Each year, Americans waste 63 million tons of food and $218 billion along with it, unnecessarily consuming the resources required to produce, transport and dispose of food that never finds its way to a plate. California-based nonprofit ReFED sees an opportunity to halve food waste in America by 2030—and a new report shows that impact investors could be part of the solution.
The 2018 US Food Waste Investment Report identifies growing interest and investment in food waste solutions that culminated in a total of $125 million in venture capital investments and $134 million in foundation giving in the first 10 months of 2018 alone.
Finding Food Waste Solutions
Far beyond telling children to clean their plates, strategies for minimizing food waste can be found all along the supply chain. ReFED divides the battle against food waste into three central stages:
- Prevention reduces waste at the source through better harvest and distribution practices, like cold storage and packaging. It also minimizes waste at the point of consumption, such as by providing smaller portions in restaurants.
- Recovery is where most waste reduction happens, redistributing food to people rather than to landfills.
- Recycling, receiving the smallest portion of funding, includes composting and anaerobic digestion—creating soil amendments and biogas that get some value out of food, even if it isn’t eaten.
ReFED sees a longer trend toward innovative solutions. A major portion of ReFED’s reported venture capital investments—$70 million—went toward Apeel Sciences. Apeel makes a “second skin” from edible, plant-derived materials and applies it to produce to keep it fresh. The group currently only provides treated avocados to a few Midwestern states, but Apeel has plans to branch out to more products and markets.
The bulk of the foundation money counted by ReFED, though, was general funding given to food banks. Feeding America, the umbrella organization for 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries, counted a total of $2.9 billion in public support and revenue in 2018, mostly from food donated by food processors and grocery stores. This was enough to provide 4.3 billion meals using 3.5 billion pounds of rescued food.
Feeding America also made $94 million in grants to local food banks—up from $56 million the previous year. These funds come largely from disaster donations and cause-related marketing, including the famous “Red Nose Day” event put on by Comic Relief.
Direct foundation funding nearly tripled between 2012 and 2016, settling near $20 million. And since ReFED estimates that up to three-quarters of food donated to food banks would have gone to waste, the organization counts $114 million of all foundation money for food banks as “indirect funding” in support of food waste solutions.
In 2013, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 90% of Americans sometimes dispose of food too early because they’re under the false impression that the date on the packaging indicates when the food is no longer safe to eat. A quarter of households throw away such food every time. NRDC’s campaign led the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the main food industry trade groups, to develop guidance to members in 2017 about better date labeling, an action ReFED calculated has an economic value of $4,547 per ton of food.
Other efforts have had less of an impact. Three-fourths of what ReFED counts as money for “waste prevention” last year was a single $3.6 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the film Wasted! and associated awareness and education campaigns. While reviews were mostly positive, the documentary took in less than $26,000 in domestic revenue, calling the reach of the film itself into question.
Food waste is a large-scale problem, but ReFED notes that the some of the greatest strides organizations have made have been through local initiatives. The report concludes that each city and state has a unique level of food waste and different contributors to the problem, meaning that specific solutions designed with an understanding of the local landscape could be more effective in meeting the area’s needs, even with less money invested. According to the report, a $50,000 investment could effectively address food waste in a given community.
The rise of new solutions at both smaller and larger scales, along with a 70% increase in foundation food waste funding over the last five years, means there are new ways to reduce unnecessary food disposal—and that’s an opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste.