The Dish Recap: Food Waste

Last night we hosted our ninth(!) Dish panel discussion.  The topic of the evening was food waste and was moderated by Alison Nihart from UVM’s Food Systems Initiative. The panel consisted of Theresa Snow from Salvation Farms, Nick Savasta from Cheese and Wine Traders, Ren Weiner from Miss Weinerz, and Michele Morris from CSWD. This timely topic was even reflected in our snacks - Ren Weiner provided the crowd with samples of her doughnuts made with spent grains from Zero Gravity Brewery.  Delicious!

We started the evening by setting the stage with some facts and figures about food waste on a national scale and specific to Vermont.  We also showed the “Food Recovery Hierarchy,” which depicts the recommended action to decrease food waste.  The first and best option is to reduce food waste at the source (growing or purchasing less food).  The second best option is to redirect excess food to other people (whether through creating value-added products, donation, etc).  The third best option is to redirect excess food as animal feed, and the fourth and fifth best options are to compost and try to use the food for energy recovery.

Food Recovery Hierarchy

As an example, City Market uses the food recovery hierarchy to inform how we deal with food waste at the store: 

  • We are always tracking, adjusting, and adapting to ensure we are buying and creating appropriate amounts of food to ensure minimal food waste. 
  • If products are getting close to expiration, there is good communication between other departments and our Prepared Foods department to try to use the product to create value-added items to further extend the product’s life. 
  • If we do end up with food that we can’t use, we partner with the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf to make sure that extra food is making its way into the hands of people who can use it. 
  • In the past, we partnered with a farm to divert some of our Produce compost (trimmings, unusable produce, etc) to animal feed.  Surprisingly, there are health and safety regulations that need to be taken into consideration when establishing such a partnership and the process has to work for both the store and the farm.  We are currently exploring partnerships with other farms to divert some food waste. 
  • Lastly, we are vigilant to compost as much material as possible, from food scraps to our coffee bags and hot bar to-go containers.

Other big topics that we touched on:

Universal Recycling Law (Act 148)

We discussed the ongoing implementation of Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law (Act 148), which requires everyone to compost organic materials by the year 2020.  Over the past two years, businesses generating varying amounts of organic waste have been required to compost, and starting next year (2017), trash haulers will be required to offer residential curbside compost pick-up. 

While there is now a cost associated with composting (hauling fees), Michele Morris from CSWD pointed out that food waste is a negative externality of our food system.  Up until now, the costs of that externality have not been covered by those creating the waste.  Act 148 shifts the responsibility of that externality back on those creating the waste.  Hopefully, this will help spur system change to create a source reduction or to divert food earlier in the food recovery hierarchy so that less food is headed to the landfill.  

To learn more about the status of Act 148 implementation and results, check out this recent report from Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Expiration and other dates:

One burning question we had was what do “sell by,” “best by,” and “expiration” dates really mean?  Nick Savasta from Cheese and Wine Traders, which is a business that sells discount products that are close to or past their listed expiration dates, explained that the dates on packages are set by food manufacturers who are offering a recommendation for when a product will be most fresh.  The dates are not a reflection of food safety and in reality, most products are okay to eat after their “best by” dates have passed. 

Nick noted that in 2016 a federal Food Date Labeling Act was introduced into Congress which would create two uniform national labeling standards – one for quality and one for food safety.  This would hopefully help decrease consumer confusion about product safety and decrease food waste. The legislation is currently at a standstill, but it is definitely something to watch. 

Ren Weiner, owner of Miss Weinerz, chimed in as well to note that knowing how to tell when food products have gone bad is a learned cultural skill.  Many of us don’t know what bad tofu looks or smells like, or how to tell if nuts or oil have gone rancid.  These skills are something older generations could potentially teach us, or these are skills we can teach ourselves through testing and experimenting (within reason!).

Production and gleaning:

Another topic that we touched on was the amount of food left unpicked or unsold at the farm level.  Theresa Snow from Salvation Farms reports that 16% of food waste happens on farms, and this can happen for a number of reasons, including a lack of labor, competing harvests (needing to harvest a higher value crop over a lower value crop), low market demand, and blemishes, to name a few. While farmers could try to create a value-added item to extend the life of the crop, we discussed the challenges associated with that, including smaller profit margins and increased costs of production.  However, on the flip side, value-added products can make food more accessible because some of the work has already been done for the consumer. 

Another option is gleaning. Gleaning is where a professional gleaning organization, like Salvation Farms, develops a relationship with a farm so that gleaners can go through fields to harvest crops that may be left unpicked for a variety of reasons. The gleaning organizations can then route these crops to charitable food organizations, or they could be the ones to add value to the crop to then bring to market.  The Intervale Gleaning and Food Rescue Program is one of the gleaning organizations working in Vermont and gleans produce from Intervale farms and farms across Chittenden County to distribute through their Fair Share Program.  In 2016, the Fair Share Program provided 40,000 lbs of local produce to 150 households and 15 social services agencies!

Want to learn more about vegetable and berry loss on Vermont farms? Check out this recent study from Salvation Farms.

Fair Share Program

A weekly snapshot of what was included in the Fair Share Program baskets

Major takeaway:

During the panel discussion, one theme became clear: food waste and recovery is something that individuals can actually affect.  So often we discuss larger food system issues that sometime seem difficult to combat on an individual level.  But listening to the panelists describe how they interact with food waste, it became apparent that each of us can decrease our own food waste by taking simple actions – committing to more rigorous meal planning; cleaning the fridge each week; making more of our own food; making use of “ugly” fruits and vegetables; knowing what “sell by,” “best by,” and expiration dates mean; and the list goes on. Since 80% of food waste happens at home and businesses, taking individual action can create big change.

We hope those who attended the discussion left with some more information about where and why food waste happens and some ideas about how to increase food recovery on a large scale, but also on the individual scale.  If you missed the event, stay tuned for a video of the discussion to be posted on the event page.  We’ll be hosting another Dish panel in February, so check out in the coming weeks for more information on our next event!