Cornell receives $500K USDA grant to curb food waste


Each year $160 billion worth of wasted food ends up in America’s landfills. A Cornell economist has received a two-year, $500,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to get consumers and food distributors to squander substantially less.

Nearly 31 percent – or 133 billion pounds – of all U.S. food is wasted, 21 percent by consumers and 10 percent by producers, according to USDA statistics. As a national security and sustainability concern, food waste is a vanished opportunity to feed the 17.5 million food insecure U.S. households.

“Since the largest share of food waste is associated with consumers, we’ll examine opportunities to reduce household food waste by better understanding consumer behavior,” said the grant’s principal investigator, Brad Rickard, the Ruth and William Morgan Associate Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Rickard’s research, which will run through February 2018, will occur in four phases:

  • assess the magnitude and frequency of food waste by consumers;
  • develop laboratory experiments to collect data describing how consumers respond to date labels for a range of packaged food products;
  • examine how consumers’ waste habits can be influenced by fresh food product technology; and
  • understand the economic implications of policies proposed to mitigate food waste for stakeholders along the supply chain for food and beverages.

Internationally, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development acknowledges food waste and food loss as important components of food insecurity in its Zero Hunger Challenge.

Domestically, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency partnered last fall to launch the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, an initiative to reduce food waste among consumers and throughout the food supply chain by 50 percent by 2030. The federal government is partnering with groups and local governments to reduce food loss and waste, while bolstering food security and conserving natural resources.

“The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on Earth, but too much of this food goes to waste,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “An average family of four leaves more than 2 million calories, worth nearly $1,500, uneaten each year. Our new reduction goal demonstrates America’s leadership on a global level in in getting wholesome food to people who need it, protecting our natural resources, cutting environmental pollution and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put it succinctly: “Let’s feed people, not landfills. By reducing wasted food in landfills, we cut harmful methane emissions that fuel climate change, conserve our natural resources and protect our planet for future generations.”

To help reach the U.S. Food Waste Challenge goals by 2030, this grant aims to understand how the waste stream works at the household level. “We are addressing a critical gap in our understanding of how much food is wasted, and if the waste differs largely across product categories, across product sizes and across consumer populations differentiated by risk attitudes and preferences,” Rickard said. “We hope shed new light on how different strategies to reduce food waste might affect consumer behavior and ultimately affect the level of food waste across a range of consumers.”

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Melissa Osgood