When it comes to issues of conservation, Washington residents might be understandably fatigued by consumer-focused restrictions like plastic straw bans or grocery bag fees. But when it comes to food waste, consumers are actually one of the biggest contributors to the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
FAO estimates a third of all food is lost or wasted. This issue gets even worse when it comes to produce: Today in North America, roughly 20 percent of all fruits and vegetables are wasted by consumers.
Farmers are wasting about 20 percent of produce as well, but the difference is that farmers’ livelihoods depend on their crop, whereas many consumers don’t yet see directly the cost of the food they’re wasting.
That’s beginning to change though. New businesses are springing up that make a point of illustrating the issue of food waste before presenting consumers with solutions. One example of this is Imperfect Produce, a company that launched in Washington last month.
Imperfect Produce delivers produce that might get rejected by a grocery store to the homes of consumers at a discounted rate. Founder Ben Simon, a Silver Spring native who first started combating food waste in the cafeterias of the University of Maryland, says that the issue is one that consumers need to start taking seriously.
"We’ve really built up this pretty massive consumer movement of people who are willing to overlook the skin-deep cosmetic issues," Simon said, "and look deeper than that and change their purchasing patterns to make a home for these fruits and vegetables in their fridges."
Imperfect Produce works with farmers to harvest food that grocers and large wholesalers reject, like sunburned apples and oddly shaped carrots. This food tastes perfectly fine but wouldn’t get sold through traditional outlets because of cosmetic standards set by the USDA and grocery stores themselves.
"For farmers, this stuff historically, going back decades, has never had an outlet," Simon said. "To be able to now find an outlet and actually make a profit on that produce that they’re growing really feels great to them."
Capturing What’s Left Behind
Of course, buying produce that you ordinarily wouldn’t doesn’t necessarily capture your waste. It’s the leftovers that are causing the biggest issue.
That’s where start-ups like Goodr and Veteran Waste fill in the gap.
Goodr takes leftover food from catering and food service companies and brings them to shelters and non-profits like So Others Might Eat.
Veteran Waste, meanwhile, collects waste from everything from stadiums to single households and composts what they collect, selling that soil back to consumers.
For Goodr founder Jasmine Crowe, the issues of food waste and food insecurity have always been interconnected. Crowe got her start organizing "Sunday Soul" Pop-Up Dinners for homeless people in cities like Atlanta and Washington.
When a video of one of her dinners went viral, people mistakenly reached out to her, thinking she had gotten her food donated and wondering where it came from. That led her to research how much food was being wasted by restaurants and caterers.
"I was very upset and it got me thinking, 'Hey, how about you go about connecting these people?'" Crowe said.
Goodr launched at the beginning of 2017 in Atlanta and immediately began hiring drivers who worked for services like DoorDash to take food from caterers and bring it to the places that needed it. Since Goodr’s arrival in D.C., it’s already hired hundreds of drivers.
"As much as we're spending on innovating on how we're going to get food faster," Crowe said, "we're not innovating on how we're going to address food waste, the climate and how we are going to feed people."
How to Clean Up the Mess We Made
It wasn’t always this way. The amount of food wasted has increased steadily over the past fifty years. According to a report by researchers at the NIH, food waste has increased by 10 percent since 1970, even as agricultural practices evolve to get people food more and more efficiently.
Waste in agriculture, on the other hand, has received considerable attention from national and international agencies. For instance, The United States Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions, a program started by the EPA in 2016, commits its signatories to reducing their food waste by 50 percent by 2030. Recent signees include Kroger and Hilton.
Washington-area organizations like DC Central Kitchen are stepping up to recover that lost produce and put it on the plates of the people they serve.
Amy Bachman, director of procurement and sustainability at DC Central Kitchen, is a longtime food waste advocate. In her position, she has spearheaded efforts to take good food from farmers through gleaning programs and collecting leftovers from wholesalers and grocery stores. That food is then used for free meals at shelters.
Bachman says that food loss is being taken more seriously now than it was even when she started at DC Central Kitchen eight years ago.
"It was definitely more the conversation where we were reaching out to wholesalers saying ‘Hey, what are you doing with your produce?'" Bachman said.
"While we use food as a tool, we know that food itself will never solve hunger, we know we're not gonna feed our way out of the issue of food and hunger, and so we’re trying to break that cycle of hunger and poverty as well," Bachman said.
Though progress is being made, consumers can still do a variety of things to cut back on food waste themselves. One thing Imperfect Produce recommends people do is organize their fridge so that the oldest food is on top, in plain sight, with newer food down below. That way, when we first open our fridge we’re reminded of what we need to eat first, not what we most recently bought.
Bachman argues that the issue of food insecurity suffers from the same sort of systemic issues as food waste. By thinking more critically about waste, it’s possible that we’ll find we have enough food for everyone.
"The connection for us is obvious: If there's food that is being wasted we'd rather have that, instead of going to a landfill, going to our kitchens," Bachman said. "It's perfectly good food that we want to use to give to families that are struggling to get by."