Why I'm a Member of the Clean Plate Club

As a child, whenever I turned up my nose at whatever my Mother had prepared for dinner, she was quick to remind me of the starving children elsewhere who would be overjoyed to have the very food I was rejecting. Only once was I nervy enough to offer the rejoinder encouraged by my peers of "Well, feel free to send this plate to them." Her look was enough to convince me I was teetering on the cusp of very precarious territory. I know from talking to others, that this exchange was not unique.

The intent of my Mother's global reminder was more likely motivated by her hope of shaming me into appreciative consumption than to raise my concern about the hunger plight of others. And my comeback was surely more driven by adolescent sarcasm than a genuine desire to come to the aid of those in need. At the purest level, both our motivations were altruistically lacking, but the truth is when it comes to need, supply, hunger and waste issues we were both on to something. My mom was right to point out the fundamental inequality of the abundance I was facing in light of the shortfall others knew all too well. She was correct to highlight that my snubbing it was a double travesty. My rejection meant all the natural, financial and human resources that went into getting this food on my plate went to naught AND my discard of the contents of my plate in the garbage can deprived others of receiving these needed benefits. Likewise, I was onto something by pointing out the issue was really a matter of logistics. We should be doing a better job of getting any food unwanted in one place into the hands of those who would appreciate it and take advantage of having it.

We should be doing a better job of getting any food unwanted in one place into the hands of those who would appreciate it and take advantage of having it.

The Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) – a collaboration of Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Association, National Restaurant Association and a host of other partners- is at work supporting the manufacturing, retail and restaurant industries in their respective efforts to prevent, reduce and recover food waste so that it is diverted from landfill. Like my mother we want food grown for human consumption to be used for human consumption – or short of that, used for animal feed or composted to replenish the earth. Like my smart aleck suggestion, part of the issue is overcoming the primary logistical challenge of timely recovery of food and getting it safely into the hands of those who most need it.

On September 9, 2015, the U.S Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency announced the national goal of cutting U.S. food waste in half by 2030. A few days later, on September 25, the UN announced their global version of a similar objective – a 2030 worldwide reduction of food waste by half – as part of its new Sustainable Development Goals. Statements surrounding both of these announcements pointed out that a third of the food produced is never eaten, resulting in over a billion tons of food waste. It was also highlighted that one-quarter of this wasted food could feed the 7.9 million food-insecure people around the world.

The conversation I cited at the beginning of this article took place fifty years ago, so the issue of food waste is not a new and it is not a problem we will quickly solve. While setting ambitious goals is a healthy start, there remains the important work of agreeing to terms of what constitutes food waste so we have a unified standard on WHAT is getting measured and can better develop a comprehensive approach to HOW it gets measured. This is important because currently the two government agencies invested in this effort have very different ways of calculating food waste, resulting in differing figures on the amount they tout as being wasted. After that is settled, there is the actual work of finding successful ways of keeping shopper wishes fulfilled while reducing food waste. The good news is FWRA has just produced a revised version of its Best Practices Guide that shares examples of what leading retailers, manufacturers and restaurants are doing to reduce food waste in their particular operations. There is nothing like getting a jump on the test by studying someone else's effective answers to the exam questions.