When we waste food, we waste an enormous amount of water, land, and money, and we create global warming pollution—but reducing food waste in the U.S. is a solvable problem. With a renewed federal effort to rebuild our nation, now is the time to accelerate action and achieve our national goal to reduce food loss and waste (FLW) by 50% by 2030.
That’s why NRDC is joining forces with Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, ReFED, World Wildlife Fund and many others to call on Congress and the Biden administration to undertake policies to address FLW. Our US Food Loss & Waste Policy Action Plan prioritizes the following policy measures:
1. Invest in infrastructure to measure, rescue, recycle, and prevent organic waste from entering landfills and incinerators
At a time when one in four Americans face hunger, food is also the largest component of municipal waste sent to landfills and incinerators, where it produces methane and contributes to climate change. In addition to climate pollutants caused by disposal, toxic air pollution, noise and other nuisances disproportionately affect the communities of color where landfills and incinerators are predominantly located.
States and cities are already making progress on the FLW policy front. In 2019, for example, New York state passed the Food Donation and Food Scrap Recycling Act, which requires the largest generators of food waste across the state to separate excess wholesome food for donation and recycle any remaining food scraps. Policies like this one, which are also found in other states including California, Massachusetts and Vermont, can help prevent food waste, rescue surplus wholesome food for those in need, produce compost to regenerate our soils, and create jobs.
These policies are most successful when they are coupled with strategies to better measure where and why food goes to waste so that we can prevent food from becoming waste in the future. Federal incentives must encourage states to enact and accelerate policies to both reduce and measure FLW.
2. Expand incentives to institutionalize surplus food donation and strengthen regional supply chains
In 2020, the sudden shift in food purchasing at the onset of COVID-19 exposed the inflexible and siloed nature of existing supply chains, when cancelled contracts (in the restaurant and hospitality sectors, for example) left surplus food stranded on American farms—even as demand at food banks and grocery stores left shelves empty. While rescuing and redistributing surplus food is not a cure for hunger, it is an important stopgap in meeting immediate anti-hunger efforts.
There have been countless efforts and innovations to get more nutritious surplus food to people in need, like these in Denver and Baltimore. Making food donation easier and more accessible, and building stronger connections between potential donors and recipients of donated food at the local level, will ensure that more people get the food they need to live happy and healthy lives, and that less food goes to waste.
3. Assert the US Government’s leadership on FLW globally and domestically
Under the Obama administration, the US federal government committed to the global goal of reducing FLW by 50% by 2030. Since that time, US businesses, consumers, communities, and state and local governments have taken important steps forward to voluntarily reduce loss and waste—yet more is needed.
Through NRDC’s Food Matters project, US municipalities and local organizations are developing programs that prevent food from going to waste in the first place, rescue surplus food for people in need, and compost food scraps. Many are leading by example and issuing mayoral proclamations to reduce food waste, including 4 cities—Asheville, Memphis, Orlando, Pittsburgh—in the past couple of months.
Adopting a FLW goal in the US 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution towards the Paris Climate Agreement—one of the priorities in the US FLW Action Plan—will send a clear market signal to states, cities, companies, and other countries to similarly make FLW reduction an official part of their climate strategies. It will also help to re-establish the US as a global climate leader.
4. Educate and activate consumers via private and public food waste behavior change campaigns
Consumers are by far the largest source of food waste in the US; nearly 40% of US food waste occurs in our homes. Recent polling confirms that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe food waste is a critical issue. Yet the amount of American household food waste generated per capita is not declining fast enough, and more must be done to educate consumers on the steps they can take to reduce their waste. NRDC’s Save the Food campaign was developed with the sole purpose of raising awareness and educating consumers on how to waste less food at home. With better research and more data on successful behavior change tactics, campaigns like Save the Food can help Americans make critical changes in the home to reduce food waste.
5. Require a national date labeling standard
Date label confusion is one of the leading causes of consumer food waste, estimated to drive nearly 85% of Americans to prematurely toss food that is still safe to eat. Lack of consistency in labels contributes to additional waste among grocery stores and other consumer-facing businesses and unnecessarily restricts the safe donation of nutritious foods past their date labels to food rescue organizations. NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic reported the problem and how to fix it in a 2013 report The Dating Game, but until a Food Date Labeling Act is passed in Congress, we’ll be left with a hodgepodge of state requirements that confuse consumers and unnecessarily lead to waste.
There are exciting signs of progress to reduce food waste across the country, but more coordinated action must be driven by the federal government to achieve our imminent goal of 50% reduction by 2030. Because food waste occurs at every stage of the food supply chain, including in businesses and homes, the strategies to reduce food waste must come from all sectors and all regions, supported by federal funding, real leadership, and a strong directive for action. We have a plan, and now we need federal action.