Food waste is a massive societal issue. Climate Corps and ReFED partner to implement solutions.

In 2022, Climate Corps® is teaming up with ReFED to launch a pilot program to bolster the capacity of companies to tackle food waste. Mali’o Kodis, Project Manager of Partnerships for Climate Corps, sat down with Angel Veza, Senior Manager of Capital, Innovation, and Engagement at ReFED to discuss.

MK: So glad to be having this conversation, Angel. To start out, could you tell me a bit about ReFED’s origin story? 

AV: ReFED launched in 2015 as a collaboration of more than 30 industry, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. We created the first-ever national economic analysis and action plan to tackle the issue at scale. The frameworks set out in this resource have been adopted or used by over 20 organizations, including Walmart and Deloitte.

Today, ReFED is a national nonprofit working to advance solutions to prevent food waste in the U.S., with the goal of cutting food waste by 50% by 2030. One of the ways we do this is by supporting leading food businesses and brands in accelerating solutions.

MK: What is the scale of the food waste problem? Where are some of the key pressure points?

AV: We use the term “Surplus Food” to describe all food that goes unsold or unused by a producer, manufacturer, or other food business as well as food that goes uneaten at home. This includes food that is donated and anything that is fed to animals, composted, or anaerobically digested.  

The reason this has become such a critical issue is because food that is produced but never eaten still requires enormous resources to grow, harvest, transport, cool, cook or otherwise prepare – even when it’s disposed of. To that end, uneaten food is responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. alone. It consumes cropland and fresh water – and it’s one of the top materials entering landfills where it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it decays.

Here’s another way to look at the environmental effects of uneaten food –  if all of our country’s surplus food was grown in one place, this “mega-farm” would cover roughly 80 million acres, over three-quarters of the state of California. Growing the food across so many acres would consume all the water used in California and Idaho combined, and harvest enough food to fill a 40-ton tractor every 20 seconds. Instead of being purchased, prepared, and eaten, this perfectly good food would be loaded onto another line of trucks and hauled to a landfill, where it would emit a harmful stream of greenhouse gasses as it decomposes.

Meanwhile, roughly 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure, so as you can see food waste reduction has enormous social and environmental impact potential.

In 2019, all of the food that was unsold or uneaten in the U.S. was valued at $408 billion.

Moreover, the pandemic has impacted food waste across the globe. While numbers are not definitive, anecdotal evidence points to a significant increase in food waste in 2020, and we’re seeing continued complications in the food supply chain with the war in Ukraine. What these events have demonstrated is that our current supply chain is very interconnected globally and that having a decentralized supply chain with more local food economies could be more sustainable in the long term.

MK: What was the need you saw in the market that you came to Climate Corp to address?

AV: What’s exciting is that there is a growing number of brands that are making public commitments to reduce food waste. However, sometimes companies are not able to advance their food waste reduction strategy efficiently and need additional resources to drive progress, particularly in the form of a dedicated, third-party individual that can provide data-driven knowledge towards advancing a strategic food waste initiative.

Take, for instance, the work ReFED did with the Wonderful Innovation Challenge, a tool designed to help spur innovation across The Wonderful Company (TWC) and address some of the tough sustainability challenges it faces. ReFED served as the strategic advisor for the first iteration of The Challenge called POM Payday, which was focused on the unique 50-000-ton pomace waste problem at POM Wonderful.

At the close of the Challenge, the head of the initiative noted that “Having 1-2 dedicated, third-party individuals to provide the manpower and knowledge for this sustainability challenge filled a strategic role that would have otherwise taken a team of five.” This experience with TWC further proved that companies have a distinct need for a third-party individual dedicated to accelerating food waste efforts, and we saw Climate Corps as an existing program that could address this need.

MK: Why did Climate Corps seem like the right partner to help?

AV: It seemed like a no-brainer to partner with EDF. Climate Corps is an established and well-respected global fellowship already designed to fulfill this need. Climate Corps recruits, trains, and custom-matches ambitious graduate students at companies for a summer with the aim of helping them achieve their emission reduction and sustainability goals. Moreover, ReFED saw an opportunity to provide value to EDF and its fellowship program by integrating food waste reduction as another pathway for fellows to help organizations achieve their climate goals.

MK: We are so proud of the success in recruiting 10 companies and organizations to participate in this year’s pilot. Our private sector partners on this initiative for 2022 are Albertson’s, Amy’s Kitchen, Aramark, CAVA, Conagra Brands, The J.M. Smucker Co., Sodexo, and United Natural Foods. We are also working in the public sector with the New York City Housing Authority and Lane County (OR). Can you share a bit about what the 2022 cohort of Climate Corps Food Waste Fellows will work on?

AV: All of the fellows are graduate students and bring with them a wide range of past experiences – ranging from two to 18 years of work experience – that will be extremely valuable to the participating host companies. The fellows will tackle projects ranging from food waste data collection and analysis to strategy development to food waste solution implementation and refinement. For example, Conagra’s fellow will assess upcycling opportunities for the usable waste that is created at its vegetable processing plants.

Together, ReFED and Climate Corps are supporting the fellows and companies by developing a robust training program for the fellows. Additionally, ReFED will serve as a technical advisor to the food waste cohort and will provide ongoing support throughout the summer.

MK: Where are you excited about driving the partnership between Climate Corps and ReFED next? Where do you see the needs shifting in food waste in the future?

AV: I’m particularly excited about scaling the food waste fellowship over the next few years, both in terms of developing future sustainability leaders as well as significantly driving efficiencies and waste reduction along the food supply chain.

Over that time, my hope is that companies will mature their food waste reduction strategies and initiatives, and as a result, there will be a shift from implementing food waste solutions that are “low-hanging fruit” to designing and executing a strategic solution set that has a heavy focus on preventing food waste. Having a strategic solution set tailored to a company’s operations could not only drive waste reduction but also potentially accelerate operational efficiency and increase revenue.

Stay tuned for ReFED to join the Climate Corps summer webinar series on July 13th at 1:30pm. Link to come!