Preventing food waste

What we lose when food goes to waste

The cafeteria at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, DC, has linoleum floors, cinderblock walls, and, because it doubles as the school auditorium, a stage with a well-worn red velvet curtain. But what looks ordinary and, at least today, a little chaotic, is actually a pioneering laboratory set up to tackle food waste. Along one side of the room is a line of color-coded bins: black for landfill, yellow for compost, blue for recycling, and white for milk and other liquids. At the end of the lunch period, students separate their trash into the appropriate bins, each of which is weighed and recorded. There’s also a cart on wheels that serves as a “share table,” a place where students can leave uneaten or unopened food for peers who may want or need it.

This idea—that kids who are hungry might be able to grab an extra carton of milk or take food home—motivates Seaton’s “wellness ambassadors,” a group of fourth- and fifth-graders investigating food waste at school. At Seaton, all the students receive free lunches, and many know what it means to go hungry. “My grandma and I sometimes put food in a cooler to give out to the homeless,” says Robert Saunders Jr., a fourth-grade wellness ambassador. “Someone should eat it if it’s going to go in the trash.”


As an early childhood educator and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) teacher in Washington, DC, Karen Brooks-Bauer strives to embed the idea of living sustainably throughout her teaching and school initiatives.

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The lunchroom weighing and recording began last fall when the school’s wellness coordinator, Bonnie Gallion, learned about WWF’s food waste program for schools. “It’s sad to see all this food going in the trash. But we didn’t know where to start,” she says.

With WWF’s help, Seaton conducted its first food waste audit in November 2017. For the second round, on an unseasonably warm day in February, several wellness ambassadors patrol the cafeteria, offering stickers to students who finish their lunches; others help their peers figure out what to throw where—empty plastic fruit cups go to recycling, but their aluminum lids end up in the trash. Untouched portions of cinnamon-sweetened carrots go into the compost bin.

The decline in food waste at Seaton is astonishing. Landfill waste plummeted 47%, from about 155 pounds in November to 82 pounds in February. Wasted milk fell 27%, from 52 pounds to 37 pounds. “We’re thrilled to see such a significant decrease,” Gallion says, though she wonders if giving out stickers made the difference or whether the food that day simply weighed less. (It’s also possible that students prefer spaghetti and meatballs or burgers to the hot ham and cheese sandwiches served in November.) Regardless, she adds that “it is encouraging to think about the difference small changes make.” The school’s next steps are to restart composting, create a permanent share table, and periodically offer incentives like stickers to encourage kids to eat up.

Fast. Dramatic. Minimal investment. It’s hard to argue with these kinds of results. But why is WWF working to slash food waste in schools? If it seems an odd fit, think again.

Each year, the US federal government serves 30 million children 5 billion meals, and a lot of it goes in the trash. In fact, one-third of the world’s food—1.3 billion tons—is lost or wasted at a cost of $750 billion annually. When we throw away food, we waste the wealth of resources and labor that was used to get it to our plates. In effect, lost and wasted food is behind more than a quarter of all deforestation and nearly a quarter of global water consumption. It generates as much as 10% of all greenhouse-gas emissions.

Another negative aspect of food waste is its connection to species loss. Consider this: Food production is the primary threat to biodiversity worldwide, expected to drive an astonishing 70% of projected terrestrial biodiversity loss by 2050. That loss is happening in the Amazon, where rain forests are still being cleared to create new pasture for cattle grazing, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa, where agriculture is expanding rapidly. But it’s also happening close to home.

Take, for example, America’s breadbasket: A WWF report estimates that across the North American Great Plains about 2.5 million acres of native grasslands were lost to crop production from 2015 to 2016. Such losses have put grassland birds in perilous decline: Six songbird species, found only in the Great Plains, have seen declines of between 65% and 94% since the 1960s. Yet a percentage of the crops grown eventually ends up in landfills.

“You have a situation on this planet where we are losing habitats and species because we need to grow more food for humans,” says Pete Pearson, the director of WWF’s food waste program. “And then you look at the food waste statistics and you think, wait...what? We don’t need to take more habitat away from wildlife to grow more food; we need to waste less of what we already produce. We are squandering everything in the name of convenience, abundance, and cosmetic perfection, and no one understands that connection. Food waste is a conservation issue.”

The statistics are especially staggering in the United States. Americans throw away 40% of their food—upward of 400 pounds per person per year. This, while 42 million Americans report that they don’t have enough to eat.

What these sweeping figures do not tell us, however, is how to solve the problem. The US government has set an ambitious goal to halve food waste by 2030. To that end, WWF is partnering with industries and institutions that have the potential to make the biggest gains: public schools, hotels, retail grocers, and agricultural producers. In every case, success rests on gathering more granular, actionable data. Doing so is at the heart of every one of WWF’s food waste initiatives.

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Take hotels. The US hospitality industry produces an estimated 2-4 million tons of food waste each year. This is driven in part by many hotels’ policies to overproduce food for banquets and buffets to create a sense of abundance.

To rethink such policies, WWF partnered with the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), which counts brands such as Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, and Marriott among its members. With support from The Rockefeller Foundation, WWF and AHLA set up demonstration projects in member hotels to separate and measure food waste and assess the behaviors, perceptions, and costs associated with it.

For the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, DC, the pilot program was a no-brainer, says Phelton Calhoun, the hotel’s executive steward. It was low-tech and relatively inexpensive, requiring only some new garbage cans—one set to dispose of and weigh “pre-production” food, such as fruit and vegetable peels, and another for food to be composted. The goal was to create a system first to prevent food waste, second to donate what could be used elsewhere, and, as a last resort, to divert the rest from landfills. “It wasn’t more work, just different,” says Calhoun, who rolled out the project on Earth Day 2017 to help workers make the connection between the process and its impacts.

The results were immediate and impressive. In the gallons and gallons of trash, staff were able to visualize the impacts of serving that extra tray of sliced beef or strawberries at a buffet. As important, they could see which foods were left over. So instead of producing an extra 5% of everything, they might make, say, extra shrimp, but not chicken. Over the course of the project, Calhoun saw a 50% reduction in food waste per guest. He also saved money by reducing weekly garbage pickups by as much as 40%.

Results were consistent throughout the program. Participating hotels saw, on average, reductions in food waste of at least 10%. Some properties reported saving 3% or better in food costs.

Based on the findings, WWF and AHLA released a toolkit for hotels, challenging the industry to create systems—and a culture—to address food waste. It outlines opportunities to engage and empower everyone from the dishwasher to the head chef. In April, WWF held the first of several meetings, in Singapore, to bring together hoteliers, associations, government officials, and NGOs to discuss opportunities to fight food waste in the hospitality sector globally.

Grocery retailers represent another huge opportunity to reduce waste. Retailers that once viewed overripe pears or meat near its sell-by date as sunk costs of doing business now increasingly see food waste, which totals $18.2 billion annually across the industry, as something that can be controlled. Donating what would otherwise be wasted is also a smart way to fight hunger. According to nonprofit ReFED, retailers can provide nearly 1.2 billion meals to those in need by increasing their donations to food pantries.

To that end, in September 2017, Kroger—the nation’s second-largest grocery retailer, with 2,800 stores—introduced its Zero Hunger | Zero Waste plan to end hunger and eliminate waste in its communities, working with national partners WWF and Feeding America. Again, measuring was the first step. Over the first six months, Kroger worked with WWF to understand how food waste was being managed in its stores.

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The ultimate goal, of course, is to prevent food waste and loss in the first place, so much of the work must be done on the farm. In 2017, WWF worked with researchers at Santa Clara University, the University of California-Davis, and the Global Cold Chain Alliance (which focuses on retaining food quality and safety throughout supply chains) to measure on-farm losses of four specialty crops: potatoes, tomatoes, leafy greens, and peaches. The crops were chosen because each has a significant footprint on the landscape and each is grown differently and suffers different types of loss.

The studies showed that growing potatoes for processing is very efficient. Contract growers know what people want (yes, the answer is french fries) and how much. Potatoes are also pretty hardy—easy to transport and store. The WWF study showed an average loss rate of only 2.5%. But the numbers climb fast when looking at fruits and vegetables for the fresh market. Tomato growers in Florida saw losses of around 40%; Arizona leafy green growers lost 56%. In New Jersey, growers of peaches lost nearly 5,000 pounds of peaches per acre, as much as 37% of the crop. More still was lost in the packing houses, where another 108,000 pounds of peaches, or 14%, was tossed each day.

“There is loss at so many levels,” says Pearson. “Quantifying that loss across different crops and different parts of the industry lays the groundwork for rethinking how we do things—from the ground up.”

In March 2018, WWF gathered academics, government officials, farmers, and tech experts to start a conversation. With the data in hand, it was possible to bypass the usual handwringing and dig into actual solutions. These included new ways to structure farm contracts, using technology to more fairly divide costs along the supply chain, and creating new supply chains to connect growers to alternative markets that can utilize more of what they grow.

“Until you measure something, it’s not real,” says Pearson. “I’m hopeful that food systems will look dramatically different in 10 years because we’re going to start designing them with zero tolerance for loss and waste.”

“Businesses have a critical role to play in advancing a more sustainable food system that is both good for the world and for the people it serves. The results from our partnership with WWF demonstrate the importance of implementing simple, measurable, and scalable changes to further our goal of making nutritious food available for all—without breaking the back of the planet.”

DEVON KLATELL Senior Associate Director and Initiative Strategy Lead for Food at The Rockefeller Foundation

If WWF’s initial work is about measuring loss in order to manage it, it’s also about something bigger. Back at Seaton Elementary, the wellness ambassadors are looking out for the health of their fellow students and community, for sure; they’re also campaigning for culture change. “All you have to do is have lunch with the kids in the cafeteria and you see that we have to change attitudes and culture,” says Pearson. If students understand the impacts of wasting food, they may change their behavior—for life.

Over the past few years, WWF has collaborated with the School Cafeteria Discards Assessment Project (SCrAP) and other programs to develop a curriculum aimed squarely at helping students understand the impacts of wasted food on natural resources and wildlife—and empowering them to effect change. (WWF also worked with the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a guide to conducting a school food waste audit.) Last year, more than 25 schools participated in a joint WWF-SCrAP pilot program; based on feedback from students and educators, the curriculum and lesson plans were rewritten and rolled out at Seaton and seven other schools during the 2017-2018 school year. Their feedback will further hone the materials.

Whether in a farm field or at a hotel buffet, it is only when we understand a problem that we can begin to fix it.

“We all need to appreciate food a little more, where it comes from, and what is sacrificed when we grow it,” says Pearson. “When we sit down at the dinner table, we need to appreciate its value more. Even if you’re not religious, take a moment to reflect and give thanks.”



WWF and partners work to prevent food waste from occurring; donate what cannot be prevented, but is still safe for people to eat; and divert the rest from landfills for use in animal feed, compost, or biofuel. Efforts to prevent food waste (at the top of the inverted pyramid) have the greatest impact.

SOURCE REDUCTION: Avoid generating food waste
FEED PEOPLE IN NEED:Donate extra food to food rescue charities, soup kitchens, and shelters
FEED ANIMALS: Divert food scraps to animal feed
COMPOSTING/RENEWABLE ENERGY: Convert unavoidable food waste to compost and energy
LANDFILL:Dispose of food as a last resort


Dining out or eating in, you can reduce waste and save money by making easy changes in how you order, shop for, store, and prepare food.

Dining out

When dining out, ask for a share plate and split a meal with a dining companion.

Ask to take home restaurant leftovers, and even go the extra waste-free mile by bringing your own container.

Eating in

Gnarly carrots and other imperfect veggies and fruits taste just as good as perfect-looking ones. Ask your grocer for ugly produce and give it a try. It may save you money, as well.

Sell-by and best-by labels aren’t the final word in freshness. Use your own senses to determine what’s still usable and what needs to go.

Take stock of your pantry and refrigerator and make a weekly menu plan to help yourself avoid buying too much at the grocery store. Be realistic: Include meals out and leftover nights.

Freezing food increases its staying power. Freeze foods you don’t have time to prepare, and label freezer containers with frozen-on and eat-by dates.

Tonight’s leftover roast chicken or vegetable scraps can become tomorrow’s soup.

When restocking your fridge, move older items to the front and use them first.

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