If you want to get a sense of how much food Americans waste, “Top Chef” judge and restaurateur Tom Colicchio will paint a picture for you: Say you go to the grocery store and pick out all of your food for the week, and then check out and head home. “If you have four shopping bags, just drop one and keep walking,” said Colicchio, co-founder of Food Policy Action, an advocacy group.
No one would do that on purpose. But most of us do it every day, either because we don’t eat our food before it spoils, or we throw away food we don’t realize is still perfectly good. The average family of four spends an average $1,560 each year on food they never eat, and according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, we throw away 25 percent of the food we purchase.
“They go to the farmers’ market and everything looks great, and they have all these great intentions, and then, oh, a friend calls and [they]’ll go out, and before you know it, it ends up in the garbage,” said Colicchio.
The problem is, most of us don’t even realize how much we waste. A 2015 Johns Hopkins study found that nearly three-quarters of the Americans surveyed thought they discarded less food than the average American. And that presents a big hurdle for such food policy advocates as Jesse Fink, whose Fink Family Foundation is the seed funder of ReFED, an organization of business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders working to end food waste. The group’s report, which identifies a path to 20 percent reduction of food waste within a decade, pinpoints consumer education as the most effective way to reduce waste. But how do you reach consumers when most of them already think they’re doing their part?
“People see their own piece of food waste but I don’t think anyone fully understood the full magnitude of food waste from farms to kitchen table,” said Fink, who pointed to a spot by the Ad Council tracking the life and death of a single strawberry as a way of reaching consumers without guilting or shaming them.
Advertising isn’t ReFed’s only megaphone: “I think the chefs are a great messenger,” said Fink.
“We don’t waste food in our restaurants. We’re trained not to waste food,” said Colicchio. “The only waste you see is plate waste,” meaning uneaten food that is thrown away if a diner doesn’t ask for a doggie bag. At Colicchio & Sons, the chef reduced his plate size and dropped the price of his dishes accordingly, to prevent waste.
Reducing plate size is among the 27 solutions identified by ReFED’s report. Others that both consumers and restaurants can implement include:
- “Optimizing food packaging size and design to ensure complete consumption by consumers.”
- “Accepting and integrating the sale of off-grade produce, also known as ‘ugly’ produce, for use in foodservice and restaurant preparation and for retail sale.”
- “Expanding federal tax benefits for food donations to all businesses and simplifying donation reporting for tax deductions.”
Policy can also help consumers make better decisions when it comes to food waste. One of the biggest payoffs identified by the study is in standardizing food date labeling, which is frequently misunderstood by consumers, leading them to throw out perfectly good food. Legislation announced last week by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) aims to eliminate the confusing “Sell by” and “Enjoy by,” as well as other misleading phrases, and replace them with the simple “Best if used by” for shelf-stable goods, and “Expires on” for riskier perishables. If the bill passes, industrywide changes would be implemented within two years.
So Colicchio and other chefs, including Washington “Top Chef” competitor Spike Mendelsohn, San Francisco chef Mourad Lahlou of the Michelin-starred Aziza, and “Top Chef” season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga, will meet with lawmakers on the Hill on Wednesday to talk about the Food Recovery Act, comprehensive legislation aimed at addressing waste from farms, corporations and at home, and the aforementioned Food Date Labeling Act. Colicchio will meet with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), among others.
“It’s one of those issues where both sides can get together and look at this and try to fix the problem,” said Colicchio. “I don’t see this becoming a partisan football.”
And for consumers, Colicchio has a reminder: “If you’re in the farmers market, don’t avoid that ugly carrot or that gnarly parsley,” he said. “Those are very small examples, but I think if we raise the awareness, if we can cut [food waste] in half, that would be enormous.”
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council.