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By Nan Victoria Munger

“FIVE OR TEN YEARS AGO, NO ONE WAS TALKING ABOUT THIS ISSUE”: Food Tank, a nonprofit think tank for food system reform, recently hosted a summit to discuss food waste. Photo by Nan Victoria Munger.

How much money do you throw into the trash every year? For the average American household of four, the answer is almost $2,000, and it takes the form of uneaten food. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that, globally, one-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted each year. One-quarter of that wasted food would be more than enough to feed all of the malnourished people in the world. Food waste also has an enormous environmental cost, producing more greenhouse gas emissions than any country besides the United States and China, according to the FAO.

On September 13th, Food Tank, a nonprofit think tank for food system reform, hosted a summit to discuss food waste. The day-long event took place at the Greene Space, at Charlton and Varick Streets, and included five panel discussions, three fireside chats, and sustainably catered meals. The stellar list of speakers included: Ruth Reichl, a food writer; Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s restaurateur brother; Dan Barber, a village restaurant owner and famous chef; and many more innovators and leaders from organizations working to address food waste.

“Five or ten years ago, no one was talking about this issue,” said Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank president. Today, community awareness is growing. Within four hours of announcing the event at Green Space, Food Tank had received four times as many applications as available tickets, and over 78,000 people tuned into the event’s livestream. Many of the experts at the event were New Yorkers.

According to nyc.gov, New York City produces over 1 million tons of food waste per year—enough to fill more than 200 subway cars every day. Elizabeth Balkan, Director of Policy at the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), reported that the impact of organic waste is “enormous in terms of the logistics and the costs to remove it.” The waste has to be exported 500 miles away for disposal, costing the City roughly $180 million per year, according to Ron Gonen, CEO of Closed Loop Partners. “If we figure out a way to decrease the food waste, that money can go elsewhere in the City budget,” said Antonio Reynoso, District 34 City Council Member.

The City’s excess food could also be used to feed the 1.3 million food-insecure New Yorkers. City Harvest, an organization that delivers unused food from restaurants and supermarkets to food banks, will redistribute 30 tons of food this year. But that is only a fraction of the City’s total food waste.

As part of former Mayor Bloomberg’s 2013 commitment to divert 75% of New York City’s waste from landfill by 2030, the DSNY is currently running a pilot curbside compost collection program that will soon be expanded. New Yorkers that are not part of the program can drop off their compost at any of 55 drop-offs run by GrowNYC. “It has never been easier to compost in New York City,” says Emily Bachman, Compost Program Manager at GrowNYC. Yet GrowNYC’s collections have been less than 1% of NYC’s food waste.

New York City is making an effort in this area, but we have a long way to go. Here are some ways to minimize your household’s food waste:

  1.  Ignore “sell by” and “best before” dates. They are arbitrarily set by food producers and have no relationship to expiration. Producers often set them early so consumers buy more product. Trust your eyes, nose, and taste buds to tell you if something has gone bad!
  2. Shop more frequently and buy less. Get only what you need and will actually use.
  3. Compost! Diverting food scraps from landfills reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Visit grownyc.org/compost to learn more.
  4. If something in your fridge is getting old, freeze it. Fruits and vegetables are often wasted because they are so perishable. If they are frozen when mushy, they can be cooked later.
  5. Be an activist! Sam Kass, Food Initiative Coordinator under the Obama administration, says part of the reason it was so difficult for the Obamas to create change in the food industry is that “there isn’t really a food movement.” Kass said that, while Americans like the idea of reducing food waste, “Nobody’s voting based on this issue. Nobody’s showing up at the White House with bills…We need to get past the critique and start actually getting into real strategy.”

“If the people cared, politicians would care,” agreed food writer Ruth Reichl. “We really need people to have an emotional connection to this.”

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