It is a shocking statistic. In the United States, nearly 40% of all food produced is never eaten. This anomaly results in lost resources, economic costs to businesses and households, decreased food security, and negative climate impacts.
With the United Nations moving toward an ambitious goal of halving food waste by 2030, a new $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will be used to establish the first national academic research network on wasted food in the United States.
Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural economics at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), will serve as a co-principal investigator along with four colleagues from American University, Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The project, Multiscale RECIPES for Sustainable Food Systems, officially kicks off on Oct. 1. RECIPES is short for Resilient, Equitable, and Circular Innovations With Partnership and Education Synergies.
“At Ohio State, we are excited to lead the RECIPES network’s development and administration of a quarterly tracking survey of household food waste in the United States,” said Roe. “Being able to analyze the trends, patterns, and responses across different households over time will provide novel insights into what interventions will be most effective in reducing waste and supporting circular solutions.”
The network will deepen the understanding of how the causes of wasted food are interconnected and how they intersect with other regional systems beyond food. Researchers will take a systems approach to improving data on wasted food, with the goal of designing and strengthening sustainable solutions to reducing food waste.
While American University is taking the lead on the five-year project, it will engage communities in California and the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast regions. Researchers from 14 partner institutions will also be involved, including the Maryland Institute College of Art, World Wildlife Fund, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, University of Albany, Louisiana State University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Illinois Institute of Technology, Duke University, and University of California-Davis.
“Network researchers at Louisiana State University and Pennington Biomedical Research Center will enhance the ability to measure the food types and amounts from everyday photographs, which is surprisingly difficult to do with current technology,” Roe said. “This will help both food waste and nutrition scholars to generate high-quality data to assess interventions.”
Roe helped form and currently leads the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative, a collection of researchers, practitioners, and students working together to promote the reduction and redirection of food waste. His research on food waste examines consumer behavior and attitudes about discarding food.
The NSF project includes work in the following areas and will engage communities and frontline workers in food industries, as well as nonprofit, government, and private-sector stakeholders.
• Smarter data and predictive modeling. In the pursuit of efficiency and sustainability, inequitable decisions can occur, such as diverting low-quality foods to low-income neighborhoods. New math models can integrate data, take multiple factors into account, and show the way to food systems solutions that balance sustainability, resilience, and equity outcomes. Food rescue, a policy action, will be evaluated for the amount of food rescued, environmental quality, population health, and equity outcomes. Environmental racism and equity when matching rescued food to communities will be explored.
• STEM K–12 and post-secondary education. A general education course and open educational resource, Wasted Food 101, and the first undergraduate student science journal on food systems will be created. There will be a curriculum for elementary school students, and partnerships with minority- and disability-serving institutions will engage Black, deaf, and partially hearing students in research experiences.
• Strategies to minimize household-level food waste. As consumer behavior plays a role in wasted food, research will be conducted on wasted food prevention campaigns in cities. Mapping trends and other digital tools will be used to assess wasted food and design educational and social marketing campaigns aimed at preventing waste and addressing the social determinants of health in communities.
• Study new technologies on wasted food and their integration with regional infrastructure. Technologies such as composting and anaerobic digestion are leading options for wasted food management, but their adoption is limited.
The grant was awarded under NSF’s Sustainable Regional Systems Research Networks program. Learn more at wastedfood.american.edu.