Tackling Food Waste: ELI’s New Food Waste Prevention Resource Guide Series

Thursday, March 14, 2024
Linda Breggin

Senior Attorney; Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

ELI recently created the Food Waste Prevention Resource Guide Series for Urban Green Lab, a Nashville-based sustainability NGO, in order to build the capacity of classrooms, households, and workplaces to prevent food waste.   

Up to 40% of the food supply is wasted in the United States. Reducing this staggering number and meeting national food waste reduction goals requires consumers to make meaningful changes to how they buy, store, prepare, and consume food. Raising awareness and providing action-oriented education can help to encourage food-saving behaviors. According to ReFED, consumer education has the potential to divert an additional 3.22 million tons of wasted food, prevent 18.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, and provide a financial net benefit of $15.8 billion. 

The Resource Guide Series highlights proven food waste prevention strategies on five key topics: storage and freezing; date labels; plate and portion size; meal prepping and kits; and packaging design and use. The five guides compile numerous free resources, from lesson plans and articles to beginner’s guides and digital tools. Teachers, sustainability NGOs, kitchen staff, and others can use the guides to train and empower students, community members, and colleagues to prevent food waste.

An essential first step to preventing food waste is properly handling food before it is consumed. Effective storage and freezing practices can help maximize food freshness and shelf life, helping to extend the time food is safe for consumption and reducing the amount of spoiled food that ends up in landfills or incinerators. For example, different types of food may benefit from different storage techniques, temperatures, or even places within the fridge. NRDC Save the Food’s Store It – Interactive Storage Guide is one of the resources included in the Storage and Freezing guide that offers households and businesses tips and tricks on how to keep food fresh for as long as possible.  

Correctly understanding the meaning of different types of date labels is also key to preventing food waste. The lack of standardization means that some labels, such as “Best if Used by,” refer to the peak freshness of food (as estimated by the manufacturer), not food safety—which can confuse consumers and cause them to throw out edible food. In addition to correctly interpreting date labels, there are a variety of recommended strategies for consumers seeking to judge the safety of their food, including looking out for specific signs that help indicate whether food is safe to eat. Resources, such as Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and The Global Foodbanking Network’s Promoting Food Donation Issue Brief, are also included to help navigate date label interpretation when redirecting surplus food through donation. 

Offering flexibility in plate and portion size is the most impactful way to reshape consumer environments around preventing food waste, according to ReFED. Adjusting plate and portion sizes can help prevent plate waste in restaurants, homes, schools, and workplaces. In addition, strategies such as “Offer Versus Serve” are proven to help minimize food waste in school cafeterias.  

Meal prepping is the process of preparing all or parts of meals ahead of time which can help avoid over-preparing of food, which in turn can lead to food waste if leftovers are not subsequently eaten. In addition, meal prepping can reduce food waste because it entails estimating the portions needed and building a grocery shopping list in advance that accounts for the number of people and meals to be served as well as food already purchased. Meal kits offer a pre-packaged alternative to this strategy, though they can be significantly more expensive and lead to packaging waste.
Finally, packaging is a complex aspect of food waste prevention. While it plays an important role in keeping food safe and fresh until it is eaten, packaging, especially single-use plastics, contributes significantly to landfills and ocean pollution. Promoting sustainable packaging can help reduce waste associated with food.  

Todd Lawrence, the Executive Director for Urban Green Lab, plans to use the Resource Guide Series to scale up solutions to make a difference on food waste. “These resource guides are going to be extremely valuable in training K-12 educators at Metro Nashville Public Schools, household volunteers, and businesses engaged across the Nashville area on how to prevent food waste and build sustainable habits.” 

For in-depth research and evidence-based strategies on these five food waste prevention topics, check out our Food Waste Prevention Resource Guide Series