. So let's insist that we measure the food waste so we can start having a real step forward and take attention to this.

Now if we can do this, it all comes back to us. Not just US consumers, but us as advocates. We have to be the ones to push the government, the food manufacturers, and everyone else in the food chain to pay attention to food waste. Now I'm not saying that you should only eat what you can carry on your back.

But honestly, it's a long way between licking a margarine wrapper and letting your food become a science experiment. We know the path forward. It starts today, and it starts with us. Thank you.


Click on the image above to watch the TEDx talk. For more information about how to make the most of our national food systems, check out:

Natural Resources Defense Council

NRDC Food Waste page

As you watch and take notes on Lehner's TEDxTalk, consider these questions:

  • What does it mean that food waste is such a large component of our current food system?
  • At what stages of the commodity chain does food waste occur? What are the causes of the waste?
  • According to Lehner, what actors have the power and responsibility to change this system? Do you agree?
  • What are the social, economic, and environmental impacts of food waste at this scale?
  • What are some key changes to the food system that could be taken to reduce or eliminate food waste? Can you think of possibilities that aren't mentioned in the talk?