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Food waste deserves more attention, says Fresh Summit panel

NEW ORLEANS -- By some accounts, as much as 50 percent of the food grown or produced for consumption in the United States is lost or wasted along the way.

While almost half of those losses come at the consumer level, the other half is "wasted" along the supply chain, which means there are great opportunities to reduce that number for both the benefit of the bottom line and to feed those in this country that are less fortunate.

That was the take-home message of a workshop session called Produce Waste: Turn a Loss to Your Advantage held during the recent Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit convention, here.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for PMA, and a group of panelists discussed the issue of produce waste from a number of different of angles.

Means set the stage for the discussion with some sobering thoughts about food waste in this country. When deposited in landfills and left to rot, food waste produces methane gas, which is many more times harmful than carbon dioxide and is considered a major contributor to man-made climate change. It also is an economic drain as many resources are used to both produce and dispose of those unused items.

In trying to eliminating waste by various methods, Means introduced an inverse pyramid model that graphically explained solutions ranging from source reduction at the broad-based top to landfills at the bottom tip of the illustration.

In a perfect world, the best method is source reduction, followed by feeding hungry people, feeding animals, industrial uses to generate energy, composting and then finally a very small amount headed to landfills.

The panelists discussed these various methods and how every member along the supply chain can help fight the battle against food waste.

Of course, one of the most commonly used strategies is to donate good but unsaleable fruits and vegetables to charities that feed the poor and hungry. All the panelists discussed this option, including Lisa Davis, vice president of public policy for Feeding America in Washington, DC; Kevin Seggelke, president and chief executive officer of the Food Banks of the Rockies; Michael Hewett, director of environmental and sustainable programs for Florida-based Publix Supermarkets; and Maureen Torrey Marshall, one of the co-owners of Torrey Farms, Elba, NY.

Both Davis and Seggelke explained that sourcing more produce is a strong initiative of Feeding America, which is the umbrella group for the nation's network of food banks.

There is a tremendous need in this country for free food, as Davis said about 49 million Americans do not know where their next meal is coming from on any given day. Providing this group of people with nutritious food is the goal of Feeding America.  

Seggelke and his team provided the Rocky Mountain corridor that they serve with more than 90 million pounds of food last year with 24 million pounds of it being fresh produce.

Both of these panelists from the food bank community indicated that they are interested in forging partnerships with many more suppliers to help use unsaleable produce. Growers, shippers and others along the supply chain get the benefit of donating food and the additional benefit of reducing their waste disposal costs.

Hewett of Publix discussed several different initiatives that chain store has launched to reduce its waste and be a positive force in the community.

He also reported on the activities of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an organization of retailers, manufacturers and suppliers that is exploring this problem and developing best practices to create a blueprint for waste reduction.

He said some best practices are as simple as better marketing programs, while others involve the building of plants to create energy or getting involved in composting collaborations.

For example, Tesco has developed a strategy of allowing customers who are participating in a "buy one, get one free" program to buy now and get the free one later to reduce the possibility of overstocking their own refrigerators. Wegman's is using waste for a composting project on its own company farm. Kroger has gotten involved in the building of an anaerobic digester to produce energy and saleable compost.

Torrey Marshall relayed the very progressive approach her company has taken toward food waste. The company is working with a local food bank; it is composting product for use on its own farms; and it is in the midst of building an anaerobic digester in partnership with others to both reduce waste and create energy.