Let’s look at food waste. It’s a big problem.

Food Waste is Dumb Says Climate Lab Video Series – Week Four

I continue to love and learn from the Climate Lab video series.  This video series about climate change is produced by the University of California (Carbon Neutrality Initiative) in partnership with Vox. The series is hosted by conservation scientist and UCLA visiting researcher M. Sanjayan. He explores surprising ways to change how we think and act about climate change. He’s terrific at making complex material accessible.

This week’s video is about food waste, what Climate Lab terms the “world’s dumbest problem.”

Watch the video:


Leveraging Nutrition Education to Reduce Food Waste

To tackle food waste in California, a growing effort seeks to leverage nutrition education programs, wrote UC researcher Wendi Gosliner in a guest blog post for UC Food Observer. Wendi is part of the team at UC ANR’s Nutrition Policy Institute, a cutting-edge unit that’s using research to transform public policy. She shared this observation:

“Food waste presents a major challenge in the United States. Estimates suggest that up to 40% of the food produced nationally never gets consumed, causing substantial economic and environmental harms. Wasted food utilizes vast quantities of precious land, water and human resources, yet rather than nourishing people, it feeds landfills, producing methane gasses that poison the environment. Much of the food waste (43%) occurs at the household level.

Household waste is exacerbated by a variety of factors, including inappropriate retail food portion sizes, confusing food labels with non-standardized pull dates, the relatively low-cost of food for some constituencies and inadequate consumer messaging about proper food handling and storage. A 2014 USDA report estimated that a staggering 1,249 calories per person per day in the United States are wasted—more than enough to feed all the 1 in 8 Californians currently experiencing hunger and food insecurity.”

Tech Innovators Fight Food Waste

Former President Barack Obama connected the dots between climate change, imperiled food production and political instability in one of his first post-presidency appearances. He spoke at Seeds & Chips, an international food and technology conference in Milan, Italy. Read this New York Times piece by Jason Horowitz and Stephanie Strom for more details.  

A piece by Umberto Bacchi for Reuters highlights some interesting technical innovations around food waste that are emerging. Think about the possibilities: “Beer cookies, coffee flour and bananas that don’t brown are just some of the innovations on offer to fight food waste.” A #goodread. H/t to the always amazing Jonathan Bloom (a must follow for anyone interested in #foodwaste).

Related: You may enjoy this UC Food Observer profile about ReGrained, a start up company that’s recovering spent grain from San Francisco breweries. Co-founder Dan Kurzrock told me this:


“Overall, our goal is to help the urban economy do more with less. We’re closing an industrial loop where a byproduct is actually food. Waste equals food. We’re very confident in the idea, now it’s a matter execution and building a great company together.” 

What World War I Can Teach Us About Food Waste

Here’s my take on food waste. It goes back in part to lessons I’ve learned from studying World War I, when the American government set food conservation goals (along with goals for local food production via Liberty – later Victory – Gardens). I’m a big proponent of both reducing food waste and producing more food in communities via school, home and community gardens. (I’ve included some related gardening links at the end of this article). Big point: the World War I poster included in this post has advice we’d be well served to heed today.

Poster from the collection of the Museum of Ventura County. Credit: Aysen Tan.

“Food waste is both an ethical and environmental issue. It should concern us that we waste nearly 40% of the food we produce and purchase in this food-abundant nation. 

For an interesting comparative statistic, consider this: our nation produced nearly 40% of the fruits and vegetables we consumed on the American home front during World War II in school, home, community and workplace gardens.”

Period Piece or Photoshopped Image?

It’s an iconic poster from World War 1. “Food…don’t waste it.” The image is regularly shared on Twitter and Facebook.

The original was produced in 1919 by the United States Food Administration, under the direction of the newly appointed food “czar” – Herbert Hoover.

The poster was reissued during World War II. It’s been revised in recent years, by individuals and organizations interested in encouraging an ethos incorporating local foods and sustainability.

While I’m the UC Food Observer, I also dabble in the history of wartime poster art. I’m often asked if this is a contemporary mock-up made to look and feel vintage.

It’s not a mock-up. It’s the real deal, produced nearly 100 years ago, with messages we should embrace today.

The Original Poster: Yes “Buy Local Foods’ is Rule 4

The original poster has six rules that we’d be well served to follow today. The fourth rule – buy local foods – is somewhat of a surprise to people today, because the notion of buying local seems somewhat modern. But in World War I, the U.S. government encouraged the local production and consumption of food, in part, to free trains to more effectively ship troops and war material.

Tackling Food Waste through Preservation: Today’s Master Food Preserver Program

One way to reduce food waste is by preserving it.

Many land grant institutions, including the University of California, host master food preserver programs. These programs teach best practices on food safety and preservation to volunteers. The extensive training program prepares the volunteers to work in their community educating others on the safe practices of food preservation, including pickling, drying, freezing, canning and fruit preserves.

Thinking about Gardening?

The University of California sponsors the state’s Master Gardener Program, which fields more than 5,000 volunteers in communities across the state. The Master Gardener Program is a national program, housed at the land grant institution in each state, but it’s also connected to the USDA. Free gardening resources are available here. Advice to grow by…just ask.

Takeaway Message?

Food waste is both an ethical and environmental issue. It should concern us that we waste nearly 40% of the food we produce and purchase in this food-abundant nation.

In other words, commit to wasting less food, and if you can, grow some food of your own. We all can make a difference.