JOANNE BERKENKAMP MPP 1990 is taking the fight against climate change to your refrigerator. Want to do your part? Keep good food from going to waste, she says.
If the food being wasted around the globe was a country, asserts Berkenkamp, a senior advocate for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), it would rank number 3—behind China and the United States—in the generation of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. “All too often we don’t recognize that when we waste food we’re directly contributing to climate change. Wasted food is a huge climate issue.”
Her work focuses on the United States, where up to 40 percent of the food supply goes uneaten every year according to NRDC, an environmental advocacy group founded in 1970. In addition to all the water and energy wasted in the process, growing, manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of all that uneaten food costs more than $200 billion annually. The yearly price tag is $1,800 for a household of four.
“Waste is something that happens little by little so it’s easy to overlook how it adds up,” Berkenkamp says. “We buy more than we need and then can’t use it up. We plan to cook but then eat out instead. Leftovers get pushed further back in the refrigerator until it’s too late. Even though we may not want to be wasteful, consumers are the largest single source of wasted food in the United States”
Today, Americans throw out 50 percent more food per capita than we did in the 1970s. Restaurants, grocery stores, colleges, hotels, healthcare, and other businesses play a part as well, collectively generating almost as much waste food as consumers do in their homes.
Berkenkamp joined New York-based NRDC in 2015 after two decades working to advance more sustainable approaches to food production and more regionally oriented food systems across the United States. Her passion for food and the environment germinated at the Kennedy School, which she calls “a perfect environment for exploring new possibilities and crafting a professional trajectory that more fully aligned with my intellectual aims and personal values. A whole new universe opened up in front of me at the Kennedy School.”
She left a career in corporate finance and pivoted to environmental policy and international development. After leaving the Kennedy School, Berkenkamp worked in the international development arena in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and as a strategist for the World Wildlife Fund before diving fully into food and agriculture issues.
At NRDC, Berkenkamp is helping corporations, policymakers, and consumers become an integral part of the solution. On the consumer front, NRDC is collaborating with the Ad Council, creator of Smokey Bear, Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk, and other iconic public service campaigns, to rally consumers to the cause. Their “Save the Food” campaign raises awareness and gives people the tools they need to shop smarter, plan meals better, and make fuller use of the food they purchase.
NRDC also is working with city governments and companies in the retail grocery and food service arenas to “rescue” unsold food that would otherwise be tossed. That food can help meet the meal gap for some of the 41 million low-income children, adults, and elders who lack a secure supply of food.
The tide is now beginning to turn. Companies like Kroger, Aramark, and Marriott have committed to curtailing food waste in their operations. The federal government announced the first-ever national goal to cut food waste by half by 2030. The U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a set of resolutions aimed at reducing food waste by a similar margin, and city governments from New York to Nashville, Denver, and Seattle are moving aggressively to prevent food from being wasted in the first place, ramp up food donations, and recycle what remains.
“Five years ago, this issue was really in the shadows. Today, major food companies are realizing that their bottom line benefits when they cut their waste. Municipal governments are motivated to keep food out of landfills. And consumers are recognizing that they can save money and improve their environmental footprint if they update their practices,” Berkenkamp says. “In short, if you eat, you are part of the solution.”
Andrew Faught is a California-based freelance writer.