Food waste is a huge problem worldwide. In the U.S., we waste between 30 to 40 percent of our overall supply, which is consistent with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s estimation that “One-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally.”
Yet some countries are succeeding when citizens buy local, restaurants distribute leftovers using food apps, as well as companies developing high-tech environmental preservation solutions.
Having lived in the Czech Republic, Israel, and Denmark, let me share some strategies my adopted countries use to reduce food waste.
Home-grown produce from backyard vegetable gardens supplements family meals in the Czech Republic. Residents may have fruit trees, greenhouses, and chicken coops in their yards. Many rent municipal plots to use as their unofficial garden. And home composting is common.
Czechs traditionally travel seasonally to forage for mushrooms and wild garlic. Families preserve extra produce by jarring, pickling, and freezing. They may make fruit jams and even ferment cabbage in their bathtubs. And many people transport their surplus produce to state-licensed fermentation plants that create liquors out of plums, walnuts, and other produce. It is common to dry stale bread to create breadcrumbs that are a mainstay of the cuisine.
App-based methods are more effective than redistributing perishable meals to food banks. Two hundred fifty-five restaurants in all major metropolitan areas have signed up to offer unsold food, with 200 portions sold via the apps each day.
Bustling outdoor food markets are traditional in Israeli cities and towns, bringing consumers one step closer to their food. In such busy places, it’s not surprising that waste ends up on the ground — some of it edible food. Volunteers collect what’s left behind to distribute to people in need.
Food and water security in Israel are inextricable from politics. That’s why Leket Israel, Israel’s largest food bank, undertakes a mission of “food rescue” to serve Israelis in need regardless of age, gender, religion, or ethnic background. In 2018 alone, the organization distributed 31 million pounds of fruits and vegetables and 2.2 million cooked meals from farms, packing houses, hotels, and more to 200 nonprofit organizations that serve 175,000 Israelis every week.
Israel AgTech companies are working on solutions to reduce food waste. For example, Amaizz designs innovative methods of drying, refrigerating and storing food, and Sufresca is developing edible coatings to lengthen produce shelf life. These solutions are ultimately intended for global impact.
It is common for Danes to offer free food in boxes on the sidewalk. One will see signs that advertise “free apples” or “free potatoes.” Displayed in front of a house, eggs are also available for purchase on the honor system. Buyers leave a small fee for the eggs they take.
All of the largest cities on Denmark’s three main islands have Facebook groups dedicated to dumpster diving, which is a growing movement to rescue edible food that supermarkets throw away once food passes its best-by date.
Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is on track to be the world’s first carbon-neutral city. That effort includes reducing organic matter disposal: One in three Danish municipalities collects biodegradable waste, with more adding this service all the time.
Supermarkets around Denmark discount food approaching its best-by date, including baked goods that they discount daily after 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. “Reduce Food Waste” signs call attention to discounted products in large refrigerators (if perishable in the short term) or in open bins (if not immediately perishable).
What Can We Learn From Their Examples?
The cultures of Czech Republic, Israel, and Denmark have a close relationship with their food. A large portion is grown locally or at home. They build their traditions and communities around food.
While growing our own food may not be possible for all of us, there are many ways we can create relationships in our communities to fight food waste:
- Volunteer at a local food bank to help others access nutritious food and learn about food inequality in your community.
- Find local options, such as CSAs and farmers markets, for buying produce, eggs, and more.
- Explore home composting options, look into setting up composting at work or school, and pressure your municipality to collect biodegradable waste.
- Encourage your supermarket to help prevent food waste by partnering with nonprofits and/or publicizing soon-to-be-discarded food for easy shopping.
Each of us has an opportunity to reduce food waste at some stage of the food cycle, from growing to distribution to home use.