The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

$15 million grant is awarded to university researchers finding solution to food waste

American University will now lead the first national academic research network on wasted food

Experts estimate up to 40 percent of food produced in America is never eaten. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If America went grocery shopping, it would leave with five bags of food and empty two into the street, according to estimates by experts from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The United States wastes up to 40 percent of all the food it produces — between 125 billion and 160 billion pounds annually — at nearly every stage of production, researchers have found. “Think about the greenhouse gas implications, of water use,” said Sauleh Siddiqui, an associate professor of environmental science at American University. “This is a big chunk of all our resources that we’re using that we should be doing better on.”

With a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Siddiqui hopes to reverse the trend. He leads a team of researchers in finding the best policies and approaches to reducing wasted food. Researchers from AU, along with experts at 13 other institutions, will form the Multiscale Resilient, Equitable, and Circular Innovations with Partnership and Education Synergies — or RECIPES — for the Sustainable Food Systems project, the first national academic research network on wasted food.

As the country moves toward its sustainability goals — dramatically cutting carbon emissions by 2030, reducing food waste by half and investing in clean energy — universities are also throwing their weight and resources behind the effort. George Washington University this year promised to ban single-use plastics. Students at Ohio State University are diverting uneaten food from landfills, recently donating bagels to a local brewery to be made into beer. AU now claims to be the first university in the United States to become carbon neutral, a milestone reached in 2018.

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“This research exemplifies the impact that AU has on the world’s most pressing problems,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the university president. “Our expert scholars bring unique interdisciplinary approaches to critical challenges and create knowledge that translates into action.”

The network of researchers hail from schools including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and Louisiana State University. They represent major fruit and vegetable hubs in California, meat and commodity crop regions in Illinois and Ohio, and milk and food processing centers in New York. Among them are engineers, economists, public health workers, critical geographers, social scientists and artists.

“Sustainability encompasses so many things. It’s not just engineering. It’s mathematical sciences, it’s social sciences, it’s economics,” Siddiqui said. “We have people doing everything from imaging science to thinking about how transportation and the food system intersect.”

The Environmental Protection Agency describes wasted food as food that wasn’t used for its intended purpose, such as milk that spoils on its way to the grocery store due to poor refrigeration during shipping or unattractive produce that gets tossed at supermarkets. Most food is wasted during the consumption stage, like a partially eaten meal at a restaurant or a wilted bag of spinach that is thrown out before it can become a salad.

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Wasted food includes food that has been served but not eaten and inedible scraps that can be recycled by composting or other processes. Reducing the amount of wasted food and food waste is not only a major environmental concern, but also an economic and social justice issue, researchers said. Wasted food translates into lost money, wasted energy and the deepening of economic divides. Roughly 40 million Americans live without reliable access to food, yet billions of pounds of it are wasted each year.

“Food takes a lot of resources to create, from the land and the water, the labor, seed, oftentimes a fair number of chemicals. Then transportation, processing, lots of refrigeration,” said Brian Roe, a RECIPES director and an agricultural economist at Ohio State University. “To see that all go into a landfill seems like a trade-off that doesn’t quite seem worth it.”

Morgan State University is another school in the research network and associate professor Celeste Chavis brings expertise on transportation. Her research in Baltimore focuses on how transportation — and the lack thereof — affects food security in the country. “I think it’s very timely research, and particularly the angle of blending climate change research with equity work. I think that’s pretty unique,” said Chavis, also a RECIPES director. “One of the things I’m interested in, when it comes to wasted food, is rescued food and how we get it to communities in need.”

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Chavis said a hallmark of the network will be the collaboration researchers plan to have with those most affected by food waste. Researchers consider those people as key in pinpointing where and why food is wasted then how to prevent it. “We realize that the food system is for everybody and the network has to reflect that and get ideas, information and viewpoints from everyone in the food system in order to be successful,” said Roe. “That’s really kind of a foundational value of this research network.”