Throwing food away is the most heartbreaking waste of all. In this episode, Lesly Baesens, Denver Department of Health & Environment, tells us about Denver Food Matters pilot that is working to reduce food waste in restaurants. You'll also discover surprising tips and resources for reducing food waste at home.
1. Meet Lesly Baesens
An long-time environmentalist at heart, Lesly's passion led her to pursuing a Master's degree in Global Environmental Policy in Washington, DC. During these studies she began exploring food waste and decided to focus on the topic for her capstone project. Lesly wrote a paper that provided Washington, DC with recommendations to improve its food waste reduction practices, several of which are now included in the city’s sustainability plan.
Lesly volunteered with the DC Food Recovery Working Group, an organization working on food waste reduction in the nation’s capital. She also worked in project management, stakeholder engagement, and policy analysis for the Open Government Partnership, a Washington, DC-based organization.
In 2019, Lesly Baesens relocated to Denver and began working as the Food Waste Recovery Program Administrator for the City and County of Denver in the Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE).
2. Why Food Waste Matters
Shocking is the only way to describe exactly how much food is wasted in the U.S., while at the same time food insecurity and access to nutritious food are such huge issues.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that up 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted.
Up to 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted. @DDPHE & @NRDC Denver Food Matters is working to change that!
At the same time, according to Denver's 2017 Food Vision, in Denver:
- 1 in 6 households (1 in 5 children) experience food insecurity or hunger;
- 33% of Denver families eat less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day;
- 70% of the Denver Public Schools student body is eligible for free or reduced cost meal programs; and
- 1 in 2 adults (1 in 3 children) are overweight or obese.
The nonprofit ReFED focuses on solutions for reducing food waste. The value of wasted food makes this a multi-billion dollar problem. 52 million tons of food sent to landfill annually, on top of 10 million tons discarded or left unharvested on farms.
3. Denver Food Matters: Restaurant Food Waste Pilot
In the 2017 Denver Food Vision, reducing food waste and food insecurity were identified as two of the priorities for improving Denver's food system. The City has a goal to reduce the amount of food going to waste by 57 percent by 2030.
DDPHE applied for and was awarded a Food Matters grant from the NRDC, with funding from The Rockefeller Foundation.
The focus of the project is to reduce food waste and food insecurity in Denver businesses and homes. In the two-year pilot, the Denver team will work with NRDC and stakeholders to implement programs that address food waste. The goal is to continue to spread the programs and policies more broadly, after the pilot phase.
Where does Denver's food waste come from?
- 41 percent comes from residences
- 25 percent comes from restaurants
Because DDPHE already has relationships with restaurants as part of the Certifiably Green Denver program, the first project focused on reducing food waste in restaurants.
Food Waste Hierarchy
How do you reduce food waste? It's similar to the familiar "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra for reducing other waste.
In designing the restaurant pilot project, DDPHE adapted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Food Recovery Hierarchy framework. The process prioritizes prevention first, then recovery, and finally recycling, to categorize the solutions for optimal economic social and environmental benefits.
Participating Denver Restaurants
The Denver Food Matters pilot began with a group of eight restaurants and coffee shops in Highland neighborhood in May and June 2019. The second phase was in October and November 2019 in the South Pearl neighborhood.
Restaurants were asked to come up with one prevention strategy that they would implement during the two-month pilot.
Since chefs are already focused on being efficient with food supplies and processes, at first this was a challenge. However as the pilot continued and the staff saw the food accumulating in the compost bin, the businesses came up with innovative ideas:
- A coffee shop used excess cheese, bacon and oats to make dog treats.
- A restaurant saved vegetable scraps to make a broth to use in other dishes.
- Another restaurant changed purchasing practices to order smaller quantities more frequently than before. This generated $300 to $400 savings per month.
DDPHE launched the second pilot of Denver Food Matters in the fall of 2019 with restaurants in the South Pearl neighborhood. In this group, the restaurants were also asked to see if they could come up with a "rescue dish", to monetize something that would have otherwise gone to waste. RescueDish.org is a movement started in Washington, DC to reduce wasted food by celebrating chefs and businesses who use ingredients that others would toss.
As part of the pilot, restaurants were offered the ability to schedule pick-ups of any food that they wanted to donate. The program partnered with We Don't Waste, a local food recovery network that collects food and delivers it to community organizations who need food to serve their populations.
What they found was that most restaurants in the pilot had little or no unused edible food to donate.
Restaurants were offered free compost service for two months, along with the bins, signage and staff training. This was a key draw for restaurants to participate.
At the end of the first pilot, 5 out of the 8 participating restaurants decided to continue to compost with a paid compost service and another is looking to partner with a farm.
DDPHE did waste audits at the beginning and end of the pilot. For the first group in Highland neighborhood, the audit included sorting and weighing the waste for a full week. In future pilots, a single snapshot day will be used.
The results are informal because it was a tiny snapshot. To really know the impact would require measuring waste for a longer time period. Even so, the before and after measurements give a glimpse of what's possible.
In the first audit, restaurants were diverting about 18 percent of the waste from the landfill. At the end of the pilot, after adding composting services, the average diversion rate jumped to 70 percent. The results also indicated the potential of 85 to 90 percent diversion with additional staff training.
With increased composting, there is an added benefit in reduced greenhouse emissions. Food that goes to composting helps regenerate the soil and avoids reduces greenhouse gases by avoiding the release of methane in the landfill.
Signage and Visibility
DDPHE also provided the restaurants with a Food Matters Guide and info sheets for staff. In addition, the program supplies decals and table tents to raise customer awareness around food waste and to highlight the restaurant's participation.
The City is also working to give visibility to the participating restaurants through media coverage and social media, as a way to recognize their efforts.
Throughout the first pilot in Highland, the City partnered with Sustainable Highland, a sustainability-focused committee of Highland United Neighbors Inc.
Sustainable Highland members organized "flash mobs" at pilot restaurants. They gathered at the restaurant, met the restaurant manager, thanked the restaurant staff for their efforts and ate together. They also spread the news and promoted the restaurants' efforts through posts on social media.
To bring the efforts full circle, the City delivered finished compost to Hirshorn Park, in the same neighborhood where food waste had been collected from restaurants.
In August 2019, DDPHE, Denver Recycles, Sustainable Highland, and others partnered to host an outdoor screening of the film Just Eat It. This was a family-friendly community event to highlight the efforts of the restaurants and spread the message of the importance of reducing food waste.
4. Reducing Food Waste at Home
With consumer waste accounting for the biggest portion of food waste, reducing food waste for residences will be the next phase of the Denver Food Matters initiative.
No one wants to waste food. But, many people don't realize the extent of food waste or their role in generating it. In fact, Lesly said, "about 70 percent of Americans think they waste less food than average."
So, for those working to reduce food waste, that lack of awareness is a significant challenge.
"How do you get to the crux of the issue," said Lesly, "and actually get people to change behavior and realize that food is a valuable resource? We shouldn't be wasting it and it shouldn't go in the trash."
A report from NRDC in October 2017, found that Denver residents waste an average of 4.2 pounds of food per week per person. Of that 25 percent was inedible. This means that 75 percent of the food thrown out could have been eaten.
Home Food Waste is Systemic
There are several reasons that food waste is systemic.
Compared to many parts of the world, in the U.S., refrigerators are larger and tend to be very full. Grocery stores and big box stores encourage purchasing more than you need, as a way to "save money".
However, the average household in the U.S. wastes $1,500 to $1,800 per year. So, the promised savings may go out the window because of food that gets thrown away instead of eaten.
"Is it really worth the saving on that bigger package if you're going to waste some of it?" By purchasing smaller amounts, you can save money and avoid throwing food away.
"We have this culture of abundance. We want to provide for our families and that's really important," said Lesly. But, providing for our families can be done in a way that doesn't waste food.
Tips for Reducing Home Food Waste
Purchase in smaller quantities to save money and reduce waste.
Don't overfill your fridge. When the fridge is packed, it's harder to keep track of what's in there and you're more likely to forget about items until they are already spoiled.
Put an "Eat Me First" basket in your fridge, to remind you and your family of items that need to be eaten sooner.
Have a "leftover day" every week, where you plan to use your creativity to use up leftovers.
Use the freezer to reduce food waste by freezing extra meals, bread, milk, eggs out of the shell, and most other food.
Use silicone ice cube trays to freeze smaller amounts such as tomato paste, chopped herbs, lemon juice or lime juice. After frozen, pop cubes out and store in a sealed container.
Instead of throwing out a bag of pre-washed salad, try sauteeing it or using it in soup.
Use up any extra produce by making soup, then freeze any extras.
Keep a bag in your freezer for bread crumbs for leftover bread, crackers and chips.
Keep a bag of kitchen scraps in your freezer for scraps of carrots, parsley, celery and other veggies to use for broth.
"Your freezer is your best ally in fighting food waste," said Lesly.
Understanding Date Labels
Products may have a "use by", "sell by" or "best by" date. And many people will just throw the food out if the date has passed.
However, the dates are generally intended to communicate food quality, not food safety. So even though most of us think of these dates as "expiration dates", the date stamps often do not indicate food safety.
Surprisingly, there are no U.S. federal labeling regulations of food products, except for baby formula. Instead, the regulation is left to the states. Nine states have no date labeling regulations. The other states each have their own regulations, with no two alike.
The dates are generally the manufacturers' suggestions and in some cases are meaningless. Lesly notes that you can find date stamps even on products like salt that never go bad.
Confused about "use by", "sell by" or "best by" dates on food? Find out how to reduce #foodwaste at home with @DDPHE @NRDC @savethefood @eatortoss @EPA
Eat or Toss?
So, if the date stamps don't indicate when a food has gone bad, how can we decide when to eat ?
It's best to be cautious with meat and dairy items. For other items, use your senses. If it looks fine and smells fine, and a small bite tastes fine, it's probably still okay to eat.
This concurs with advice from Kevin Smith, Senior Advisor in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He notes that "predicting when a food will no longer be of adequate quality for consumption is not an exact science."
Smith advises consumers to regularly examine foods that are past their "Best if Used By" dates, and avoid eating products that have changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture.
ReFED estimates that consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods contributes to about 20 percent of food waste in the home. ReFED advocates for standard federal data labeling regulations as one way to reduce food waste.
For more guidance on specific food conundrums, visit EatorToss.com. The website takes the mystery out of food, to help people enjoy it more, save money, and throw away less. It also has "Use-It-Up" recipes like Carrot-Top Pesto and Papaya Seed Dressing.
5. Additional Resources
- Save the Food
- Eat or Toss
- Food to Good to Waste Toolkit & Guide, EPA Sustainable Management of Food
- Food Matters in Denver: Sustained Momentum and Opportunity for Growth (NRDC), November 2019
- Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability, (PLOS One Journal), April 2018, funded by USDA
- Denver Compost Challenge
- Estimating Quantities and Type of Food Waste at the City Level (NRDC), October 2017, Denver food waste p. 20
- Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill (NRDC), August 2017
- Your Guide to Food Storage for Healthier Eating, Groom + Style
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