Celebrity chefs want the US to own up to its food waste crisis

Image: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh
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A band of celebrity chefs has untied their aprons, left their kitchens and made a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill to proselytize about food waste.

Tom Colicchio, Mourad Lahlou and Steven Satterfield are just three of a handful of award-winning chefs making the rounds in Washington DC this week, to impress upon lawmakers the need to take action to plug the 133 billion pounds of food wasted in the US each year. The House Agriculture Committee today (May 25) held its first-ever hearing to learn more about the problem, and proposed steps to solve it.

Lawmakers heard testimony from a unified group of giant food companies, academics, non-profit organizations and food producers—all of them asking the government to take action.

There is a lot of missing information about how food is wasted. But hunger and environmental groups have been batting around ideas on how to begin tackling waste, including using a roadmap developed by ReFED, a group combatting food waste. Here are a few of those ideas, which were presented at the hearing:

  • Teach about storing food to last: Consumers waste more food in their homes than retailers and restaurants do elsewhere, so groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are asking for publicly-funded educational initiatives to help inform people on how to cut down on the food rotting in their fridge. That would include promoting home composting, better food planning, and syphoning some food in the home to America’s hungry.
  • Standardize expiration dates: Food companies and non-profit organizations are asking the government to standardize sell-by and expiration dates printed on food packaging, since no two states have the same law regarding labeling, and there is no federal guidance for states to use when considering donation rules. In addition to confusing consumers, the lack of clear labeling deters companies from making food donations.
  • Hire more hands to harvest: Most agricultural workers on farms hail from immigrant communities that are under scrutiny due to pending immigration reforms. That has left US agricultural producers with fewer hands in the fields to pick all the produce being grown, according to the Produce Marketing Association.
  • Compost as a community: The US spends about $218 billion a year growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten. One lawmaker introduced a now stalled bill in 2015 proposing tax incentives for food donations, official measures of food waste in schools, and loans for community compost facilities.

According to ReFED, an $18 billion effort to achieve a 20% reduction in food waste would save 1.8 billion meals and reclaim the 1,250 calories per capita that goes into landfills each year. That would be enough to feed America’s food insecure population three times over, according to its findings.

“We’ve all had to toss moldy strawberries or clean out the science experiment at the back of our fridge,” said Dana Funders of the NRDC. “No one wants to waste food.”

Companies have already taken on some of this burden. When carrot producers noticed consumers tossing ugly carrots, they developed the baby carrot, which now accounts for 70% of all carrot sales and doubled carrot consumption numbers, said John Oxford of the Produce Marketing Association. When ConAgra (the manufacturer of Marie Callender’s frozen pies brand) changed the way it put pie dough in pans, it wound up saving 230 tons of dough a year, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.