Reducing Food Waste: A Systems-Level Approach By: Susan Chen & Lily Yang

Imagine feeding a world with 9 billion people in a climate that is rapidly warming (Godfrey, 2010). Vital agricultural resources (e.g. land, water, nutrients) are quickly becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain. As food prices have soared, so too has food insecurity. Simultaneously, food is being discarded due to its increasing unaffordability as discarding unbought food has become cheaper than distributing it to those in need. This dystopian scenario is possible, even definite, if sustainable agricultural and food practices are not put in place.

Susan Chen joins this site in the continued collaboration with Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience. Susan is conducting her graduate research in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech with an interest in food systems, sustainability, and nutrition. I am pleased to welcome her to the site. She is joined by Lily Yang who has appeared here twice previously with Bite Coin? How blockchain can help us keep track of food from farm to your plate as well as Processed food as seen through a public health nutrition lens. Thank you, Susan and Lily, for providing us with a fresh perspective on food waste.

The food system is complex and dynamic, pieced together with many moving parts. For a truly sustainable food system, all aspects must collaboratively coalesce to create holistic solutions. To begin, we will focus on and explore solutions to tackle the high incidence of food waste, a significant part of the food system. 

Annually, in the United States, up to 40% of all edible food is wasted, leaving  37 million pounds of food in landfills. Not only is this about 1 pound of food a day; it’s also roughly 30% of YOUR daily calories, every day! Monetarily speaking, an estimated $165.6 billion is wasted each year from the 37M pounds wasted. In the United States, most of the food waste occurs in the consumer and retail sectors of the food supply chain. Despite the ability for the United States to produce then discard so much excess food, 11.8% of U.S. households (1 in 8 Americans or 40M Americans) are food insecure. Thus, without any systemic interventions, the wasting of food,  has incredibly dire and negative economic, environmental, and social consequences. 

Luckily, slow shifts towards change are being engaged. The discourse on food waste has increased throughout the past decade; organizations, businesses, and even individuals are collaboratively putting words into action. The most notable of actions, and one that may create the largest systemic changes are government commitments and actions to reducing food waste (at the local, national, and international levels). For example, the European Union’s governing body is committed to halving the amount of European food waste by 2030. Similarly, through a joint voluntary policy of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency and United States Department of Agriculture, the United States has also committed to its own 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal to halve U.S. food waste by 2030 (EPA, 2015). Australia, too, has also set a similar target for 2030!

While these voluntary national and international commitments are a step in the right direction; without direct and enforceable policies by system players, organizations, businesses, etc., these commitments may become unfulfilled and unattainable, leaving us back where we were. As part of the discussion, we will also explore three other viable solutions that could be implemented: (a) standardized date labeling; (b)consumer education campaigns; and (c) centralized composting. A 2016 ReFed report, multi-stakeholder nonprofit committed to coming up with solutions to reduce food waste, indicate that implementation of the former two will hold the largest financial benefits, while the latter has the potential to divert the largest amount of waste (ReFED, 2016). 

Standardized date labeling

In the United States, date labels are not regulated by the federal government. Unsurprisingly, a nationally representative U.S. survey found that 59% of consumers were unaware of that aspect! In the same survey, 84% of consumers also discarded food near the package date due to misconstrued perceptions and confusion surrounding terms like “use by”, “best by”, “expire by”, “fresh by” and “sell by”. (Neff, 2019). Currently, and in reality, the majority of the terms (e.g. “best by”, “use by”, etc.) are used to indicate product quality degradation as opposed to product safety. However, consumers discard products due to their conception that once a product has gone past the date indicated, it is no longer safe, when in reality, it is simply that the product’s quality (as long as it has been kept with proper storage conditions) will decrease. Only when the term “expires by” is used is there a reference to food safety; this usually is for baby food and formulas. 

While some states have policies regulating date label usage and application, federal regulation of date labels can contribute to consistent terminologies, cutting down confusion, misconception, and ultimately waste. Small steps are currently being undertaken to make standardization a reality. In a 2016 proposed legislation, the Food Date Labeling Act, aims to standardize date labels by “establishing requirements regarding quality dates and safety dates in food labeling, and for other purposes” (Congress, 2016). Similarly, some companies, such as Walmart, Nestle, and Kellogg, have made commitments to standardize date labels, although no action has been taken yet. If the Food Date Labeling Act is enacted, all food production businesses will have to comply and standardize date labels (Evans, 2018). 

Consumer education campaigns 

Have you ever seen a PSA about food waste? Recently, there are some cool ones from the Ad Council, like this one on how to best meal prep.

Chances are, they were created by consumer campaigns, such as Save the Food, Love Food Hate Waste, and I Value Food. Successful educational campaigns have demonstrated their potentials to reduce food waste. In the United Kingdom, Love Food Hate Waste effectively reduced consumer food waste by 21% in five years utilizing multi-modal communication campaign. This campaign spread consumer awareness and mobilized communities through interacting via various forms of media (i.e. print flyers posted about, social media, and radio commercials) and holding public education sessions (i.e. cooking clubs, community events, etc.). Financially, Love Food Hate Waste estimated investing as little as 1 pound which saved 8 pounds worth of food from ending up in landfills (WRAP, 2015). This solution necessitated low financial investment/input while netting a high economic, social, sustainable, and agricultural return. 

Other educational campaigns and knowledge transfers have been set by government organizations like the EPA. The EPA has come up with the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy that addresses the actions and provides strategies for “organizations […] to prevent and divert wasted food” (EPA, 2019) (see Figure 1). The top levels are the best practices “to prevent and divert wasted food” due to their ability to enable the most environmental, societal, and economic benefits. 

chart describing the hierarchy of food recovery from source reduction (the best way to prevent waste) to feed hungry people to feed animals to industrial uses to composting to landfill or incineration (the least effective way to prevent food waste)

Central composting 

Composting is oftentimes associated with a “hippie” movement; eat some food, and throw the rest into a weird bucket with other food and somehow it magically becomes matter that can be used for growing gardens! What magic is this? Luckily, composting isn’t just for hippies; in fact, most of the food you have in excess can be composted for use! However, depending on who you are and where you are located, the idea of smelling up your kitchen (or backyard), the lack of space to store excess food, or even that you don’t produce enough waste can all be a deterrent to composting. Luckily, a proposed solution has made composting easier! 

Central composting has the largest potential in diverting waste from landfills. Although composting is regarded as a less preferred method of reducing food waste — it is the 2nd to last hierarchy tier — it is still preferred over discarding food into landfills. As we’ve discussed, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of composting as a means of preventing food waste; home composting systems are becoming cheaper and more popular. However, for those all the above negative reasons and inability to compost at home, centralized composting can allow consumers to divert their food waste from the landfill. 

food waste accumulated for composting
Composting–not just for hippies anymore!

Sadly, in order for their to be a structural shift, it is important to the development of a  centralized composting center may be expensive due to the necessity of building composting infrastructure, establishing waste management peoples, collection vehicles, and centers for quick diversion of waste to produce rich rich fertilizers for farmers, home gardeners, and community gardens. Additionally, it will necessitate policy effort on the forefront to develop the infrastructure at the local level to implement while working across various organizations and disciplines to build buy-in, community, involvement, and capacity. As such, it is also important to recognize, utilize, and implement and long-term campaign plan from conception to implementation. 

Although currently seemingly bleak, the future of sustainable food systems is moving forward with innovative solutions to reduce food waste. In addition to what we’ve discussed, there are other food waste reduction strategies being explored through technological, social, and policy impacts. As our agriculture and society becomes even more integrated, the rise of artificial intelligence and calls for traceability has also begun its awesome inclusion into the flow of the larger food system; not only to see how food is being produced, but to determine food usage, waste, and recovery efforts to better adjust for a more sustainable future. In order to better facilitate a more sustainable food system and future, what would YOU do and what could YOU do to contribute your personal footprint that could lead to a larger systems-level change? 


Susan Chen is a PhD student in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech. Her research focus is on consumer food waste with a focus on food insecurity and food recovery. She has also collaborated in food waste projects at elementary schools and youth summer camps. Susan serves as a co-president of the Graduate Students for Communicating Science Club at Virginia Tech and has also been involved with local science communication events. Last year, she won first place in their Nutshell Games, a science communication competition at Virginia Tech. See the video link for her talk.  


guest blogger Lily YangLily Yang is a post-doctoral researcher at Virginia Tech. Her research focus specifically develops science communication and food safety programs for diverse populations. She is also founding member and contributor of the science-based media communication channel, Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience (@DontEatPseudo). 


Next week: Recent food stories on the net


Evans, A, & R Nagele. (2018) A Lot to Digest: Advancing Food Waste Policy in the United States. 58 Natural Resources Journal Winter. 

Godfrey, HCJ, Beddington, JR, Crute, IR, et al. (2010) Food security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people, Science 327, 812. 

Neff RA, Spiker, M, et al. (2019)  Misunderstood food date labels and reported food discards: A survey of U.S. consumer attitudes and behaviors. Waste Manag. Mar 1;86:123-132. doi: 10.1016/j.wasman.2019.01.023. Epub 2019 Feb 12.

REFED. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent. 2016.

EPA and USDA (2015) United States 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal.


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