NRDC’s Yvette Cabrera Works Towards A Better Food System

In this Q&A, Yvette Cabrera, a Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, talks about her advocacy work, her career fighting for food waste solutions, and what she thinks would make for a better food system.

Willona Sloan, Freelance writer

June 18, 2024

6 Min Read

Yvette Cabrera oversees advocacy and engagement on federal and state food waste policy initiatives at National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). As the Director of Food Waste, she manages the Food Matters project, through which NRDC partners with cities to achieve meaningful reductions in food waste through policies and programs.

In this Q&A, Cabrera, a Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, talks about her advocacy work, her career fighting for food waste solutions, and what she thinks would make for a better food system.

This interview has been edited for length.

Waste360: What are some of the major roles and responsibilities that you tackle in your position?

Yvette Cabrera: I oversee the team’s full portfolio of work. Our portfolio is divided up between three major pillars, federal advocacy, state advocacy, and our local work. At the local level, we run an initiative called Food Matters, which is an initiative focused on partnering with city governments throughout the country to help them develop and implement different programs and policies around food waste reduction.

We currently have about 20 different cities throughout the country that we work with directly. When we work with that city, we both work with the actual city government itself, but then also with a series of local partners that are based in that city that do that work every day and are impacted by the work we’re trying to move forward with the city.

Our main goal in our state advocacy work is to pass organic waste bans and all of the stepping stone policies that would lead up to or enable an organic waste ban to pass in a state.

NRDC co-founded the Zero Food Waste Coalition, which is a coalition now made up of 170 members across 40 states. Our goal is to influence and pass policies at the federal, state, and local levels. Through the Coalition, what we’re also doing is crafting the resources that other advocates in the space need to pass effective policy.

I spend the majority of my substantive time on federal advocacy. We do the bulk of the federal advocacy via the Zero Food Waste Coalition, but we, for the past year, have been really focused on advancing food waste policy in the Farm Bill.

Another thing we’ve been doing is attempting to secure funding for USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] to build out a Food Loss and Waste Office, because currently there are only a couple of people working on food waste full-time within USDA, and we really think it’s an issue that merits more attention and more capacity.

Waste360: You’re interested in building a “better food system.” How would you define a better food system?

Yvette Cabrera: From my perspective, a better food system is one where people don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, and that meal is one that sustains their bodies, their minds, their health, and also the planet.

I think a better food system is one that instead of doing what it currently does, which is creating powerful greenhouse gases up and down the food supply chain and one that pollutes our waters and our soils and contributes to biodiversity loss, we have the potential to have a food system that does the opposite. One that actually nourishes our soils, feeds people healthy meals, and that doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but instead acts as a method for capturing greenhouse gases. Essentially, it’s one that instead of being harmful to our bodies and the planet, is beneficial.

Waste360: What professional path brought you to this role?

Yvette Cabrera: I would say my path to this position really started out probably way back in my early years in college. I was at a community college where there was no recycling program. I formed an environmental club and tried to adjust that. We weren’t successful during the time that I was there, but they were down the line, which is really exciting.

During my time at [University of California] Berkeley as an undergrad, I spent a good chunk of time working with a food justice organization in West Oakland called People’s Grocery.

I went on to the Peace Corps, where I served my term in the Dominican Republic as a public health volunteer. Many of these health issues and things that we were trying to course correct on are related to food and diet.

I did a master’s program at [New York University], which was a food studies program. That is where I started spending a lot of my time looking at the climate impact of food systems.

Then, I went to the Rockefeller Foundation, where I worked on their portfolio on food loss and waste, which at the time was a $130 million initiative to reduce food loss and waste globally. I mostly worked with our U.S. grantees and partners, and NRDC was one of the grantees. I got to get immersed in the work during my time at Rockefeller and understand who the players were and what they were doing to reduce food waste. From there I went on to NRDC.

Waste360: What do you like about the work that you do? What do you find rewarding about it?

Yvette Cabrera: One of the big things, I think this is both a challenge and something that I like, is that although some of the work that we do can take a really long time to actually make happen, especially policy work, it can take years to get this policy right, to build up the support for it, both within a community or politically, and then pass it. Sometimes, we don't get that immediate gratifying effect. It’s not the same as hand delivering food at a food bank. You don’t get that instant gratification, which sometimes I think can be hard. It can just be a challenge in this work to feel like you’re endlessly working towards something that you’re not sure is actually going to happen. But then when it does, it’s huge.

The other thing is working with an amazing group of people. I think one layer of that is my immediate team. I’m just surrounded by a group of powerful, intelligent women who are incredibly motivated to address this issue. But then I also get to work with just an amazing space of people, either through the Zero Food Waste Coalition or the broader space.

Waste360: What advice would you give to a young professional starting their career in the food waste space?

Yvette Cabrera: There are so many different ways to get involved in this space. You could do research, you could do advocacy, you could work for business operations. Find what really excites you, and then try to focus on that.

During my career trajectory, I did everything from teaching elementary school students cooking skills to working at a food systems radio station. I did all these things because I wasn’t exactly sure what felt right and motivating to me, and I think that if I wouldn’t have spent time testing out all of these other roles and interest areas within the food system, I don’t know that I would’ve landed where I am today.

It's not always super easy to bop around between jobs or internships and testing out what you’re really interested in, but I do think if there’s a way, either via extracurricular time or other, to test out where your interest really lies, I think it’s well worth the time invested.

About the Author(s)

Willona Sloan

Freelance writer, Waste360

Willona Sloan is a freelance writer for Waste360 covering the collection and transfer beat.

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