RIT researchers part of $15 million NSF grant aimed at reducing food waste

Callie Babbitt is co-PI on $1.8 million interdisciplinary project with community partners

Gabrielle Plucknette-Devito

With the United States 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, including RIT, on wasted food in the United States.

In the United States, nearly 40 percent of all food produced is never eaten, resulting in lost resources, economic costs to business and households, decreased food security, and negative climate impacts.

With the United States 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.

Under the grant, researchers from American University will lead 13 other institutions in a five-year project aiming to deepen 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.

Callie Babbitt, a professor of sustainability in RITs Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS), will serve as a co-principal investigator for the project, titled Multiscale RECIPES for Sustainable Food Systems, which officially kicked off Oct. 1. RECIPES is short for Resilient, Equitable and Circular Innovations with Partnership and Education Synergies.

“Our research will re-envision wasted food as a valuable resource as it relates to the circular economy,” Babbitt said. “RIT will collaborate with business and industry partners to explore and create solutions that maximize the healthy, nutritious food used to feed people, minimize costly inefficiencies, and recycle unavoidable wastes into bio-based products and clean energy that powers the regional economy.”

Additional researchers for RIT’s $1.8 million part of the project include Christy Tyler, Thomas Trabold, Kaitlin Stack Whitney, Nathan Eddingsaas, and Todd Pagano.

Rochester-area partners include the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, Wegmans Food Markets, Biomass Controls, CH4 Biogas, R.L. Jeffres & Sons, Monroe County Department of Environmental Services, Natural Upcycling, and OWARECO, LLC. The project collaborators will provide data and information on regional food system challenges and work with the network to create solutions that reduce and recycle food waste and contribute to economic growth.

According to Babbitt, RIT’s focus will build on current NSF food waste research and an NSF-funded workshop the university held in 2019. Researchers will study new technologies for recovering the energy, water, and nutrients contained in food waste in a circular economy framework, she added.

“We are studying their overall performance, economics, and ecological footprint,” Babbitt noted. “One issue, for example, involves food waste mixed with packaging, which is a contaminant during recovery. Some technologies can co-process both. But that might lead to micro-plastic releases to local ecosystems, which builds on Christy Tyler’s work on plastics in the environment.”

The five-year project will engage communities in California, and the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast regions. In addition to RIT, research partners include 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.

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 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 project was awarded under NSF’s Sustainable Regional Systems Research Networks program. NSF research networks create knowledge and solutions that enhance sustainability, equity and resilience of regional systems in the United States. To learn more, go to the Multiscale RECIPES for Sustainable Food Systems website and follow @WastedFoodNtwk on Twitter.


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