Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook.
It’s estimated that a little more than a third of the food produced around the world — 1.3 billion tons worth — is lost or wasted annually. In the U.S., we toss almost half our food, mostly “close to the fork,” or at the consumption stage. Developing nations tend to have issues with losses “close to the farm,” with harvest and storage. We talk about new initiatives to change attitudes and help mitigate food waste.
- Nancy Roman President and CEO, Capital Area Food Bank
- Brian Lipinski Associate, World Resources Institute
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. Later in the broadcast, Armando Iannucci, the driving force behind political satires and comedy like the movie "In the Loop" and the hit HBO series "Veep," but first, we've all done it, overestimated the amount of lettuce we need in a week, toss a container of yogurt that might still have been good but the date on it passed last week or fallen for a buy-one-get-one deal on pints of strawberries when we'll really only eat one.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn short, we've wasted food. Throwing out an item here or there may not seem like that big a deal, but when everyone is doing it, it adds up quick. Some 24 percent of all calories produced for human consumption are lost or wasted. And in a world where nearly 900 million people go hungry, the smart use of even a fraction of that waste could go a long way.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us better understand the scope of the problem and what can be done to address it is Nancy Roman. She's president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. She took the helm of the organization in January of this year, after working with the U.N.'s World Food Programme. Nancy Roman, thank you for joining us.
MS. NANCY ROMANThank you, Kojo. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Brian Lipinski. He is an associate with the World Resources Institute in their People & Ecosystems Program. He's the lead author of a new working paper from the think tank on Reducing Food Loss and Waste. Brian Lipinski, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRIAN LIPINSKIThank you, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, if you have comments or questions, do you find, do you throw away a lot of groceries? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. First, Brian, I think we need to make a subtle but important distinction in terms between food loss and food waste. What's the difference?
LIPINSKISure. So when we talk about food loss and food waste, the same thing is happening at the end is that perfectly good food is not getting eaten. But the way that that happens and the drivers behind that are very different. So when we talk about food loss, we're talking about things that happen sort of close to the farm.
LIPINSKISo, for example, a farmer might not be able to afford the labor to pick all of the fruit in his field. Or in storage, a crop might rot, or it might get eaten by pests or infected by a fungal infection. Or in transportation, something like a fruit might get squashed or bruised on the way to market. And so that's what we refer to as food loss when it's sort of an unintentional thing that happens where, because of factors outside of somebody's control, food is wasted.
LIPINSKINow, in terms of food waste, we're talking about things where there's some intentionality to it. So, for example, a manufacturer only uses half of an apple when making a pie. Or at the grocery store level, they order too much of a product, they don't sell it all, and they end up throwing out the remainder. Or even at the household level where you buy a loaf of bread and you eat half of it and you forget about it and it goes moldy, and then you end up throwing out the rest of that bread. And so that's what we refer to as food waste.
NNAMDIBased on your research, just how much food worldwide in a year fits into each of those two categories?
LIPINSKISo worldwide, it ends up being about half and half between the two, between food loss and food waste. But the interesting distinction there is that food loss tends to happen a lot more in what we refer to as developing countries, such as countries in Africa and Latin America and South and South East Asia,, whereas food waste tends to happen in richer countries, in North America, in Europe.
NNAMDIYou have parsed the data on this topic a number of different ways, including by calorie. What makes that an important measure to consider?
LIPINSKISo most of the information you'll see on this topic is reported in terms of weight, so it gives you a sense of the scale of the problem. But the reason we decided to convert it into calories is that when you measure by weight, you're sort of saying that a pound of apples is the same as a pound of beef is the same as a pound of wheat, when really each of those foods is eaten for a different reason.
LIPINSKISo by putting them in calories, you allow to compare between the different types of commodities. Now, of course, that doesn't take into account nutrition and other nutrients that are important, but it's a step in that direction.
NNAMDIFood and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. estimates that 32 percent of all food produced in the world was lost or wasted in 2009, but that estimate is based on weight. When converted into calories, you say that's approximately 24 percent of all food produced.
LIPINSKIRight, about one in four of all calories produced never gets eaten.
NNAMDINancy Roman, you've been at the helm of the Capital Area Food Bank since this past January. First, remind us of how what you do differs from what a food pantry or a kitchen does.
ROMANOK. Absolutely. I'm glad you asked that question because a food bank in some ways is a misnomer that grew up in the '70s when food banks literally took in food and held it until a needy family was identified and passed it out. But we are really the largest hunger organization in the region, so we're working with 700 partner agents who many of them you know well, like D.C. Central Kitchen, Manna, Food for Others, but also small church pantries.
ROMANAnd we distribute 33 million pounds of food last year through these 700 partner agencies, but we also train the trainers in these organizations about nutrition, about food safety. So I think of it as like the heart behind the arteries and veins that are really working on hunger in our region.
NNAMDISo how much of your attention here locally is focused on this issue of food waste, and where does it fit in to the big picture of what you do?
ROMANWell, you know, to a certain extent, we've been focused on it for a long time without realizing it. It's only been very recently that we put in our strategic plan, which is new, a third strategic objective to really work to reduce food waste across the greater Washington region as we work to address hunger.
ROMANAnd we've been doing that all along to a certain extent, as Brian paper notes, food banks just by their very existence help address food waste because many of the retailers who have food that's not being purchased by customers will donate it to us, and we can put -- we can make, you know, make it available to hungry people.
ROMANBut we're now actually really turning our attention to it because we recognize that to solve hunger and all the problems around hunger, we really need to think of ourselves as a food ecosystem, and we need to understand all the players in it and really making better use of food resources all across the chain is just a critical part of what we need to do to address hunger and to be a responsible sustainable player.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about food waste and loss, and you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you attempted to waste less in your own household? 800-433-8850. Nancy Roman is the president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. She took the helm of this organization this past January after working with the U.N.'s World Food Programme. Brian Lipinski joins us in studio.
NNAMDIHe's an associate with the World Resources Institute in its People & Ecosystems Program and lead author of a new working paper from that think tank on reducing food loss and waste. Nancy, this is an issue which it would seem that everyone involved from farmers to shoppers to stores, restaurants has virtually nothing to lose and lots to gain. Given that, why do you think it remains such a big problem?
ROMANWell, one of the reasons I think is people haven't focused on it. That's why I'm so glad we're having this show. You know, your strength is always your weakness. The strength in the United States of America is we have a lot of farmland. We have excellent farm technology, and food is relatively inexpensive.
ROMANSo the marginal loss when you throw away half an apple isn't what it would be in some other countries where food is so expensive. So we have been able to be wasteful, and we're only now really recognizing how crazy it is. Because of the methane gas, because of the hunger in the world, we're aggregating it, and,, frankly, your paper was quite helpful. And the national...
NNAMDIThat's Brian Lipinski's paper.
ROMANYes. And the National Resources Defense Council did another paper. It's starting to get some attention, and I think conversations like this one will raise awareness and help us to begin to get to a better place.
NNAMDISame question to you, Brian.
LIPINSKIYes. I would agree with what Nancy has said, and I would say that part of what makes this a specially difficult issue is that it requires action from pretty much everyone along the chain. So farmers will need to do something different. Manufacturers will need to do something different. Grocers will need to change the way they operate, restaurants, people in their own homes.
LIPINSKIAnd so trying to coordinate the actions of all these people are -- is just a mammoth undertaking. And so we're starting to see movement on this issue, but we're sort of in the early days where we're still sort of figuring out what's the best way to go about this. You know, we highlight some possible solutions that could get us going in the paper, but we're still sort of trying to address it at the larger scale.
NNAMDIYour report estimates the average family in the U.S. throws out $1,600 in food each year. That said, however, you seem to feel that the momentum is gaining. Talk about what the EU parliament has done.
LIPINSKIRight. So the European Union parliament has issued a target of reducing food loss and waste within its borders by 50 percent by the year 2020. It's a very ambitious target, and it's the most prominent sort of target that we've seen. We've also seen, for example, in New York, Mayor Bloomberg a couple of months back announced a food waste challenge with over 100 participating restaurants where they're aiming to reduce their food loss and waste by 50 percent, I believe, by 2030. So I think these targets are an important way to sort of mobilize action and raise awareness around this issue.
NNAMDIDon your headphones, please, because we're about to go through the phones where Robin in Falls Church, Va., awaits us. Robin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBINHi, Kojo. Thanks so much. I had to tell this story 'cause I grew up in a household with older generations and from the Depression era, so we never threw anything away. And one time when my children were in elementary school, the lunch room volunteer called out -- and so I happened to be there -- and they said, would you fill in? And I said, sure. And after my experience there, I went in the office, and I said, please do not ever ask me to do that job again.
ROBINI was holding whole meals and milk, unopened milk cartons out of the trash that the kids were throwing away. And I was wondering if there was any way to, you know, to get that resource of that wasted food in the public school cafeterias every day to someone who could use it 'cause it was just the horrifying experience of my life.
NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for your call, Robin. Go ahead, please, Nancy.
ROMANYeah. Well, I have to say my kids are older now, but I had a sort of similar experience. And at the food bank, we provide after meal -- after-school meals in about 80 locations across the region. And we have implemented a rule where if milk is unopened that we can collect it and use it. Of course, it has to be stored safely.
ROMANAnd again, this is all about awareness. And another pilot project we're just beginning on is with prepared food from Hilton Hotels where food that's been prepared, you know, we will distribute to hungry people in need. I think people are beginning to focus on this, and there's more we can do.
NNAMDIWell, in developing and First World countries, the problems that fall into this category are different and so are the solutions. Brian, just because of what Robin called to say, talk a little bit about how universities in America are trying to address this problem.
LIPINSKIRight. So, you know, you're probably familiar with the dining hall setup in most college campuses where you pay your price upfront and you grab a tray and you walk around. You just load it up with a little bit of everything. You know, there's -- you've already paid for it, might as well take a little bit of everything. And you go, and maybe you eat a little bite off of each plate.
LIPINSKIYou eat half of your sandwich, you a quarter of salad, and you just throw the rest of it away. So what some colleges have done to try and combat this is actually take away the tray, go trayless, and people can still eat all they want. But they have to carry it with their own two hands, and so...
LIPINSKI...it's such a simple little thing where you modify people's behavior without them even realizing it. But what they found is that over the course of a school year, people were wasting 56 pounds less of food on average. That's the size of, like, an 8-year-old boy, so big savings, and it made economic sense for them. They saved about $80,000 in operating costs because of that.
NNAMDII thought about that. If, in most cafeterias, I did not have a tray, I would probably eat half as much as I probably do in the cafeteria...
NNAMDI...because there's just more room on the tray to put stuff, and you say, look, I got a tray. I might as well fill it up. By the same token, that's one way of dealing with food waste. Talk about what farmers in Afghanistan are doing to deal with food loss.
LIPINSKIRight. So the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations sponsors a program where they build these household metal silos. They're just silos for storing grain, but they're just large enough for one house or one farm to use them. And so in places like Afghanistan and Kenya, they work with local metalsmiths to train them to build these silos, so it's also a livelihood builder for these metalsmiths, who are in the villages. And then these silos allow grains to be stored for up to three years with virtually no loss. You go from about 30 to 40 percent loss to zero.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Rick on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Rick, your turn.
RICKHi. Good afternoon. I just want to call and say that I distribute food, and I distribute snack cakes to supermarkets and convenience stores. And it's a perishable item, obviously. Sometimes the -- some things are only dated for a week. And I try to control the inventory because just -- it's the right thing to do. But I'm constantly battling with retailers because they want more, more and more.
RICKThey're more concerned -- I understand that they're concerned about merchandising and the effect and so forth and so on. But it's amazing the amount of waste that, I think, has caused just a -- you were right when you said you're going to have to change the thinking of retailers as well because I -- I'm just a small, like a territory guy. I have one territory for the snack cake company.
RICKAnd I pick up roughly $1,000 wholesale in stales every week. And I guess some of the food banks, if they're around, because food banks do pick up from the grocery stores, and if I see the food bank people coming, I'll save it for them or give it to them. Sometimes I give it to my neighbors. But a lot of it just goes in the dumpster. So, anyway, that's my comment.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here's Nancy Roman.
ROMANYeah. I do think retailers are really looking at this with a fresh eye. Just coincidentally yesterday, we met with Target to really talk about how we could be in better communication to make sure that food that they were not able to sell, if they see that they're en route to having excess supply, that we can, you know, make it available to people who might need it. And they mentioned that they had a goal to reduce food waste 15 percent by 2015. And I think we're going to see more of this again. You know, it's really happening across the spectrum.
NNAMDIBrian, you can also talk about the eternally confounding issue of the sell-by, use-by dates that we see on food packages.
LIPINSKIRight. So, you know, when you buy a food product, often there'll be multiple dates on it. One might say sell-by. One might say best before. One might say use-by. And so these dates aren't even actually federally mandated by the government. The only thing that has to have to food date on it is baby formula. Otherwise these are just sort of advice from the manufacturer. And so often, things like best before or sell-by only matter to the manufacturer.
LIPINSKIWhat you should be looking for are use-by dates or just trusting your best judgment in terms of what still looks edible to eat. And so that's why we've seen some movement in the United Kingdom actually. For example, Tesco, which is one of the largest retailers there, just announced a plan to only put use-by dates on products. You have one date, and they found that consumers respond well to it, and they've actually reduced waste in store.
NNAMDIOn to Greg in Lorton, Va. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGHey. How are you guys doing today?
NNAMDIWe're doing well.
GREGGood. Glad to hear it. One thing that I noticed just on the household level is -- I'm someone who really loves to cook, and I always have. And one thing is people don't know how to cook anymore. And so, when they make a pot roast or maybe they go to a friend, you know, there's leftovers in the fridge. And, you know, they don't feel like eating them because maybe they're leftovers or they've had enough of that particular meal.
GREGBut they don't understand how, you know, you don't just throw that away. You have to chop it up and maybe make a soup and freeze it or, you know, if you bake a chicken, you can take the chicken meat off and maybe make a chicken salad and make it kind of a newer or more, you know, something that...
NNAMDIIndeed, you're preaching to the choir. Allow Nancy Roman to tell you a little bit about what she does.
ROMANYeah. It's so true. And one of the things we're trying to do is our classes where we're teaching teachers how to work with people who are receiving food from the food bank to make simple, nutritious recipes and to repurpose leftovers just as you say. You know, even on the home front, what, you know, what I find is people haven't done a lot of cooking. They don't understand.
ROMANYou know, if you make some extra brown rice and then you have your leftover vegetables in the fridge -- my daughter is a vegetarian -- you can take a quarter of a red pepper and an onion and three extra carrots and chop everything and put it into a stir fry. And part of what we're really working to do at the food bank is to not only make food available but make recipes available, recipes that allow you to use, you know, small parts of fresh ingredients along with basic staples to produce nutritious meals because it's affordability, as well as, you know, being able to use what's left.
NNAMDII got an email from Patsy, who says, "Please also include discussion of pet food with sell-by dates that stores have to remove from their shelves. Animal shelters and people in need who have pets would be very happy to have this food." Brian, in terms of related issues that addressing waste will help to deal with, hunger is the likely first that comes to mind, but there are others as well. What are some of the perhaps less obvious global issues that this one touches?
LIPINSKISure. So as you mentioned, there's economic aspects to this. For example, you mentioned the $1,600 that the average American family spends on food that they never eat. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the amount of post-harvest losses in the food loss side of the spectrum total about $4 billion. We're talking about an area where a lot of people live on less than $2 a day.
LIPINSKIAnd then environmentally, there are big consequences to this as well. The amount of land that's used to grow all the food that never gets eaten is the size of Mexico, and then it's about 25 percent of all the water that's used for agriculture. And in terms of greenhouse gas emissions that go into producing this food, it's like having another United States.
NNAMDIAnd, Nancy, for listeners who are perhaps realizing at this very moment that they are -- we are, well, part of the problem, what advice do you have on what we can do in the face of an issue like this, in addition to the advice you've already given about not throwing stuff out?
ROMANYeah. Well, one of the things, I think, is so important is, you know, it's true what Brian was saying before internationally. Internationally, a lot of what you'll need is infrastructure post-harvest loss, things that require government. Part of what's so encouraging about working on this issue here at the domestic level is because we waste so much more food than other places, 10 times what they waste in China. I think we can make a major impact by changing personal behavior at home.
ROMANAt the food bank, part of what we want to do is raise awareness. And then, you know, if you're paying attention to what you buy, how much you buy, what you cook, how you prepare using your leftovers, but then also for listeners who know of small markets, we have a program called partner direct because food doesn't have to come into the food bank. If you are in a neighborhood and you see a small grocer who might have extra, you know, produce at the end of the day, make it available to call us, and we can help make it available to a partner who could use it.
NNAMDIWe're almost out of time. But finally, Brian, people who are listening to Nancy right now and saying, well, that won't make much of a difference. How much of a difference would just a little bit of progress make on this issue, even though it's a large-scaled global problem that will take time to remedy?
LIPINSKIWe think that making just a small dent in food loss and waste could have a big effect. The goal that we set forth in the paper is reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2050, and that would get us to -- between what we need to produce now and in 2050 to feed the global population, it would get us about 20 percent of the way there without having to grow anything new, convert any new land, use any additional water.
NNAMDIBrian Lipinski is an associate with the World Resources Institute and its People & Ecosystems Program and lead author of a new working paper from the think tank on recuing food laws and waste. Brian, thank you for joining us.
LIPINSKIThank you for having me.
NNAMDINancy Roman is president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. Nancy Roman, thank you joining us.
ROMANThank you so much.
NNAMDIWe are going to take a short break. When we come back, Armando Iannucci, the driving force behind political satires and comedy like the movie "In the Loop" and the hit HBO series "Veep," he joins us in studio. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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