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How to tackle food waste? ReFED says follow the data.

In honor of International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, we spoke with nonprofit ReFED about how data-driven collaboration and creative investments can move the needle on a systemic issue.

Today is the UN’s International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. It’s a chance to draw attention to one of the UN’s key Sustainable Development Goals to halve food waste by 2030, and comes on the heels of last week’s UN Food Systems Summit, where the topic was also addressed. But it’s a year-round issue for ReFED, an organization advancing solutions to food waste through the lens of economics and data. We caught up with our friends at ReFED about their approach to tackling food waste through data, collaboration, and capital.

Real solutions start with data

ReFED launched in 2016 after Jesse Fink, an investor who became interested in tackling food waste on a systemic level as a way to address climate change. What originally started as a group of public and private stakeholders putting forth a roadmap on waste reduction turned into a full-scale organization working with corporations, funders, and solution providers to promote tangible solutions while promoting economic opportunity in the process. 

One of ReFED’s focal points is leveraging data to understand the food waste problem and evaluating all of its possible solutions (and as a data platform dedicated to fighting food waste, we were happy to dive into this topic). This year, ReFED launched its Insights Engine, an online data center surfacing insights and guidance on U.S. food waste. It aggregates and analyzes over 50 public and proprietary datasets with over 10 years of data, along with subject matter expertise that helps companies understand the causes and impacts of food waste, evaluate solutions, and connect directly with technology and other solution providers. “At ReFED, we believe the idea that you can't manage what you don’t measure is critical. We decided to develop a one-stop resource through the Insights Engine -- so whether you are a funder, policy maker, or solution provider, you can access the data you need to address the issue,” says Jeffrey Costantino, ReFED’s Communications Director.

But like Crisp, ReFED appreciates the historic challenges to getting quality data. Legacy systems can make it hard to quantify the problem, and also to drill down enough to evaluate possible interventions. In fact, the more granular data points -- say, the spoilage rate of apples compared to fresh produce as a whole -- are often the most valuable, but also the hardest to get. Then of course, there’s the issue of getting meaningful insights out of data, and from there, sharing those insights with the broader industry to inform collective action. This is one reason ReFED is participating in a collaboration called the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment: a public-private partnership across Washington, Oregon, and California, plus British Columbia, helping food businesses work together on food waste reduction plans. Through its participation, ReFED is advancing the role data can play in addressing the issue -- helping to surface, for instance, a new product-specific level of data that participants may not have had.

"There are huge business opportunities to think about when it comes to food waste. If you are a capital provider, not only are you needed to get new solutions off the ground, but you can also get a good return from it." -- Jeffrey Costantino, ReFED

Investing in innovation

The project embodies another core belief of ReFED’s: the importance of partnerships. As Crisp often says, no one company can solve food waste; it’s a problem rooted in the complex interconnectedness of our supply chain. ReFED addresses this by building high-value partnerships, identifying unique groups’ strengths to make progress together, and incentivizing new players into the food waste space. A recent collaboration was an innovation challenge with the Wonderful Company, makers of pomegranate juice brand POM Wonderful. The challenge solicited ideas to divert 50,000 tons of leftover husks from the juicing process, with the two winners given a total $1M in funding to develop their solutions.

This highlights another critical component ReFED sees in creating systemic change: investment. By engaging the investment community around food waste’s problems and opportunities, ReFED helps bring in capital to scale up new solutions. “For us, partnerships are also about bringing funders to the table. Many capital providers are looking for a way to engage in the food waste sector, and we provide actionable insights that can help guide their investments,” Jeffrey explains. Another example is ReFED’s COVID-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund, which raised more than $3.5 million from contributors and quickly distributed it to organizations on the ground to simultaneously address hunger relief and food waste issues caused by the pandemic. But it’s not just about funding solutions, it’s about developing a new economy around waste reduction. As Jeffrey says, “The economics are a big part of the issue. There are huge business opportunities to think about when it comes to food waste. If you are a capital provider, not only are you needed to get new solutions off the ground, but you can also get a good return from it.”

ReFED has just announced their next Food Waste Solutions Summit, which will convene food businesses, funders, solutions providers, policymakers, nonprofits, and more around solutions to achieve the 2030 reduction target. The event will be held in May 2022 in Minneapolis, with tickets available in October.

To learn more about ReFED, visit refed.org. To stay up-to-date on more food waste and industry insights, subscribe to the Crisp blog.

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