How to Save a Billion Dollars Recovering Food – The Future of Food Podcast

Listen to the whole show at Future of Food.


Lee: It’s the “Future of Food,” I’m Lee Schneider. Who would have thought that early one morning at the wholesale produce market in L.A., I would have walked right into a performance of opera?

[Luis singing]


Luis: Everyone knows I sing opera here.


NARRATION:Luis Yepiz has a talent for music. He’s been in punk bands and has the vocal chops to be an opera performer. But he also has a talent for something else, connecting with people and building communities. He is the wholesale food recovery manager for an organization called Food Forward. He starts early in the morning because that’s when the wholesalers arrive.

[market sounds]

Lee: Now, it’s 4:30 in the morning on the dot. It’s a lot of activity.


Luis:Yes, the wholesalers usually start their operation anywhere between midnight and one in the morning.


NARRATIONHe discovered this work when he was volunteering at a food bank. One day, there was a problem with a driver who was supposed to make some deliveries. The people in charge asked, “Does anybody around here know how to drive a truck?”


Luis:And, you know, I have been a diesel mechanic my whole life because that’s what my father did. So, I said, “I drive trucks,” and they sent me here to pick up the lettuce as a volunteer. I came back with a full truck.


NARRATION:Luis’ father was also a diesel mechanic in Mexico, where the family had a farm.

[market sounds]

Lee: You’re saying that both your grandfathers were farmers?


Luis: Yes, both my grandfathers were farmers.


NARRATION:You can see the pieces starting to come together now for why Luis has a passion for volunteering, and helping feed communities in L.A. At the market, as we sidestep speeding forklifts, I see that the variety of produce available is stunning.


Luis:Regular tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, tiny South African pineapples.


Lee:It comes from the central valley of California, from Mexico, South America.


Luis: We have Padron chilies …


NARRATION:If a price of a batch of eggplant drops, that shipment has to be sold quickly or else it won’t be worth keeping around.


Luis:Like if the stem is a little brown, or it has spots or scratches, but the eggplant is 100%, they can no longer sell it for that low price. They try to avoid dumping it because dumping it has its own fees. When you throw out one can of produce, you have to pay $50 at the municipal dump, at the municipal waste facility


Lee: So it costs them to get rid of it.


Luis: It costs them to get rid of it.


NARRATION:Prices go down and they can also go up. Pushed by shortages, there might not be enough rain or too much rain, soaking crops in the field. Luis and his team of four drivers collect at least $13 million worth of donated produce every year. They have two trucks, each can be loaded with as much as 18,000 pounds of produce. And they take four to six loads per day to community centers where people are waiting to receive the food.


Luis: Mostly, what gets donated to us usually comes from farmers. It gets sent to the wholesale market….


Lee:So I have a confession to make, I kind of started this story backwards. The opera sequence was just too good, so I began with all the food that might go to waste if it were not for the heroic efforts of Luis Yepiz, and the organization he works for, Food Forward, to recover that food. But why is there so much food to recover? That’s the real beginning of this story. If Luis can recover and distribute at least $13 million worth of wasted food a year, maybe as much as $15 million in just one city, how big is this problem anyway?

Considered across the country, are we talking about billions of dollars of food waste? It’s a complicated answer, but my next guest is working on it. She’s going to tell us about this billion dollar problem of wasted food, but she’s also gonna have some solutions for you and me, some very simple things that we can do every day.

At the time of our interview, Eva Goulbourne was the Director of Business and Multi-stakeholder Programs for ReFED. ReFED is a nonprofit committed to reducing U.S. food waste, and it says there is already a roadmap to reducing food waste by 20% annually. Building on the roadmap, launched last year, she was leading a project to develop action guides for the food service, restaurant and retail industries. Eva, welcome to the podcast.

We waste over $218 billion or a little over 1% of the GDP growing, processing, and transporting food that we ultimately waste annually,” you say. So, where’s this food waste happening and what’s the impact?


Eva: So, basically, 85% of all food waste occurs in our homes, and in consumer-facing businesses. We’ve grown accustomed to variety, convenience, and abundance for all of our meals as part of our American culture. You see this dramatic increase even in the portion sizes. Our dinner plates over the past 40 years have grown dramatically. We have this insatiable preference and desire for high cosmetic standards, especially in produce, you know. So, when you go into your grocery store, for example, you see those gorgeous pyramids of apples, and oranges, and lemons, all perfectly shined and polished, and most of us would never go for the lumpy, bumpy, or bruised ones.


Lee:How do we reduce food waste by 20%? You said the solutions are already out there, so what are some of those key solutions? And maybe, you should start with the consumer level.


Eva: In many instances, we just don’t consider the resources that go into our food. Food waste accounts for 20% of all of our freshwater, our fertilizer, cropland, and cropland use, and is responsible for 20% of our landfill volume. All of these are extraordinarily huge numbers. In the roadmap, we identify 27 of the most cost-effective, feasible and scalable solutions to implement today.

If we actually implemented them, it would divert 13 million tons of food from landfills, which would result in doubling the amount of food for food donation, it would conserve up to 1.6 billion gallons of freshwater, and would avoid nearly 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.


NARRATION:Eva told me that some needed solutions will come from behavior change at home, buying less, better meal planning. Even small ideas can raise awareness:

[restaurant sounds]


Lee:Eva told me the story of a restaurant in New York City that is using the stems and discards from the kitchen to decorate fancy craft cocktails at the bar. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Eva said, is working on simplifying sell by labels, eliminating some confusion about whether that milk in your fridge has gone bad or not.


Eva: It causes an incredible amount of waste. Nine out of 10 Americans throw out still fresh food because of confusion around date labels. And it’s estimated that it accounts for about 20% of our consumer waste of safe, edible foods, and not even things that actually went bad, and has cost Americans $29 billion a year.


Lee:Labels say, “Sell by,” some say, “Use by,” and some say, “Best if used by,” so that’s a lot of information, inconsistent and hard to understand. That’s what we mean by confusion, yes?


Eva: Exactly. And we also don’t know if that means that with those, you know, 20-plus labels that you might see, does that mean that I’m really gonna get sick if I actually eat it the day after this? Or, is it just gonna kind of be a little stale?


Lee:Right. It’s the old smell-the-milk test. I mean, everyone did that in college, but, later, I guess, we get more cautious. So, we’re willing to believe what it says on that date, not necessarily what our nose or bodies will tell us about that food. This requires a certain amount of intellectual curiosity. It’s really a large-scale social engineering project to get people to think a little bit differently about the whole food chain, really, from beginning to end. How are you gonna do that? How are you gonna inspire that kind of behavior change and intellectual curiosity about this process that most of us don’t even give that much thought to?


Eva: If we could figure this out faster, we’d all be in a better position. But, I think, overall, you know, acknowledging that we, as consumers, have this insatiable desire for convenience and abundance, and recognizing that impact. The encouraging thing is there’s actually a lot of good momentum of consumers starting to change their behavior.

So, for example, the Save the Food campaign which is run by the National Resources Defense Council, is actually a national campaign, the way that, like, Smokey the Bear, Don’t Drink and Drive, have been campaigns in the past, where you can actually see that messaging around reducing food waste at the consumer level on your city bus, on, you know, on a construction site wall, on commercials, on Instagram.

And that’s not the silver bullet, but that is the beginning that helps us start to understand that, in fact, those date labels on my products, actually, I can, instead of looking at the label, I can actually use my own instincts to assess whether that food is still safe to eat.


Lee:This kind of behavior change can happen on a gigantic level of, you know, the way we move food around, but it also can happen on really small, everyday levels about portion sizes, about being curious about how much food we use, buying a better amount of food, and all those sort of small everyday behaviors, yes?


Eva: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think that’s what’s sort of encouraging about this, too, is we have a lot of power, as consumers, but at the same time, we need to celebrate, and pay attention, and give social license to food businesses to do these things. Because one of the things that I often hear, that resistance commonly around implementing food waste strategies for companies, you know, “That would be against our brand standards. That’s not what our customers expect.”  “We wouldn’t wanna make this change because we wouldn’t know if it would have a negative impact on our experience with us.”


Lee:We’ve talked about a lot of nodes in this. There’s a lot of moving parts. We have restaurants, we have distribution, we have supermarkets, we can go back to the farm, we can go forward to the consumer. If I’m a consumer, what is the one thing that I should be thinking about, at least, and maybe even doing?


Eva: So I think I’m gonna cheat and I’m gonna say I think there’s two things that we can do as consumers. One has to do with creativity in the kitchen. You know, I, apparently, am of the millennial generation, which means that we’re really fantastic at taking photos of our food, but not actually spending a lot of time in the kitchen cooking.

Food waste doesn’t have to be around something that’s bad, something that makes us feel guilty, but really is an opportunity to be sort of the top chef in your kitchen. One of my favorite things to do is to go home and, you know, make an omelet or pasta bake out of whatever is sitting in my crisper. And, you know, with a little bit of creativity, you know, it turns out that some uncommon ingredients actually go great together, you know, when you throw a poached egg onto them.

I would say, be creative in the kitchen and then, saying “no” when you’re in restaurants, or delis, or out with friends. And what I mean by that is, what always shocks me is, I will get a huge portion of something, or when I go to my deli, I’ll get my sandwich and they double bag it in plastic, and paper, and cellophane, and give me a fork, knife, spoon, and straw, and then hand it over to me. But when you start actually saying, “No, it’s okay. Just give me the sandwich,” or, you know, you’re having burgers out with friends, three of you order the burgers with fries, just have two people get the fries, you’re gonna be okay.


Lee:Yeah, it does come back to that idea. So much of behavior change, social engineering, intellectual curiosity, and getting people to think about all this.


Eva: And I think, you know, when people realize that it’s not about doing less bad, but doing more good, meaning they’re actually being creative about some of these things and actually engaging their food businesses in different ways, then it sort of makes this problem feel less daunting.


Lee: Eva, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast.


Eva: Thanks for having me, Lee. This was a lot of fun.

[market sounds]


Luis:About one of every six people in Los Angeles actually lives with food insecurity.


NARRATION:Back at my walkthrough at the L.A. wholesale market, Luis’ day was wrapping up at about 6:00 a.m.


Luis:We’re about to pick up another load with one driver. And the other driver has [inaudible 00:13:18].


NARRATION:And soon, the drivers would take over.


Luis: Six pallets and pallets and [inaudible 00:13:22].


NARRATION:Thanks to Eva and Luis for being on the podcast.


Luis:We’ll deliver that in Rowland Heights, then we’ll have to make deliveries today in Pacoima.


NARRATION:Get yourself some show notes and more at You can also sign up for our newsletter and never miss a podcast. That’s

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