Rachna Govani, CEO, Foodstand

There has been a great deal of buzz and enthusiasm around the food system, with the conversation ranging from food deserts to food waste. What do you think led to this shift in the paradigm and how do you expect momentum to grow or change going forward?

Several confounding factors have led to ‘food issues’ becoming more mainstream. A major reason people pay attention to anything is because it affects their own lives. The growth of obesity, particularly in low income communities, diabetes (which is now developing at a much younger age), falling life expectancy, and heart disease have made people realize that their health is at risk and food may be a culprit. Looking deeper, because many of these diet related diseases fall along socio-economic divides with obesity and malnutrition in the same populations, and the fact that income inequality is now a part of the national dialogue, food, next to jobs, is at the center of that debate. Supporting factors include the continued organization of the climate movement priming more people to pay attention to industrial agriculture, a general distrust of big industrialized corporations with the fallout of tobacco, a growing interest in the craft economy driving farming and food culture to be ‘cool’ again, and hundreds of food safety scares with listeria, e.coli, and pink slime dominating the news.

I think momentum will grow because the food movement is still not fully mainstream and has a long way to go. It hasn’t reached anti-tobacco levels, but I think this is inevitable. I think the private sector will lead the way, as it has been, entirely driven by consumer demand. However, policy change is necessary. Much of our food system remains entrenched in its ways because our policies support it. We know policy change is a lagging indicator, so I think private sector change will drive local and state policy change, but we won’t see a full reform of our food system until we set a national food policy.

Hope Street Group believes economic opportunity is bolstered by the three pillars of education, health and jobs. How do you view the relationship between healthy eating habits and a sustainable food systems, and overall well-being and opportunity?

Healthy eating is at the core of well-being and opportunity. Without adequate nutrition, you won’t have as much energy, you won’t have as sharp of a mind, and you’ll be at risk of getting sick. This costs money and time – keeping kids out of school, parents out of work, and further entrenching existing inequalities. Access to healthy food and healthy habits isn’t a silver bullet solution, but it is a necessary condition for improved well-being and access to opportunity.

In our work in food insecurity, Hope Street Group has identified the reduction food waste as a tangible solution in decreasing food insecurity, which is a direct barrier to health and economic opportunity. Through Foodstand’s #NoFoodWaste initiative, what accessible recommendations were offered to consumers to reduce their food waste footprint?

Gosh, hundreds! According to the ReFED report on food waste, ~85% of food waste occurs at the consumer level – either in homes or at consumer-facing establishments such as restaurants, cafeterias, and grocery stores. Therefore, each of us has a role to play in curbing food waste to unlock more fresh fruits and vegetables for people who need them most. More than 40% of food that is wasted is produce — the one thing we need more of in underserved communities. Some of the most important tips that came out of our #NoFoodWaste campaign include:

  • Buy the ugly food. So much of our produce goes uneaten because it isn’t perfectly round or perfectly shiny. At your market or grocery store, buy the misshapen produce. If you don’t see it, ask for it.
  • Learn how to recognize spoiled food. Dates on labels like ‘best by’ or ‘use by’ are not regulated so oftentimes food is still perfectly fresh even though it has passed the ‘date.’ We need to get better at using our senses – smelling milk, looking at breads, etc. and if it doesn’t smell, taste, or look bad, there is a good chance it is still edible.
  • Donate what you can’t use. Food pantries get a ton of processed food because ‘can drives’ have been the norm. However fresh fruits and vegetables that you may not use before your vacation can usually be donated to a local soup kitchen.
  • Learn how to use all parts of the food you buy. For example, broccoli leaves are totally edible and actually delicious. Carrot tops make a great pesto. Stems and peels can be used to make a broth. And any scraps you don’t use can be composted so soil can be replenished for the next generation of fruits and vegetables.
  • Learn good fridge hygiene. Check your refrigerator to make sure it’s cold enough and don’t stand with the door open staring endlessly – you’re helping your food spoil faster. Also learn how quickly things spoil, e.g. apples are more resilient than berries. Use the berries first.

Hundreds of other food waste tips and recipes can be found at thefoodstand.com!

Given all the great work happening to combat food waste in the U.S., what innovations are you most excited about and are there any issue areas you see as ripe for development that are critical in providing Americans with pathways to economic opportunity?

There are so many initiatives that are under way – many of which haven’t originated in the US, but we’re quickly catching up.

  • The first is changing standards at grocery stores to accept ‘ugly’ or off-spec produce – unlocking more supply, hopefully reducing the price, and providing more access to much needed fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • A ton of waste is also generated from food production, e.g. pulp from juiceries. A slew of new businesses are using food waste products such as that pulp or off-spec produce for new value-added products. The reason I’m excited about this is that the wasted product gets a new home unlocking more supply, usually in a more shelf-stable product and oftentimes these businesses are opening up new job opportunities in the food industry.
  • Recent legislation is under way to regulate date labels on foods, which seems like a small thing but has a huge impact on people’s decision to waste an item. It also opens up new opportunities to donate food that hasn’t been purchased, but may be past a ‘best used by’ date.
  • One area that still needs some work (but plenty of incredible people are already on the case!) is regulation around what you can and cannot donate. In some places, it is incredibly difficult to donate fresh fruits and vegetables or prepared foods safely. As some of this regulation changes, more supply can make it into the hands that need it most.