Q&A with Dana Gunders, Executive Director of ReFED Inc.

About 40 percent of unsold or uneaten food in the United States ends up in landfills, a fact that poses many challenges: Food waste emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas; incredible amounts of water and energy—and money—are expended across the food supply chain without any gain; and, all the while, people who could make use of the surplus nutrition can’t access it.

Dana Gunders has spent most of her career raising awareness around these issues and leading efforts to address them. Consumer Reports has called her “the woman who helped start the waste-free movement.” Now Gunders is the executive director of ReFED Inc., a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste, and is among the world’s foremost experts on strategies for reducing the environmental, social, and economic impacts of wasted food.

While a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Gunders helped to launch the "Save the Food" campaign to help everyday consumers reduce food waste at home. She is the author of Waste-free Kitchen Handbook and the groundbreaking report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.”

We had the opportunity to talk with Gunders about the state of food waste today, ReFED’s holistic approach to building a sustainable food system, and its data-driven solution for activating innovation and investment to meet the challenge.

Q: Most of the food eaten in the United States is the result of a complex global supply chain. Agricultural goods are processed and manufactured into products that are then shipped—often many miles—before we eat them. Advances in packaging and refrigeration have meant that food lasts longer. Yet, this shift in the food system has levied a cost on the environment, consuming vast amounts of precious resources like water and energy. And, despite the apparent abundance, many people still lack access to nutritious food. Is food waste an inherent problem of today’s industrial food system? What are the biggest changes ReFED believes we can make in the next ten years to reduce food loss and waste in our economy?

There’s no one reason—or solution—for food waste.

A: There’s no one reason—or solution—for food waste. It is a complicated series of circumstances and actions throughout the supply chain. In general, I do think waste is an inherent problem when operating at the scale that our food system does, and a big part of that has to do with customer expectations. We’re now used to having a lot of choice, getting what we want, when we want it, and if we’re not able to get it from one business, we can easily find another. Businesses know this, and they have adjusted their operations to accommodate it, which generally means having more inventory on hand.

Historically, the critical issue with the food system was that it was producing too little. It has only been relatively recently with the industrialization of the food supply that the problem of surplus has been an issue. Yet, sadly, even while we produce more food than ever before, social factors make it so that not everyone has enough to eat. Taking advantage of overproduction to feed the entire population is imperative—especially as the population is growing, and climate change is making our agricultural production less efficient. There is already so much surplus throughout the system that even if we prioritize making sure that everyone has nutritious, edible food to eat, there will still be spoilage, byproducts, and many other areas of food waste reduction for us to focus on.

ReFED believes that the biggest changes we can make in the next ten years to reduce food loss and waste in our economy include:

  1. Increasing investment in food waste reduction: We need to prioritize investment in food waste reduction solutions; we’ve analyzed more than 40 of them so far, and there are dozens more that we are working on. We know how to solve food waste, we just need to implement those solutions.
  2. Implementing food waste policies and regulations: Governments can play a crucial role in reducing food waste by implementing policies and regulations that incentivize waste reduction, such as tax incentives for food donation or landfill fees and restrictions. A lot of interesting policies are being enacted on the state level, and the federal government has also been working on the issue in a bipartisan fashion.
  3. Expanding food donation: The expansion of food donation programs is a key solution to reducing food waste. This can be achieved by strengthening food recovery infrastructure and providing incentives to food businesses to donate surplus food. About 1 in 10 Americans are food insecure, yet the equivalent of approximately 149 billion meals goes uneaten each year.
  4. Educating consumers: Consumers are the largest generators of surplus food; nearly half of the annual total happens at the household level, so it’s critical that they are educated about proper food management skills. But it’s also important to note that this doesn’t mean they are the only ones to blame for all that they waste. Businesses also have a responsibility to make sure that they provide food to their customers in a way that makes it easy, affordable, and convenient for them to waste less.
  5. Utilizing surplus food as a resource: We can reduce the amount of food that ends up going to landfill or other waste destinations by utilizing it as a resource through upcycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion, which can produce a range of food and non-food products.

By implementing these changes, we can make significant progress in reducing food loss and waste, while also creating social, economic, and environmental benefits.

Q: The American Psychiatric Association now recognizes climate change as a growing cause of what it calls “eco-anxiety.” Some sustainability experts worry that people, overwhelmed by the challenges climate change poses, might become pessimistic about the prospects of solving it. How does ReFED balance urgency with optimism in its messaging and mission?

A: Food waste reduction is actually a great answer to that anxiety because it has been identified as one of the top ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change and is something we can all act on right now. Not only that, but when we act on it right now, it actually has immediate climate benefits. And there are so many food waste solutions that exist and are ready to be implemented.

ReFED recognizes the urgency of the issue of food waste and its contribution to climate change, but we also believe that optimism is essential to achieving our mission. By balancing those two things, we hope to create a sense of momentum while also fostering a sense of hope about the future. We approach the issue with a solutions-oriented mindset and focus on the many positive steps being taken to address it. We also focus on collaboration and partnership, working with businesses, governments, and organizations to create a collective impact on food waste reduction. We recognize that progress will require the collective efforts of all stakeholders, and we work to build consensus and support for our mission.

And when it comes to individuals doing something to help address climate change in their own lives, reducing food waste is something that everyone can do, which hopefully can help people overcome some of their eco-anxiety.

Q: Data—and free access to it—plays a central role in ReFED’s approach to food waste reduction. Organizations of any size can access the ReFED Insights Engine, which allows users to find and prioritize solutions based on a range of factors, such as cost, climate impact, water use, and more. By marrying practical step-by-step solutions with real data, the tool fills a critical gap for anyone who needs to build consensus around a food waste program and get buy-in from decision-makers. What led ReFED to create the tool? What are some innovative ways you’ve seen people use data from the tool to mitigate food waste?

When it comes to food waste, businesses can’t manage what they don’t measure.

A: Like many things, when it comes to food waste, businesses can’t manage what they don’t measure. So the Insights Engine was created to address the need for better data and information to drive food waste reduction efforts. Telling the story of food waste, its causes and impacts—nationally, as well as in each state, in different sectors, and over the years—is critical to helping businesses and other stakeholders identify where to focus their resources. And understanding what the impact of various food waste solutions will be is also necessary. Unfortunately, organizations of all sizes often lack the resources or expertise to effectively identify and prioritize solutions for food waste reduction. By providing free access to a comprehensive database of food waste reduction solutions, the Insights Engine tool helps organizations make informed decisions based on real data.

Since its launch in 2021, we have seen a range of innovative ways that people have used data from the Insights Engine tool to mitigate food waste. For example, some organizations have used the tool to identify high-impact solutions that align with their specific sustainability goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions or water usage. Other organizations have used the tool to assess the economic benefits of different food waste reduction solutions, such as composting or food donation programs.

The tool has also been used by municipalities to inform policy decisions related to food waste reduction. For example, some cities have used the tool to identify the most effective policy interventions to reduce food waste at the local level. By using data to support policy decisions, these cities are able to make informed choices that have a real impact on reducing food waste.

Overall, the Insights Engine tool is a powerful resource for organizations of all sizes looking to take action on food waste reduction. By providing access to real data and solutions, we hope to drive progress towards a more sustainable and resilient food system.

Q: In order to significantly reduce the amount of food that goes to waste in the United States by 2030, ReFED estimates that $18 billion annually is needed to fund the level of new innovation required to get there. How is ReFED working to spur this investment? Where are you seeing the most progress so far?

A: ReFED’s analysis shows that $18 billion is needed each year to develop and scale food waste reduction solutions, but that investment would result in $74 billion of net economic benefit—a four-to-one return. Of that annual amount, we estimate that $5 billion should come from catalytic sources, which are typically more flexible and patient when it comes to measuring impact. ReFED is working to spur investment in food waste by engaging with capital providers of all types to raise awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of reducing food waste. We advocate for increased investment in food waste reduction solutions to achieve the enormous opportunity they present, and we offer a range of resources to funders to help them understand where their funding can have the greatest potential impact. For example, we have created the ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund to provide recoverable and non-recoverable grants to help organizations scale their food waste solutions. We also have a network called the Food Waste Funder Circle, which offers members regular opportunities for education, collaboration, and investment.

So far, we are seeing the most progress in investment in food waste reduction in the private sector. Many companies are recognizing the economic benefits of reducing food waste, such as cost savings and improved brand reputation, and are investing in solutions to address the issue.

ReFED’s analysis shows that $18 billion is needed each year to develop and scale food waste reduction solutions, but that investment would result in $74 billion of net economic benefit—a four-to-one return.

Q: Traditionally, most public funding goes to nonprofits and government agencies. But, given that the private sector generates most food waste, businesses are the ones that need extra support and incentives. How is ReFED creating opportunities for businesses to access the resources they need?

A: We work closely with food businesses of all types to support their food waste reduction efforts, and we are excited to see businesses really taking this seriously. Lack of actionable data has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many businesses that understand the importance of food waste reduction but don’t know where to start. To help, ReFED is a data partner in the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment (PCFWC), a public-private partnership to support food businesses along the West Coast in cutting waste. Working in a pre-competitive framework, the participating businesses have contributed data from their operations that we’ve aggregated, anonymized, and analyzed to better understand unsold food rates, destinations, and impacts for the past three years. It’s first-of-its-kind data that can be used by businesses participating in the PCFWC, as well as by others around the country, to benchmark their own efforts. This is a great step, and took a lot of effort from people inside the businesses to champion these efforts. The initial focus was on retailers, but now we’re expanding that data collection effort to other sectors. Using this data, we are working to create custom roadmaps for different businesses to address the food waste issues specific to their own operations. No two are exactly the same, so drilling down into the exact causes in a particular business is the best way to provide resources they need to take action.

Q: ReFED works across sectors: investment, industry, policy, and innovation. Given the immense breadth and depth between these different areas, how does your organization meaningfully engage with each? What strategies do you rely on?

A: ReFED sits at the center of the food system, so we are able to connect with stakeholders from all different sectors—those that are directly connected to the system as well as those that touch it indirectly. We describe ourselves as “small, but mighty,” but one place where we are big is our platform. So that’s a really important part of what we offer to our various stakeholders: a platform to learn more about the issue, a platform to connect with others in the space for funding, a platform for collective action, and more. The power of the food waste movement comes from the people and organizations involved in the fight, so a big part of what we do to support them is leveraging our platform to pull everyone together as a united front.

Q: ReFED recently held its 2023 Food Waste Solutions Summit. What were some key takeaways from that event?

A: Everyone in this area is working really hard, and now that there is this really incredible foundation, it’s time for us all to think bigger and get past the pilot stage to really move the needle on reducing food waste. The scale of the problem demands more attention and commitment from those who are still outside the movement—funders and policymakers, innovators and researchers, and everyone else with a stake in the food system—and the most effective way to get there is for those of us inside of it to double down on our commitments and continue educating others about the importance of this work.

Lack of actionable data has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many businesses that understand the importance of food waste reduction but don’t know where to start.

Q: Do you think public perception of wasted food is shifting? What still needs to happen?

A: Despite a massive and noticeable increase in the discussion around food waste, I don’t think the movement has reached the inflection point to completely change public perception yet. I believe that people know instinctively that wasting food is bad, but they still don’t understand the role they play in it. There’s a study that says that about 75 percent of people say they waste less than the average person, so there’s clearly a disconnect between what people think and what they actually do. But the tide is starting to shift, as businesses like Hellmann’s focus on food waste as part of their consumer outreach efforts—including commercials in the Super Bowl! But we really need a national campaign with the proper amount of funding and key partners to spread the word in places where everyone will engage with it. I am optimistic that something will happen soon to keep the momentum going for food waste awareness.


Circular Economy Sustainability in Practice


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About the authors

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

The New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) works with government programs and Empire State businesses, communities, and nonprofits to give them the practical resources, tools, and solutions needed to realize the benefits of sustainability for our economy, environment, and our society as a whole. 

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