An estimated 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted by either being thrown away or left to rot. Considering that 49 million Americans live in food insecure households, this is a sobering statistic. Food waste also exacts an incredible toll on the environment. Food waste in landfills creates methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases; it leads to the wasteful use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers; and it causes unnecessary energy and transportation impacts.
The Food: Too Good to Waste Challenge, designed by the Environmental Protection Agency with input from the West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum, aims to bring awareness to families about household food waste, show them where, and how much, they are wasting, help them reduce their waste, and collect data for local officials on the household food waste habits in their community.
The challenge includes a toolkit, which is free and openly available and full of practical tools to help cut down food waste. The toolkit includes detailed instructions and tools for tracking your food waste, doing smarter shopping, eating food before it goes bad and more.
In a recent West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum webinar, representatives from the Food: Too Good to Waste (FTGTW) team, as well as three cities that implemented the toolkit, provided an overview of the toolkit, shared their experience of using it, and made suggestions for running a successful food waste reduction challenge. Here are steps to take to implement the challenge in your community.
1. Build a Team
The FTGTW Toolkit can be implemented by individuals and families, cities and states, nonprofits and community organizations, schools, grocers, farmers markets, and more. Determine where there’s interest in discussing and reducing food waste and pull together a team of organizers. Budgets, scope and resources will vary and you can adjust accordingly, but there are numerous facets to implementing it so you’ll need to have a committed team on-board.
2. Design a Challenge
The toolkit is designed to be flexible and scalable. It can be implemented with a small budget of a few thousand dollars, or it can be a large campaign with a budget in the hundreds of thousands. Costs associated with the challenge include signage, communications and outreach, administrative costs, and providing scales so participants can measure their waste.
Determine your budget, your approach, how many families you can include initially, how long the campaign will run, how you’ll collect data, and how you’ll recruit and retain families.
You can also get creative in partnering with other initiatives and organizations. In Iowa City, organizers used the campaign as an opportunity to implement a pilot curbside organics program.
3. Target Diverse Groups
When planning your campaign, keep in mind that levels of food waste will vary depending on family size, geography, race, age, and income level. Get a good cross-section of families to get the most accurate data about household food waste in your community.
One city had an issue with trying to measure the food waste in an area that was so food insecure that they didn’t have enough food waste to measure. Be sensitive about who you approach to join the campaign.
Some participants found it challenging to engage young people in the campaign. Invite young people to join the organizing team to help develop ways to reach other young people where they are.
4. Find Families to Participate
The key to the FTGTW Challenge is having families participate so you can get a baseline of their current food waste, introduce tools to reduce household food waste, then test again to track any changes. In theory, it would be great to get a large number of participants. In reality, the families need to commit to being in the program for numerous weeks, consistently collecting data, and reporting back. It may prove challenging to get families to commit.
To get a large number of participants, cast a wide net. Organizers suggest sending a postage paid invitation to potential families. You can also host neighborhood open houses to talk with families about food waste and the toolkit, and start creating a community around the campaign.
Some of the approaches that have proven successful in recruiting potential participants are: create eye-catching signage and communication tools; create incentives such as gift certificates to local grocery stores or other prizes for participating families; talk directly to the families you want to involve; use neighborhood door hangers; partner with local organizations including the public library; and host in-person events to talk about the program.
5. Get Publicity for the Campaign
Contact the local newspapers, television and radio stations, blogs and social media. Bringing publicity to the campaign will help you recruit families to participate and also help spread the word about the importance of reducing food waste. Karen May, the FTGTW project director in King County, Washington explains that challenge results are very enticing to the media and that Thanksgiving is a good time of year to get coverage.
6. Purchase Supplies
The FTGTW campaign involves families measuring their food waste, which they’ll need a scale to do. This doesn’t have to be a huge expense. Iowa City partnered with a local hardware store and spent only $390 of the $2,500 they had budgeted for scales.
It’s one thing for families to start using the toolkit—it’s another for them to continue using it consistently, for weeks or months, tracking their waste and staying committed. In Iowa City, the team sent out 300 invitations to participate. Of those, they received 52 pre-campaign surveys back and by the end of the campaign, the had just 26 families return the post-campaign survey.
To increase retention, stay in regular contact with families through email, newsletters, posting photos and updates to social media, and personally checking in with them. King County had weekly prize drawings. You can also host in-person events with participating families to introduce them to one another, provide tips for reducing food waste, address concerns that come up, and just provide a space to socialize. Dave Rocheleau in Rhode Island put on cooking demos to show people how to create less waste when preparing and cooking food. He recommends having refreshments at every stage of the campaign.
8. Community Outreach
The campaign is a great opportunity to bring awareness about household food waste to the community at large. The big picture is to reduce food waste in every household, not just the ones using the toolkit. Let people know what you’re doing and why. Great places to outreach include farmers markets and grocery stores. In King County, they set up a booth at the local market and asked people to write, on an apple-shaped chalkboard, what they were doing to reduce waste. When doing outreach, be sure to let people know how they can get involved and take photos and share them via social media.
9. Test Food Waste Awareness Before and After the Campaign
If your plan includes bringing awareness about household food waste to the entire community, and you have the budget to do so, test the general public’s awareness of the impacts of food waste before and after the campaign. This can be done with in-person surveys, mailers, email, phone calls and more.
10. Redesign Your Challenge Based on User Feedback
Once the FTGTW Challenge is over, get feedback from participants about what their experience was: what was hard, what was easy and what was the most effective tool for reducing food waste. Then, take in all the data and refine the challenge for the next time, with a focus on removing barriers that participants may have had. You can glean a good deal of information by having people track their family’s behavior and honestly report back about their experience.
11. Embrace Unawareness About Food Waste
As Viki Sonntag, lead researcher for the FTGTW project points out, the more unawareness someone has about household food waste, the more awareness can be created. Talk with neighbors, community members, coworkers, young people, families and elders about the importance of reducing food waste. Reach out to everyone. This is an issue that affects everyone and that can only be addressed when we all change our habits.