Key Findings From The ReFED Insights Engine

Written by: Dana Gunders

February 1, 2021

An analysis from ReFED’s new Insights Engine shows that the total amount of surplus food – all food that goes unsold or uneaten – in the United States has leveled off over the past few years after increasing by 11.9% in the earlier part of the last decade. In fact, per capita surplus food has actually declined, and in 2019 it was back to its 2014 level of approximately 490 pounds for each person in the United States annually.

This is good news. The efforts that businesses, state and local governments, capital providers, and individuals are making to reduce food waste are beginning to turn the tide. But food waste is still a massive problem, and we’ll need to see a dramatic decline in the amount of food going to waste each year to reach our national goal of a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030.

So where do we start? One notable finding from our Insights Engine analysis was just how much surplus produce is being left behind on farms – more than 50% of surplus food generated at the farm level in 2019 was edible food that remains unharvested in the fields. Why? Low market prices and labor shortages often make it uneconomical for farmers to harvest all that they produce. Strict cosmetic standards result in insufficient demand for imperfect-looking produce. Despite gleaning and farm-to-food-bank efforts to recover this unharvested food, the vast majority is left in the fields and tilled under. There is a huge opportunity to get more of this healthy food off the field, and the Insights Engine attempts to quantify how much food could be saved by implementing different solutions, including developing new selling channels for imperfect and surplus produce, working to expand acceptable buyer specifications, and allowing partial order acceptance.  All together, we estimate about 3.7 million tons of food could be saved through these solutions.

ReFED’s Insights Engine analysis also highlights that the vast majority – a huge 70.2% – of uneaten food at restaurants and other foodservice establishments in 2019 came from plate waste, meaning customers didn’t eat food that was served to them or that they took themselves from buffets, cafeteria lines, and other self-service establishments. This is a major waste reduction opportunity that hasn’t yet been addressed at scale. Decreased portion sizes, trayless dining, and smaller plate sizes can gently nudge customers to eat the food that they have been served.

The Insights Engine also shows that the majority of uneaten food across the supply chain still comes from consumers in their own homes. In 2019, this amount was 30M tons or 37.2% of the total, and it came from a range of causes. Many consumer purchases are unplanned, which can lead to over-purchasing, and many families are tempted into bulk purchases of food they will never consume just to get a good deal on per-unit costs. Poor food management leads to spoilage and ultimately drives food waste in homes. Many consumers also lack the knowledge of how to repurpose ingredients and store food properly. Misunderstanding of date labels often leads consumers to throw away food before it’s spoiled. And many consumers have limited access to municipal food waste recycling programs and perceive barriers to composting at home.

While consumers ultimately bear responsibility for the food that gets thrown away in their homes, food businesses can play an important role in reshaping consumer environments to make food waste less likely. The expanded availability of meal kits with pre-measured ingredients can help ensure that only food that will be consumed makes its way into homes. Standardized date labels can make it easier for consumers to use food before it goes bad – and to identify when it still has life left in it. And new packaging design can help ensure complete consumption and minimize container waste.

These are just a few of the findings from the Insights Engine, which was developed by consolidating and analyzing more than 50 public and proprietary datasets, and then supplementing that analysis with estimates and information from academic studies, industry papers, case studies, and expert interviews. 

The Insights Engine analyzes more than 40 solutions to reduce food waste. Learn which ones you can implement here.

ReFED is a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system by advancing data-driven solutions to the problem. ReFED leverages data and insights to highlight supply chain inefficiencies and economic opportunities; mobilizes and connects people to take targeted action; and catalyzes capital to spur innovation and scale high-impact initiatives. ReFED’s goal is a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.

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