From growers to grocers, companies to consumers, food waste is an issue that plagues the entire supply chain. Up to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply finds its way to landfills — at great financial and environmental cost — while simultaneously, 40 million Americans are food-insecure. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we need multifaceted solutions to connect and correct those issues, with policymakers, businesses, and consumers all working to stem the flow of food waste from every angle.
Some groups are addressing the root of the issue by minimizing surplus, and others are coming up with ways to make use of the waste. By establishing various programs, policies, and processes, the following organizations are all approaching the problem of wasted food.
A Comprehensive Roadmap
ReFED believes that data can drive changes to the food system by providing insight on how, where, and why food goes to waste. In 2016, the nonprofit, which is guided by a coalition of business, nonprofit, and government leaders, released “A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent,” an economic study that outlines 27 steps toward reducing food waste over the upcoming decade. The roadmap shows that concerted prevention tactics, including standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns, and packaging adjustments, will divert the most waste. You can download the report, or read more about the 27 solutions and how they compare, on ReFED’s website.
Reduce: Preventing Excess
Source reduction, or cutting back on overproduction and overstocking, is essential for stopping the food waste cycle before it starts, according to the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy guidelines. Businesses, organizations, and individuals can audit their waste and make behavioral and structural changes, saving not only food but also funds. A number of schools have adopted this approach, including The University of Texas, Austin, which has conducted plate waste audits every year since 2008 and seen significant waste reductions ever since. Melissa Terry, a University of Arkansas graduate student, recognized the need for a school-specific resource and co-authored a “Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits.” This publication is full of strategies, most of which are centered on prevention, that encourage student involvement in measuring and curtailing waste. You can find the guide on the EPA website.
Reuse: Diverting Unused Food
Some solutions focus on using food that’s already been produced. Food Shift in Alameda, California, reduces food waste and hunger simultaneously by working with communities, businesses, and governments to recover and redistribute surplus food. The nonprofit hosts events, consults on waste reduction, implements food-recovery programs, and advises the government on effective interventions, among other strategies. It also operates Food Shift Kitchen out of a housing community called Alameda Point Collaborative (APC). This catering service processes food waste from produce suppliers into plant-based fare for local businesses, and it trains and hires the people who live at APC, many of whom live below the poverty line and face multiple barriers to employment. Plus, the kitchen's profits subsidize products for other agencies serving food-insecure populations.
Recycle: Composting Programs
Closed-loop systems, in which unused food is turned into compost and returned to the earth, address the tail end of the food waste cycle. Some cities, such as Seattle, offer municipal composting services, but in many places, the onus is on individuals and businesses. Those who set up composting systems can save on trash disposal bills and landfill fees, all while transforming food scraps into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. And those who can’t compost their own food waste can call a crew to come pick it up. One such service is Scraps, a Denver-based group that picks up more than 7,500 pounds of compostables by bike every week, and focuses especially on serving multifamily buildings that lack composting capabilities.
In addition to these, many more entities are entering the fold with their ideas, including restaurants that pare down portions, and groups that collect surplus food from stores and serve it up at community meals. To read a roundup of food waste solutions, go to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Food Waste Solutions page.
Report Outlines Rural Trends
Rural areas cover 97 percent of the U.S., but contain only 19.3 percent of the nation’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that share has been shrinking; rural populations have been on the decline this decade, to the tune of almost 62,000 fewer residents in 2011 — the year this population was lowest. But a reversal may be underway; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2018 edition of “Rural America at a Glance” shows that rural counties saw an uptick in residents between 2016 and 2017, the first such growth since 2010. The increase of 33,000 people stems from natural migration and not natural change (births minus deaths), and though it doesn’t make up for the declines of previous years, it signifies improved labor and living conditions in rural areas overall, leading to the loss of fewer residents and the influx of newcomers.
According to the report, this pattern doesn’t reveal variation on a local level, where population trends, employment growth, and poverty rates vary by race and ethnicity, as well as by a location’s characteristics. Dense towns with scenic qualities or close proximity to larger cities attract more migrants than remote locations in sparse areas, where the impact of a shifting population is intensified. Further, some towns attract retirees as workforce-ready people leave, leading to the uneven “graying” of some rural areas.
Overall, the report notes, the rural population has remained relatively steady at 46.1 million residents despite these annual trends and their effects on specific communities. You can read the report, which outlines further trends in-depth, by searching for “Rural America at a Glance” on the USDA website.
The Poison Papers: Chemical Cover-ups
Carol Van Strum with some of her collection of documents.
Two nonprofits — the Bioscience Resource Project of Ithaca, New York, and the Center for Media and Democracy of Madison, Wisconsin — partnered in 2017 to publish The Poison Papers, which detail decades of collusion between polluters and regulators to conceal the toxicity of chemical products.
The papers comprise more than 20,000 incriminating documents dating back to the 1920s, most collected by author and activist Carol Van Strum. She obtained them — via open records requests and public interest litigation — from federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration; and from chemical manufacturers, such as Dow and Monsanto. The collection reveals that corporations’ efforts to conceal known chemical hazards were furthered by federal agencies. The publishers note that, despite their responsibility to protect consumers, those agencies participated in, and sometimes initiated, cover-ups to deceive the public and press about pesticides and synthetic chemicals, most of which are still in use today, including 2,4-D, Atrazine, and Dicamba.
After more than three decades of amassing these documents, Van Strum worked with other activists and environmental groups to digitize them, increasing their accessibility and searchability. Jonathan Latham, the executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, says the information has given additional ammunition to some cities and states that have sued chemical companies, such as Monsanto, over contamination.
Grounds Keepers Program
“Leave No Trace” principles guide conscientious adventurers in protecting the places they visit by encouraging them to pack out their trash and minimize their impact. In line with those ethics, outdoor company Granite Gear created the Grounds Keepers Program to support experienced hikers who want to leave public lands better than they found them by gathering wayward trash.
Granite Gear and other partners, such as Altra Running, outfit the program’s participants, or “grounds keepers,” with a kit that includes a backpack, shoes, camping attire, meal packets, a reusable water bottle, and other equipment for collecting and carrying trash. Since 2017, the grounds keepers, each of them traversing 300-plus miles of public lands, have extracted 6,630 pounds of trash, most of it “micro trash,” such as wrappers, bottle lids, and toilet paper. By taking collective responsibility for the litter strewn through wild places, the group hopes to inspire more people to pick up their own trash and that of others.
To learn more about the program, visit the Grounds Keepers website.
In early 2019, Harbour Air, a seaplane airline based in Vancouver, British Columbia, announced a plan to create an all-electric fleet by partnering with aviation company magniX, which will provide the electric motors that power the planes.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the aviation industry is responsible for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with that amount set to escalate. Harbour Air thus wants to set an industry example of zero-emissions commercial aviation. Annually, its planes serve up to 500,000 passengers on 30,000 commercial flights, flying 12 routes that touch down in coastal cities in the Pacific Northwest.
The fleet’s first flight tests will take place in late 2019. At first, the all-electric fleet will serve only close-range destinations, with its scope expanding as battery technology improves. Harbour Air aims to have the planes passenger-ready by 2022.
Sponges Supplant Coral Reefs
Climate change poses a potent threat to coral reefs; according to the National Ocean Service, increased greenhouse gases lead to multiple coral-killing factors, including warmer water temperatures, altered currents, and ocean acidification.
The thousands of species that call coral home are threatened as once-vibrant reefs become bleached and barren. But a study published in Ecology in 2018 shows that in some places, sponges are overtaking the spaces where corals once flourished. While sponge reefs can’t support the same number of species, they do allow some life to thrive, and may be more resilient in response to stress.
According to the researchers, this transition’s effects are still unpredictable, and must be further studied to understand the complexities of sponge-supported reefs. Deeper research, they write, could also shed light on other ecosystems in which the dominant organisms are shifting. In the meantime, the coral reefs that remain require protection. Learn more about the “rainforests of the sea” on the Ocean Service website.