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ReFED’s Vared Discusses What’s Next in the Quest to Reduce Food Waste

Sarah Vared ReFED’s interim director, is confident that big, positive change is no more than a decade away.

It’s been 10 months since ReFED shared its Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste. Since then, the group has worked to develop tools and initiatives to help businesses, nonprofits, governments and funding organizations take action.

The team has learned a lot, including how to attract funding and what innovations capture the value of wasted food in creative ways. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

Sarah Vared, ReFED’s interim director, is confident that big, positive change is no more than a decade away.

Waste360 spoke with Vared about what ReFED has been up to in recent months and what its goals are for 2017.

Waste360: ReFED is about building partnerships across many sectors. What are the benefits of this approach, and can you illustrate with one of your partnerships?

Sarah Vared: As a neutral partner, ReFED can take a high-level view of what is happening across the food waste space, then make recommendations for action based on the system as a whole. We are also uniquely positioned to convene stakeholders who haven’t—or otherwise wouldn’t—collaborate on food system challenges.

For example, we created the date labeling working group to develop a consensus-based framework and consumer education plan to standardize food date labels. We are working with experts from academia, industry and government. They represent diverse perspectives, but all are committed to reducing wasted food as a result of confusion over date labels.

Waste360: I understand ReFED’s working to drive more commercial and philanthropic funding. What are you learning about the funding that’s out there?

Sarah Vared: On the philanthropic side, we found that in 2014 less than $5 million was devoted to food waste. Of that almost none was for prevention—highlighting an opportunity to direct more resources toward the top of the food recovery hierarchy, to make the highest environmental impact. We estimate that number tripled in 2016 to $15 million to $25 million, so progress is being made.

Waste360: You mentioned ReFED is focusing on personalizing its information and tools. Can you elaborate?

Sarah Vared: There is a lot of information out there, and we must make it relevant to each stakeholder. For example, we just launched a guide for foundations. So whether they care about job creation, climate change, food insecurity or sustainable agriculture, we can show that investing in food waste reduction aligns with their mission. We’re developing similar resources for businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs.

Waste360: What do you hope to achieve by the end of this year? And what do you hope for over the long term?

Sarah Vared: We hope the stakeholder specific resources that we release throughout 2017 will influence decision makers to take action. We hope to produce tangible outcomes by convening stakeholder working groups. And we hope to entice new funders by exhibiting the vast opportunity to create impact and earn a profit.

ReFED’s ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of a job. When common sense policy changes are made—such as expanding tax incentives for food donors or standardizing food date labels—we will have succeeded. When we as a country spend the roughly $18 billion needed to implement the roadmap solutions instead of over $200 billion on wasted food, and when innovative solutions scale to the point of becoming standard procedure, our work will be complete.

Waste360: What lessons have you learned along the way?

Sarah Vared: We learned this issue resonates with many different people and is feasible to tackle over the next 10 or 15 years.

We’ve also learned that while there are many initiatives that stakeholders can get involved in, we are early in helping them shift from awareness to action. We need to develop new ways for people to share best practices, support innovation in business and technology, and track metrics for success.

Waste360: What are some promising technologies to support food waste reduction?

Sarah Vared: Among exciting innovations are marketplaces to connect restaurants with surplus food with local consumers (like Gebni in NYC or Food for All in Boston).

There are innovators converting surplus produce that might otherwise be trashed into healthy snacks (SecondsFirst) or using byproducts of one manufacturing process to create a new food ingredient (Sir Kensington’s Fabanaise and Pulp Pantry).

On the recycling side, we see momentum around the use of black soldier fly larvae to process food waste. We are preparing to release our database of 350+ innovators to the public.

Waste360: What is the potential impact of the new administration on food waste initiatives?

Sarah Vared: So far food waste has been a bipartisan issue and our hope is that it remains bipartisan. Sound food waste prevention initiatives make economic sense, with potential to create jobs and provide meals to people in need, not to mention the environmental benefits. In many cases, we only need simple policy tweaks to streamline action and provide incentives to businesses.

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