Feeding a City: Quantifying Food Waste and Its Solutions

A new NRDC Food Matters report analyzes trends in how city size and demographics affect food waste efforts, how various sectors—such as restaurants, grocers, and hospitality—contribute to municipal food waste, and which sectors offer the greatest opportunities for food rescue.

Cover of the NRDC report entitled Feeding A City: Food Waste and Food Need Across America

A core theme of NRDC’s Food Matters program is replicability of successful models to reduce municipal food waste. To that aim, we have focused on creating and sharing tools that enable more cities to pick up and advance the work piloted with our partner cities. One such tool is our calculator to estimate a local baseline level of food waste generated and the amount of food which could potentially be rescued for redistribution to people in need of food aid. Estimating the amount of food waste in a city is a foundational component of any city’s efforts to understand the scale and nature of the problem and to inform future policy and program development to address food waste.

As these tools are used more widely, we can discern patterns across cities. Though each location’s specific food business composition is unique, there are commonalities across nearly all cities we have worked with; these generalizations may be useful to other cities seeking to make quick progress on food waste reduction in order to meet their climate sustainability goals, lower their waste management costs, or address the emergency food needs of their community. 

We analyzed the results of running the calculator tool for 22 U.S. cities, and compiled the patterns we found and recommendations for cities into a new report: Feeding a City: Food Waste and Food Need Across America. With some minor exceptions, we found the breakdown of food waste generation by sector to be consistent across most cities. In this study, we also analyzed the ways in which each city’s demographics (such as size, population density, poverty rate, etc.) led to its resulting food waste generation and food rescue potential profile. For example, we found food waste is negatively correlated with population density at both the city and the household level, which may have implications for urban planning and development.

Our key recommendations include the following:

  • Cities should focus on preventing residential food waste to meet waste reduction goals.
  • Cities should engage restaurants in food waste reduction strategies, as they collectively are the biggest commercial generators of food waste in nearly every city.
  • Cities should identify generator hot spots where a small number of facilities are producing sizable amounts of food waste and provide targeted technical assistance in food waste prevention, rescue of surplus food, and recycling of food scraps. These specific hot spots will vary by city, but our investigation suggests that cities may want to start with the food manufacturing and processing sector and/or an obvious large generator, like a sizable university.
  • Cities should maximize surplus food rescue from retail, which includes supermarkets and, for some cities, small corner stores.
  • Cities should work with surplus food rescue organizations to determine how much food is already being rescued and identify opportunities for improvement.

Other cities which have not yet been able to utilize our calculator tool can identify the profile they most closely resemble. This will enable cities to quickly identify where food waste reduction and food rescue efforts should be honed for maximal impact.

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