According to the nonprofit ReFED, over a third of food products in the U.S. went to waste in 2019. From crops that are unharvested, to grocery stores that stock excess inventory, to shoppers who buy more than they can use, food waste propels climate change and harms the budgets of key players in our food system.
In addition to consumer strategies to waste less food, such as proper food storage – like freezing or canning produce bought from the farmers market – grocery retailers can have a significant impact on the problem, too. This May, King County signed onto a regional effort focused on the retail side of food waste. The Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) Food Waste Commitment is part of a broader goal to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 across the region.
Emily Coleman, Sustainable Purchasing Specialist, represents King County at PCC meetings. She often collaborates with the Local Food Initiative on its food waste reduction goals and sat down with us to share her experience with PCC and King County’s other efforts to send less food to landfills. In pursuit of its goal to lower emissions, PCC is seeking to reduce food waste by half by 2030. Emily says King County is aiming even higher.
“We have a zero food waste in landfills by 2030 goal as a part of the Strategic Climate Action Plan, and as such, we are looking for ways to divert food. Composting is a part of that, but we also want to look upstream and try to divert as much edible food as possible [from landfills].”
An upstream approach is exactly what PCC calls for in its Food Waste Reduction Project, which recruits grocery retailers to voluntarily sign a commitment to track and reduce food waste, all with the help of the Collaborative’s resources. Emily said that colleagues at Seattle Public Utilities and the Washington Department of Ecology, which also participate, motivated King County to join.
“They spoke about how valuable it’s been to have those connections to retailers and to understand what other jurisdictions are doing, and to have that collaboration,” Emily says.
This collaboration includes participating in working groups that focus on specific areas of the overall food waste problem. Retailers and government participants alike have the opportunity to join groups focused on dairy products, fresh produce, and policy. The working groups develop pilot projects to tackle these issues, which then get implemented in grocery retailers and tracked to determine their effectiveness.
Emily cites the dairy working group as an example of how each team meets to work through specific challenges around that part of the food waste issue. “It’s like-minded folks working on these problems, and by doing this across retailers, our goal is to have a bigger impact,” Emily says.
Retailers benefit not only from the corporate social responsibility side, but also from access to PCC’s resources and strategies which can improve their budget outlook. The economic effects of food waste are considerable. Just across the states and province reached by PCC (Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia), an estimated $65 billion is lost due to food going uneaten.
On its website, PCC writes that “a similar regional collaboration in the U.K. reported a 14:1 return on investment in food waste reduction.” This is hopeful news for the 55% of Washington grocery retailers – including PCC Community Markets, Kroger, and Sprouts – who have signed on to this voluntary agreement.
“The retailers are the ones participating and showing some willingness to meet us in these goals, which is sometimes pretty challenging,” Emily says. “And they are the ones who are actually boots on the ground, working on these strategies and seeing what works best.”
PCC’s members also benefit from the participation of large “resource partners” such as the World Wildlife Fund, ReFED, and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Emily says these groups assist by providing data tracking and analytic capabilities and by advocating for policy changes at the federal level that would not be possible within such a local and regionally focused group.
When asked what other PCC members are seeing early success in this emerging work, Emily says, “California – they have strong policy now in place at the state level for food waste that, down the line, will include a big [food] rescue component.” She adds that as King County’s tenure in the group increases, she hopes it will become a model for the other members, too, especially with the attainment of the County goal to eliminate food waste in landfills by 2030.
But Emily also sees solving the food waste issue as a social justice one, with the potential to improve a community’s health and economy through better management of organic materials.
“There’s just such a strong equity value to having food kept local,” she said. “That’s why I love organics so much, because it has such a local impact for the community. You can be feeding people; you can be feeding soil… it’s just such an opportunity to put resources into a community where they need them.
“When we’re looking at a lot of the current material management, it’s very linear, where we make [a product], we use it, and then we throw it out,” Emily said. “And the new model that we hope to get to is called a circular economy, where it gets made, used, and then either incorporated into a natural system or made into something new. I think the beauty of organics – and food specifically – is that it’s such a local circular economy where we can support local people, there’s local jobs, and there’s the great environmental benefits of reducing food waste.”
Working so closely on this local issue is personally rewarding for Emily, too.
“The fact that you take something that would be just wasted and put it back into the soil to grow food again, that’s a wonderful cycle that gives me hope for the world,” she said. “That local aspect of it really gets me, because when you try to think of the world as a whole, and trying to improve everything, it can become very overwhelming. With food and with soil, those are very local. You can see the how if we do not consume them the right way, we’ll lose our soil health and we’ll lose our own health. It is so tied to nature. There is nothing that makes me feel more connected to the earth than food.”
Readers inspired to reduce their personal food waste can find tips from King County’s Food Too Good To Waste program here: https://kingcounty.gov/depts/dnrp/solid-waste/programs/waste-prevention/food-too-good-to-waste.aspx.
Read more about the Pacific Coast Collaborative at: https://pacificcoastcollaborative.org/food-waste/.