Five Questions with JoAnne Berkenkamp, Food Waste Expert and Advocate

From by Allyn Rosenberger
Five Questions with JoAnne Berkenkamp, Food Waste Expert and Advocate

Food Tank recently spoke with JoAnne Berkenkamp, a Senior Advocate in the Food & Agriculture Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). JoAnne specializes in food waste prevention through industry-based approaches, consumer education, and policy advocacy. When we spoke with her, she talked about the importance of addressing the food waste problem head on, identifying promising strategies at the systems level, and more personalized strategies that recognize everyone who eats as part of the solution. 

Food Tank (FT): What sparked your passion for food systems reform, and what inspired you to dedicate yourself to the reduction of food waste?

JoAnne Berkenkamp (JB): My mom grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming during the Great Depression. It was a pretty rough-and-tumble life, and I observed in her a level of resilience and integrity that has informed my values around food and agriculture. I started out nearly 20 years ago working to develop healthier and more sustainable food systems. When I read the NRDC’s 2012 report entitled "Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill," however, the trajectory of my career really zeroed in on food waste.

I was shocked to learn that 40 percent of America’s food goes uneaten every year. It permanently changed my perspective on food systems. I decided to join NRDC in early 2015, where I now work full-time on food waste issues.

FT: Lately, we have seen a significantly heightened interest in reducing food waste, particularly among the general public. What do you think has prompted this awareness? How are you harnessing that awareness in your advocacy work?

JB: Historically, food waste has been one of those sleeper issues; it was under our noses, but most of us never saw it. That has changed radically in the last few years. Many more people recognize that an issue exists and it is an issue we all need to be concerned about given the environmental and social consequences.

The attention in mainstream media and on social media has helped create a perfect storm; there is a growing recognition among consumers that we all contribute to food waste, but we can also be a part of the solution. People see it in their homes and in restaurants; they see how much food we throw away. I think many people also recognize that this is an issue we can tackle. In a time when things often feel overwhelming, I think it is encouraging to know that this is a problem we can solve and everyone can be part of it.

FT: In 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. How optimistic are you about achieving this goal? What do you see as the most integral steps in making it happen?

JB: The establishment of this goal is an important milestone. Given the scale of the issue, we must be ambitious. It is essential that the federal government says, "food waste matters and we are serious about tackling it." When pursuing that goal, we have to keep a few contextual pieces of information in mind. First, about 43 percent of food waste in the United States is in consumers’ homes. How we, as consumers, purchase, prepare, and value our food is important. Second, 40 percent of food waste in the U.S. is from consumer-facing businesses, like restaurants, grocery stores, and institutional food service environments. This means we must engage people in the business community when tackling the food waste problem, in addition to targeting consumer behavior.

There is a role for the government, too, at both the local and federal level. At the federal level, setting up more sensible date-labeling regulation is a key component of comprehensive policy. Confusion about date labels drives one-fifth of food waste in homes. At the state level, we need strategies to keep food waste out of landfills. When states prevent organic waste from being disposed of in landfills, it can encourage food waste prevention, food donation, and the development of composting infrastructure.

FT: Food Tank often highlights organizations and initiatives working to reduce food waste. Are there any groups that you find particularly admirable?  

JB: Yes, there are two in particular.

First, ReFED (Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data). In March 2016, they released a roadmap that provides a rigorous analysis of different strategies for reducing food waste, particularly by businesses. This is helpful because it provides a directional analysis about what we need to do and what the economic benefits and costs are.

Another great organization is Lean Path, which provides food service businesses with software that enables them to track and evaluate their food waste. Their clients typically reduce their food waste by 30 to 50 percent within a year of using the software. When businesses recognize how much food they are wasting and see the costs of that, it empowers them to take action and reduce their waste.

FT: We see quite a few articles these days about how to cut food waste on an individual level. What are the top two or three most important steps we can take to cut our own food waste?

JB: First, it is important to buy what you know you can actually use. Often we have unrealistic expectations of how much we will consume and how often we are going to cook. We need to focus more on purchasing what we can realistically use up. This can be a great way to save money, too.

Second, most of us underutilize our freezers. We can obtain a better value from our food dollar if we freeze food we can’t consume right away.

Finally, and the most powerful, I think, is to simply pay attention every time you throw food away. I find that when I really give food a hard look before throwing anything out, I recognize what it is, why I’m discarding it, and what it cost to buy it and not use it. That can really provide the inspiration to cut back on my waste next time around.