Give thanks for (and don't waste) your food

Welcome to the first edition of Breaking It Down, a newsletter where I plan to take you along on my journey to better understand our climate crisis and what I can do to help. 

So why a newsletter? A little background….

Earlier this year, I left my job as COO of Meetup a year after it was acquired by WeWork. I took six months off to hang out with my six- and three-year-old, and now I’ve started to figure out what’s next. I’ve become convinced that I must work on our climate crisis. (Note that I won’t use the term “climate change.” Language matters, and “change” doesn’t convey the requisite urgency.) The problem is that I don’t yet know what to do. I’m not a scientist. I’ve worked in tech on building software, and in journalism. Many of the solutions to this crisis will require innovations in science and not-just-digital engineering. 

Luckily I’m not alone. I’ve learned there are many people in the tech world who are trying to figure out how to help. One example: Jason Jacobs, the co-founder/CEO of Runkeeper. He is cataloging his climate journey via a podcast, which has inspired me to learn in public too.

My goal is to continue learning about the problems and potential solutions by tackling one topic at a time. As the name of the newsletter implies, I hope to break down complicated issues into news you can use, rather than go deep into the often conflicting scientific or policy explanations. I’ll tell you why you should care about the topic, share some things I’ve learned that give me hope that change is possible and suggest a specific way that you can have an impact. 

Since Thanksgiving is coming up, I want to start with the issue of food waste.

Why should you care?

Globally, about one-third (approximately 1.3 billion tons) of the food produced for human consumption is wasted every year. In New York City alone, businesses and households throw out more than 1 million tons of food every year. So all the emissions that came from producing, packaging, shipping, storing, shopping for and cooking that wasted food were produced unnecessarily. Food that is thrown into a landfill doesn’t have access to oxygen to compost (i.e. turn into something helpful for the soil while avoiding emissions). Instead it rots and produces methane gas, which is even more harmful to our environment than carbon dioxide. All of this food waste accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is helping to fuel the crisis

How can change happen?

Everyone has a relationship with food. Most people are also lucky enough to face choices every day about what food they buy, where they buy it and what they do with any leftovers. Influencing these choices is critical.

Many experts say that making smart choices about food is the single most important contribution an individual can make. I’m focused on the environmental impact of food waste here, but it’s also critically important to remember that a staggering 820 million people in the world are hungry, and food that is currently wasted could go to those who need it. 

The good news is that there are a bunch of companies tackling the issue of food waste. Leanpath and Square are providing commercial kitchens with hardware and software to help them track and avoid food waste. New startups are redirecting prepared foods from landfills by creating marketplaces for businesses to sell the food at discounted prices. They include YourLocal, Too Good to Go, Food for All and Karma. And Olio helps you share food and other things with your neighbors. I love their tagline: “When did sharing food become weirder than wasting it?”

Many New Yorkers are familiar with City Harvest, a non-profit that picks up leftover food from restaurants, but there is also Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a nonprofit that will pick-up food from your office or event. A federal law protects food donors, so liability concerns shouldn’t be a reason to throw away food. 

And then there are the “ugly produce” companies like Misfits Market, Imperfect Foods and Full Harvest, which are giving consumers and/or restaurants access to produce and other foods that might otherwise be deemed unworthy for sale. Some people are worried these “ugly produce” companies will make it harder to feed hungry people. I’m not yet in a position to judge whether that’s true. But I am in a position to say that Toast beer, made from bread that would be thrown away, is quite tasty. And I’m eager to try Rubies in the Rubble condiments, made from ingredients that would otherwise be tossed.

All of this innovation is inspiring, and the traction these companies are having shows me that consumers have a desire to help keep food out of landfills.

What can you do this week to have an impact?

I’m focusing on food waste here, but certainly making the decision to have a vegan Thanksgiving is a great way to reduce the carbon footprint of your meal. If that’s a step too far for Aunt Matilda and Uncle Herman, just make the following, simple pledge: Don’t throw away any Thanksgiving leftovers.

Some ideas for how to make this a reality:

  1. Don’t buy / order more food than you need. Great tips here on how to be successful at this.

  2. Plan for the leftovers now. If you’re cooking a turkey, the soup, sandwiches and endless other possibilities are part of the fun of Thanksgiving. Think of one meal leading to the next, and the freezer is your friend.

  3. Don’t throw away food just because it’s past its sell-by date. With the exception of infant formula, the USDA says food should still be safe and wholesome after its sell-by date if it was stored properly. 

  4. If you make the pledge but you’re unable to carry it through because you just can’t bear the taste of that green bean casserole again, please compost it. 

Other interesting things I’ve read recently relating to the climate crisis:

  • Nearly half of all journeys to school and work in Copenhagen take place on bicycles. Imagine the impact if all cities were set up primarily for biking and walking, instead of for cars? It IS possible.

  • Gulf oysters, a staple at New Orleans restaurants, are dying.

The best way to learn is to get feedback so please let me know what you found interesting here. What do you want to see more or less of? Has anything inspired you to make changes in your daily routine?

Sign up if you’re interested in learning with me, and tell your friends if you think they might be interested too.

Thanks, Fiona