Sustainable America Blog

New York City’s Food Waste Challenge

If we’re going to get serious about reducing the staggering amount of food wasted in the United States—40 percent!—it’s going to take more than a few backyard compost bins. Restaurants and food service providers, which account for approximately 22% of food wasted in this country, have plenty of room for improvement. But, as NPR reported last fall, many restaurants simply don’t make food waste reduction a priority. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is hoping to change that with his recently announced Food Waste Challenge. More than 100 restaurants, from temples of food like Le Bernardin and Gramercy Tavern to lunch chains like Pret A Manger, have pledged to reduce the amount of food they send to landfills by 50% through compositing and other waste-prevention strategies. The challenge is part of a new city program to reduce the amount of organic waste sent to landfills and the greenhouse gases that waste produces.

While New York is home to some of the highest quality restaurants in the world, its eateries also account for the largest single stream of food waste on the commercial side. These restaurants generate close to a half million tons of food waste per year — enough to fill more than 100 subway cars per day.

“Restaurants can play a crucial role in helping to reduce our city’s food waste,” said Danny Meyer, CEO and founder of Union Square Hospitality Group. “We eagerly accept the Mayor’s challenge and our restaurants are excited to help the city reach its goal of diverting 50 percent of food waste, thereby helping to clean up the atmosphere.”

The Challenge

Here’s how it will work: Restaurants will conduct a waste audit to determine how much waste they generate. This amount will be used as a baseline to track the restaurant’s progress. Participants will have a access to a variety of resources to help them meet their waste-reducing goals. The city will work with restaurants to share best practices and work together in developing a strategy by addressing staff training, how to measure waste and composting. Additionally, local experts and organizations will be at the restaurants’ disposal to assist in reaching the 50 percent waste diversion from landfills.

“Food wastes make up about a third of our city’s total of more than 20,000 tons of daily refuse,” the mayor said. Restaurants, he added, account for 70 percent of commercial food waste. The city’s overall plan, called PlaNYC, aims to divert 75 percent of all solid waste from landfills by 2030 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New York’s Food Waste Challenge will hopefully yield not only less wasted food, but also a roadmap for helping more restaurants waste less food. Many individuals in the food industry are already working to run sustainable businesses, but large-scale programs like this one will make it easier for everyone to participate and change industry behaviors for the long term. Sustainable America has a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2035, and forward-thinking programs like NYC’s Food Waste Challenge will help make it happen. We’re doing our part too — in an effort to reduce food waste in our hometown, Sustainable America will be teaming up with Stamford, Connecticut’s Alive@5 to raise awareness surrounding composting and food waste during the upcoming summer concert series.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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