Food waste is top of mind for many members of the waste and recycling industry. And one member who is working on developing successful food waste reduction solutions is Sarah Vared, principal at MissionPoint Partners LLC and strategic advisor at Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), an effort of 40 businesses, non-profits, foundations, investors and policymakers committed to reducing food waste in the U.S.
Last year, Vared led the development and launch of ReFED's Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, which highlights 27 solutions that are designed to help the U.S. stay on track to achieve the national food waste reduction target of 50 percent by 2030. Since the launch of the Roadmap, ReFED has worked to develop tools and initiatives to help businesses, nonprofits, governments and funding organizations take action.
Moving forward into 2017, Vared is shifting her focus to her main role as principal at MissionPoint and developing new solutions for reducing food waste. Vared was recently presented with a Waste360 40 Under 40 award for her positive contributions to the waste and recycling industry, and we sat down with her to discuss what food waste reduction concepts are working and not working and some of the challenges that come along with reducing food waste.
Waste360: How did you begin your career in the waste and recycling industry?
Sarah Vared: I started my career in the energy industry, working for a number of years at Pacific Gas and Electric Company focusing on energy efficiency programs before graduating with my master’s in business administration from Presidio Graduate School and joining MissionPoint Partners, an impact investment manager and advisor that focuses on energy, food and agriculture, water and natural resources.
MissionPoint works closely with the Fink family as well as its foundation, which asked MissionPoint to look at what it could be doing to solve the food waste problem The landscape scan that I did ultimately led to the recommendation that a more strategic framework was needed to drive large-scale action on the issue of food waste. This is ultimately what led to the development of ReFED. While food, agriculture and waste are very different topics from my background in energy, there are a lot of parallels and lessons learned from the energy efficiency world that can be applied.
Waste360: You led the development and launch of ReFED's Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent. Tell us a little bit about that experience.
Sarah Vared: My role from start to finish was as the key manager and developer of the Roadmap, from getting funding to pulling together the consulting team for the project to building relationships with the stakeholders and companies that participated on the Advisory Council. With the team we assembled, I spent about a year identifying and researching the 27 solutions to reduce food waste that we thought could be rapidly scaled and could drive the most meaningful impact in reducing food in the U.S. by 20 percent. Throughout the process, I had the opportunity to interview and learn from so many businesses, nonprofits and government agencies on the great work they were doing.
We then worked to translate those stories and data points into a comprehensive, holistic picture on the resources, policy changes and business actions that would be needed to reduce food waste. The Roadmap was so powerful because it provided a strategic framework that any stakeholder, along the food value chain from production to waste, could plug into and understand the actions they could take.
Waste360: Now that the Roadmap has been launched, what is the next project you’re working on?
Sarah Vared: ReFED just recently hired Chris Cochran as its first executive director, which is very exciting. While he will be taking the lead on ReFED going forward, I will be staying involved as a strategic advisor as ReFED starts to move forward on catalyzing the actions and implementation the Roadmap identified.
In addition to that, I will be focusing more on my role as a principal at MissionPoint, which really took a backseat during the development of the Roadmap. At MissionPoint, we are currently looking at more investment opportunities for food waste reduction, and I am excited to apply the knowledge and insight that I have learned at ReFED over the past few years to our future food waste reduction projects.
Waste360: When it comes to combating food waste, what concepts do you think are working and not working?
Sarah Vared: It’s an exciting time for the issue of food waste–we are starting to see a lot more activity and action at the business level as companies are increasingly recognizing that food waste should not just be an accepted cost of doing business and that it actually just makes sense to be better managing shrink, developing recovery programs for surplus food or ultimately rolling out organics programs for any remaining food waste. In addition to businesses, consumer awareness around food waste continues to grow year over year, which helps keep the topic front and center.
When it comes to things that aren’t working or need improvement, the main thing that comes to mind is that there is a need for more coordination and collaboration to ensure progress builds rather than organizations reinventing the wheel. There are also a number of solutions that will only scale with multi-stakeholder collaboration to align incentives in a way that make this a win-win for everyone. ReFED’s excited to be supporting some of the top areas that we see opportunities for multi-stakeholder collaboration over the coming year.
Waste360: What are some of the most common challenges that come with trying to reduce food waste?
Sarah Vared: It depends on what part of the supply chain you’re involved in, but broadly I would say that the biggest challenge is that people aren’t aware of how much they are wasting and how much that waste costs. It’s much harder to figure out the cost of food waste compared to other resources like water or energy. The good news is that we are starting to see new innovations around tracking and measuring food waste so that should help move the needle with that challenge.
The other challenge is that there are many small things that you can do to reduce food waste as either a consumer or a business, which makes it hard to develop one consistent, overarching message for reducing food waste. We’ve seen that the easiest path for action is to recommend putting one effort in place and then building on top of that if the first effort is successful.
Waste360: Since joining the industry, what best practices have you learned and how do you apply them to your work today?
Sarah Vared: For a number of food waste, recycling and recovery solutions, I think about a three-legged stool comprised of three different entities that you need to have around the table. Those three entities include a generator, hauler and processor, which must come on board in a similar way. If one entity comes online too fast or too slow, it will throw the stool (or system) off balance and it won’t work properly. That’s a simplified view of the system, but it’s a powerful reminder of how important partnership is to driving progress.
It ultimately comes down to taking a systemic view on what’s needed to drive forward processes on organics diversion and food waste reduction overall. I think there’s importance in terms of looking at specific solutions, but there’s also a lot of power in developing a systemic view of what’s needed to drive change. When you take a step back and look at the overall picture, you can unveil new opportunities, innovations, solutions and partnerships that can drive change.
Wate360: What advice do you have for the next generation of industry workers?
Sarah Vared: My advice is to be curious, inquisitive and passionate about whatever you do in life, whether it’s a career in this field or another field. I would also suggest being willing to work hard for something in a space that’s new for you so that you can grow successfully.