Beyond the Fork: A Conversation with JoAnne Berkenkamp on the Future of Food Waste
In late January, I attended the National Council on Science and the Environment’s 16th National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy, and the Environment in Washington, DC, focusing on ‘The Food-Water-Energy Nexus.” There, I was able to sit down with one of its most anticipated speakers: JoAnne Berkenkamp, Senior Advocate for The Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Food and Agriculture Program. Here, we discuss all things food waste—both the growing national interest in it, and the changes in store for how to address it.
The topic that you will be speaking on, and that seems to be on everyone’s minds right now—including John Oliver’s—is food waste: Why all of a sudden? It seems that, within the last five years, there’s a new sense of urgency, where we talk about food waste as its own idea and not as an afterthought to issues like climate change or sustainable agriculture. Are there certain events that have transpired in food systems work globally or nationally that make now the perfect time to talk about this kind of topic?
I think you’re exactly right about that; food waste has risen in prominence recently, and a number of factors have contributed to that. In 2012, my colleague Dana Gunders released The Wasted Report from NRDC, and this report got the food waste issue onto the radar screen for the first time—the media attention was quite unanticipated! The policy and business communities really started paying attention in a way they hadn’t before. Other factors have definitely played into this, like the attention now being paid to local and regional food systems. In a very unprecedented way, people have started to care about where their food comes from, and that, as a result, has led entire communities to become more interested in what happens to their food once they’re ‘done’ with it.
Late in 2015, there was some buzz surrounding the joint EPA/USDA goal to halve food waste by 2030. Do you feel that this is a realistic policy goal, and if so, how are groups like the NRDC keeping these agencies accountable? And do consumers have a role in keeping policymakers accountable?
The 50 percent by 2030 goal is a huge step in the right direction; it’s the first time that the US has had a national goal for reducing food waste, and it’s an ambitious target. We were really excited for the leadership in EPA and USDA to take this on. The goal itself does not have an enforcement mechanism, but the critical point about it is that it needs to be an all-hands-on-deck initiative. We know that 50 percent of the waste that goes into the municipal solid waste stream comes from consumers and their homes, and education and activism is a critical step forward to changing that. Similarly, the private sector is a major contributor to food waste, in the form of restaurants and grocery stores, so consumers definitely have a role in advocacy.
On that note, what do you feel that the Food and Agriculture Program’s most successful strategy has been in leading the charge on food waste?
Consumer education is a pillar that we at NRDC have focused on. As a society, we are increasingly focused on awareness of strategies like composting, anaerobic digestion, and the like, but losses at the consumer level are a critical target because they are so large. In April, we’ll be launching the first ever National Food Waste Reduction Campaign in partnership with the Ad Council. This is something we’re really excited about, and we hope this will be a catalytic effort to spur consumers to take action, to reduce waste in their homes, and to change the social license around waste. In the 1960s, before all of the anti-littering campaigns came into effect, it was acceptable to throw your half-eaten cheeseburger out the car window. Now, though people don’t do that anymore, it’s acceptable to throw your cheeseburger in the trash. We hope that this [campaign] will be a catalyst for people to change the way they view food, and their relationship with it.
As you said, the consumer mindset is so important, but one of the most difficult things about effecting any kind of change, especially around environmental issues, is that mindsets can be so deeply rooted. If people see that their neighbors do not care about an issue, it is difficult for them to feel that their actions can make an individual difference. How do you grapple with this?
I find in my work that people are shocked to hear that 40 percent of household food goes to waste. And when they hear that 40 to 50 percent of waste goes to landfills, they realize that consumers are critical to this issue. Our focus though at NRDC is not on pointing the finger; we more have the attitude of ‘here’s the problem, and here are ways that you can be part of the solution.’ It’s things like making better use of a home freezer, or using or taking leftovers home from restaurants—I have a friend who throws a lot of family gatherings potluck style, and she has people bring their own Tupperware so leftovers can be saved at the end of the meal—so there are simple and social things people can do.
There is also an economic argument to be made for food recovery in the sense that, a family might have spent $1,500 on groceries only to have most of that food go in the trash. This is money that people have earned, and I would bet that most families would rather have the $1,500 to spend on something more enjoyable, rather than throwing it in the trash. So between the economic and moral arguments, and having parents provide a better example for their children, I think in the future we’ll see people start to think about their individual actions.
Are there any groups out there like the NRDC that are really active in this area, or partnerships you feel have really contributed to this work?
Quite a number of organizations are active in this arena: USDA and EPA have shown significant leadership; the World Resources Institute is coming out with a food loss and waste protocol to quantify how much food waste is out there, why it’s there, and where it’s going; and we’re also seeing leadership in a number of places at the municipal level—places like San Francisco and Seattle. In addition, NRDC is now getting involved in Nashville, Tennessee, and working on a city-level plan for comprehensive reductions in food waste. We hope this will be a model for mid-size cities in the heartland to seize the moment and integrate food waste into their policy agendas.
Our policy interests at the Harris School extend far beyond the City of Chicago, but have you come across any Chicago-centric groups or pieces of legislation that have seemed notable?
Zero Percent has been a huge group for recovering prepared foods, and in particular, they’ve figured out an economic model for their mission. We’re working to bring Zero Percent’s model to Nashville, and hoping their successful model will be adapted there.
JoAnne, I know that you were once an MPP student, of the Kennedy School—our rival, no less! What kinds of things do you think policy graduates, and young people who want to do work in this area, should know about the changing landscape surrounding food waste?
First of all, I am really encouraged to see how many early career, young professionals are thinking about the future of our environment, and are thinking about food waste in particular. These are people who are making linkages between food waste and other social concerns like hunger, which is really important. I would say that being informed is most important, as well as figuring out how to be involved in your community: through supporting food recovery efforts or preventing food waste in cafeterias, or working with the administration to take on new approaches or strategies like composting what you already have—all of those can be really critical. I think, especially as the financial community and philanthropic community begin to understand how to engage with young professionals, that it’s also important to realize how interconnected people working in this area are. We want to be able to create lasting opportunities for people to work in this area that go beyond the short term, so it can also be important to take advantage of these connections.
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