From Farm to Fork: How to Reduce Food Waste and Loss in the Supply Chain

An Action Plan for Companies, Caterers, Retailers, Restaurants, and Farmers

As food waste and food loss increasingly challenge the well-being of our environment, we must work together to identify why and how to reduce our impact along the supply chain. Companies offering catered lunches, caterers serving the food, retailers and restaurants selling the food, and farmers growing the food are key contributors that have the potential to enact long-term change. Here are a few ways they can take action:

Questioning company leftovers.

Free food in abundance is a popular employee perk (among tech companies in particular), but it often leads to excess and wasted food.

Reducing food waste from company lunches or events starts with being mindful of how waste is produced. It’s as simple as noticing that business meetings have uneaten leftovers, and taking care not to order too much next time. If leftovers happen, companies can easily donate the food to feed someone in need. Using Replate’s food recovery service, major tech companies like Facebook, Twitch, and Yelp have already fed thousands of people that are experiencing food insecurity.

In addition to improving lives and the environment, reducing food waste can help companies save money via tax deductions on food donations while also boosting employee morale and retention.

Bonus best practice: By making food waste reduction and environmental efforts explicit, employees will be empowered to reduce waste in their personal lives.

Catering with care.

Many companies rely on catering services to make their food or deliver food from restaurants. In addition to office administrators that order more than necessary, caterers themselves overcompensate and prepare excess food due to pressure to feed every last person. This has only heightened with the rise of on-demand delivery. Promising customers a hot meal in under an hour often requires overstocking in order to avoid delays, which can lead to challenges in redistributing everything by the end of the day.

The good news is that there are small steps caterers can take to make a difference, and many of them already are. Catering and on-demand delivery companies like PostmatesCaviar (Zesty), Eat ClubCater2.meZeroCater, and DoorDash have all committed to donating leftovers to food recovery services like Replate.

What about reducing food waste before it hits the plate? When coordinating an order, caterers should try to get exact numbers on how many they will be serving and what types of meals are needed. This will avoid unnecessary food waste resulting from too many vegetarian or meat meals. After delivery, caterers can also work with on-site staff to closely track how much food was eaten and determine takeaways for next time.

Bonus best practices: Providing compostable dishware and encouraging recurring clients to use reusable catering containers are also small but important practices for cutting down on other types of waste.

Rethinking retailer and restaurant food waste.

Moving down the food supply chain, caterers work with food suppliers and retailers like restaurants, food manufacturers, or grocery stores to obtain ingredients and distribute food. Data shows that these industries can do better — as much as 10 percent of the food a restaurant buys ends up in landfill and, on average, the value of wasted food in retail equals roughly double the profits from food sales.

The first step is setting a food waste reduction goal with a clear deadline. Retailers and restaurants can turn to industry guidelines to set their goals — The Center for Biological Diversity, for example, calls on U.S. supermarkets to eliminate food waste by 2025. Making a more public commitment like the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions also helps raise awareness and boost brand reputation.

Reporting and transparency are critical for understanding how much food is being wasted and where it’s going. Nine out of the 10 largest grocery companies in America fail to publicly report their total volume of food waste. To improve, retailers and restaurants should conduct organizational waste audits like EPA’s Food Waste Assessment or follow the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard, which provides guidance for quantifying and reporting on the weight of food.

Bonus best practices: Retailers can support the standardization of expiration labels to avoid unnecessary food waste. If the labels state “Best If Used By” instead of “Use By,” consumers will be more likely to keep their food for longer instead of tossing it out when it’s still perfectly good to eat. Restaurants can also train chefs to portion plates to avoid uneaten leftovers.

Getting to the root of it on the farm.

Most plated and packaged food starts at a farm. Unfortunately, unharvested food represents almost one-fifth of the annual total food loss generated in the country. Because farmers don’t have reliable systems for understanding consumer demand, growing the exact amount of produce proves difficult and often leads to food loss in the fields. Other factors like damage caused by pests, weather, and most commonly, cosmetic imperfections, easily lead to unharvested produce.

Collaborating with food businesses like Imperfect Produce, catering companies, or restaurants to ensure that “ugly” food is sold and eaten is a great solution for that excess produce. Some organizations like The Gleaning NetworkFood Forward, or GivingGarden will even harvest the food themselves so that it’s less costly for farmers. Farmers can also actively reduce food loss by modifying supply contracts with retailers and suppliers so that they know exactly how much to grow. Upgrading storage facilities to avoid damage from pests, pathogens, or weather will also increase chances of produce making it to store shelves.

For financial support, the USDA’s Farm Storage Facility Loan Programprovides low-cost loans for on-farm storage facilities. Tax incentives from donating food to state food banks (as supported by California’s Assembly Bill 152) will also reduce the cost of harvesting and storing excess food.

Bonus best practice: Local farmers markets are great for selling imperfect and leftover produce. Farmers can use the extra revenue to fund a storage facility that preserves produce for longer.

Change is possible if we take steps to identify and reduce food loss and waste at the many levels of the food supply chain, as outlined above. But it doesn’t stop there — with direct access to consumers, these companies, caterers, retailers, and farmers can shape consumer food waste habits for more permanent behavior change in our society.

Eva Nierenberg