Preventing Wasted Food Across the Food Supply Chain

There are specific drivers of food waste at every stage of the food supply chain—and while there is no silver bullet solution to address them all, there are actions that have significant environmental, financial, and social benefits.

Credit: A mother preparing fresh vegetables with the help of her young daughter in their kitchen. Photo: Yulkapopkova

Wasted food prevention addresses the root causes of food waste and includes actions that reduce surplus food generation by addressing inefficiencies across the food system. Prevention strategies range from creating secondary markets so that farmers can make sure their crops aren’t lost to ensuring that people and businesses can use all the food they purchase, and that food is properly managed across different stages of production, transportation, and distribution

While surplus food rescue and food scrap recycling are key strategies to keep food out of landfills and incinerators, the greatest environmental and social benefits associated with reducing food waste are in preventing food from being wasted in the first place. April 4-8, 2022, was Food Waste Prevention Week. Food Waste Prevention Week aims to support a healthier environment and help families save money by educating the public about reducing food waste at home, at work, and in their communities.


Credit: Source: ReFED Insights Engine

Food waste happens at every stage of our food system from farm to fork to landfill, also known as the food supply chain. The largest portion of U.S. food waste, about 37% of total generation, occurs in peoples’ homes. After households, consumer-facing restaurants and retail are the second largest source of wasted food, at 29% of the total. Farms make up 21% and manufacturing represents 13% (source: ReFED Inisghts Engine). Consumer education campaigns are an important part of preventing food waste because most food waste is generated at the consumption stage (in our homes, restaurants, etc.). There are also specific drivers of food waste at every stage of the food supply chain—and while there is no silver bullet solution to address them all, there are actions that can be taken at each stage that can have significant environmental, financial, and social benefits.

The following list is adapted from the second edition of NRDC's Wasted report, which is an excellent resource for understanding the many drivers of and solutions to food waste.

Food waste drivers and potential solutions based on sector, ordered from biggest to smallest generation: 

Residential (37%)

Drivers Solutions
  • Impulse and bulk purchasing: Promotions encouraging unusual or bulk purchases result in consumers buying foods outside their typical needs, and these foods may not be consumed.
  • Overproduction: Preparing more food than needed can lead to waste unless leftovers are saved and consumed.
  • Poor storage: Food spoils in homes due to suboptimal storage, poor visibility in refrigerators, partially used ingredients, and misjudged food needs.
  • Confusion over date labels: Multiple dates, inconsistent usage, and lack of education around date label meanings cause consumers to discard food prematurely.
  • Shop wisely by planning meals, using shopping lists, purchasing accurate quantities, and avoiding impulse buys.
  • Properly store foods and correctly utilize fridge space. Freeze food before it spoils, including milk, cheese, eggs, and meat.
  • Use all parts of food and process foods so that they last longer with techniques like canning, fermentation and preserving.
  • Interpret date labels as estimates of top quality rather than end dates for safety (unless the words “use by” appear before the date). (Policymakers and manufacturers can also adopt a standardized system of date labels to reduce consumer confusion.)

Retail and Food Service (Including Restaurants) (29%) 

Drivers Solutions
  • Stock management and displays: Large inventories, desire for full shelves, and improper stock rotation can lead to excess, old, or damaged product.
  • Date labels: Though still consumable, products within 2-3 days of the date on their package are removed from shelves.
  • Packing and storing: Packaging methods can affect shelf life and grouped products can be discarded when a single item in the group goes bad. Additionally, inflexible case sizes force smaller stores to order more than they expect to sell.
  • Staffing constraints: High turnover and poor training increase mishandling.
  • Bulk packaging and portion size: Large and inflexible portions or package sizes lead to people not eating everything they purchase.
  • Expansive menu options: Extended menus complicate inventory management and require more ingredients to be kept on hand, which increases the possibility of excess or spoilage. All-you-can-eat offerings have particularly high waste.
  • Kitchen practices: Overproduction, trim waste, mishandling, and poor inventory management can all contribute to waste.
  • Sales fluctuations: Bad weather and unpredictable factors make inventory planning difficult.
  • Policy restrictions (e.g. school lunch): Existing policies from the district, local, or federal government may cause schools to not implement practices that encourage lunch to be eaten, such as providing adequate or well-timed lunch periods and allowing students to choose components of meals.
  • Streamline inventory and reduce number of items available.
  • Sell older and slightly damaged products at a discount.
  • Redesign produce, delicatessen, etc. displays so that they are smaller and have less excess.
  • Improve packaging materials to enable longer storage.
  • Allow prepared foods to sell out near closing time without replenishing and repurpose products into prepared food.
  • Set up donation partnerships for surplus food and composting partnerships for food scraps.
  • Improve staff training on product handling and stock rotation.
  • Adjust promotions and menus to avoid excessive purchase of one item, such as offering half off or mix-and-match rather than two-for-one deals; use specials to clear out excess inventory; and repurpose food into new products.
  • Practice better food safety and storage protocols to avoid the need for disposal.
  • Regularly evaluate surpluses in inventory and adjust inventory management to reduce surpluses.
  • Conduct waste audits to understand patterns of excess.
  • Adjust school food policies to allow for more offer vs. serve models, longer and later lunch periods, and share tables that allow sharing of untouched foods.

Farms (21%)

Drivers Solutions
  • Weather/disease: Natural phenomena can damage crops or can lead to excess planting to hedge against risk.
  • Market conditions: Low selling prices at the time of harvest may not warrant the labor and transport costs required to bring the food to market.
  • Buyer standards: Selective standards for cosmetically perfect produce leads to crops left in the field.
  • Labor shortages: When harvest timing is critical, a labor shortage can lead to lower harvest rate.
  • Unpredictable demand: Unpredictable order fluctuations and last-minute cancellations lead to product without a home.
  • Broaden cosmetic standards to encompass a wider array of physical attributes.
  • Shorten supply chains (increasing resilience of regional food systems).
  • Expand secondary markets and gleaning.
  • Increase tax incentives for donating surplus food.

Manufacturing (13%)

Drivers Solutions
  • Trimming: Removal of edible but undesirable portions (peels, stems, skin, fat) along with inedible portions (bones, pits).
  • Processing inefficiencies: Some steps in operations may lose more edible food than necessary.
  • Equipment, packaging and forecasting errors: Mistakes and malfunctions can lead to surplus or unsaleable products.
  • Reengineer production processes and product designs to preserve more edible food.
  • Develop secondary uses and new food products from trimmings, peels, and other by-products.
  • If food is not edible for humans, divert to compost facilities or animal feed.
  • Optimize product size to accommodate smaller or customized portions.

The ReFED Insights Engine is another excellent resource that provides robust information on associated impacts and feasibility related to many of these solutions.

Some of these solutions can be carried out by individuals, while others need to be implemented by food businesses or are policies that need to be passed by local, state, or federal government. The good news is that any action can make a difference, and there continue to be more and more actions, programs, and policies that reduce food waste. At the state level, organic waste bans are becoming more common, with states like Maryland and Washington recently passing legislation and states like New York and California implementing restrictions on landfilling food waste. At the federal level, there is movement to standardize date labels, improve food donation, and provide funding for food waste reduction.

Here are a few of our other top priorities:

  • More measurement and standardized reporting to help provide data to better target solutions at all stages of the food supply chain.
  • Substantial and sustained funding from the public and private sector to support solutions across the entire food supply chain
  • Innovative policies like adjusting grading standards and implementing unit-based waste management pricing that incentives reducing waste.
  • Effective consumer education that is culturally appropriate, leads to behavioral changes, and shifts social norms.

It is fantastic to see businesses, governments, organizations leading by example and participating in efforts like Food Waste Prevention Week. We will continue to amplify those efforts and help implement and advocate for the array of solutions outlined in this blog and beyond. To truly prevent food waste, we, as a culture, need to value our food more and we all are a part of making that culture shift happen!

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