University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: SPH Researches Barriers & Opportunities for Seattle Food Waste

SPH Researches Barriers & Opportunities for Seattle Food Waste


Forty percent of food in the United States—much of it healthy and edible—goes uneaten. It ends up in landfills and produces methane emissions that are 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, more than 48 million Americans aren’t getting the food they need and food banks are struggling to meet demand.

To reverse that trend, the City of Seattle enlisted the University of Washington School of Public Health to analyze current food waste prevention and recovery efforts and help develop local strategies.

Assistant Professor Jennifer Otten

The new report from the School’s Center for Public Health Nutrition suggests that public agencies are in a unique position to foster an integrated local and regional approach that provides support for grocery stores and restaurants wanting to reduce their food waste as well as for organizations striving to make healthier food available to people who need it most.

“The report brings the city a step closer to realizing their goals by helping them understand the challenges and opportunities of food-generating businesses and anti-hunger agencies in creating a more effective food waste prevention and recovery system,” says Jennifer Otten, lead author of the report, assistant professor of health services, and core faculty member of the Nutritional Sciences Program at UW. “It helps them envision the steps they could take to achieve the triple bottom line of improving environmental health, food security and public health.”

The UW research team conducted 26 in-depth interviews of key stakeholders within the region, and public agencies across the country, to understand the best ways the city can support food waste prevention and recovery goals. Researchers talked to eight anti-hunger agencies, five public agencies, one non-governmental organization, and 12 food-generating businesses.

The researchers came up with 11 key recommendations for the City of Seattle to increase food waste prevention and recovery. Among them:

  • Develop a food waste and recovery roundtable to foster a comprehensive approach across all sectors
  • Develop and implement standard food waste metrics
  • Make the case for reducing food waste from the consumer level to the food service industry
  • Increase infrastructure and capacity of the emergency food system

The report also identified the challenges faced by anti-hunger agencies, public agencies and food-generating businesses.

For anti-hunger agencies, the most cited challenge was inadequate storage space, particularly for perishables that are often the most nutritious items. Another challenge included difficulty in coordinating efficient pick-up or delivery of donations.

Challenges for public agencies ranged from a lack of coordination internally among individuals working on the food waste system to high employee turnover in the commercial sector that limits the training and technical assistance they can provide.

Food-generating businesses, such as grocery stores and restaurants, are challenged by customer expectations of quality of food, misconceptions about sell-by and use-by dates, and the unpredictability of consumer purchases. To reduce food waste, businesses have explored various strategies, such as waste audits and small-batch cooking. They have also gotten into the practice of keeping tight tabs on inventory and ordering as little stock as possible.

Results from this project can help public agencies to better support food waste prevention and recovery efforts in the future, according to the report.

The report also highlights the lack of common metrics used to determine how much food is thrown away and how much it is worth. Numbers would not only help incentivize, but also demonstrate impact, the report notes. However, few food-generating businesses in the study track their food donations and each anti-hunger agency used different metrics to do so.

“We really need a national language and some national metrics to understand the problem better and the effectiveness of solutions,” Otten says. Last week, a partnership of leading international organizations, including the United Nations, unveiled a global standard to measure food waste. It provides a set of definitions and reporting requirements for companies, countries and others.

“Food waste is a major environmental, economic and ethical problem,” Otten says. “We cannot afford to continue squandering our natural resources, in ways that severely impact the climate, by throwing away perfectly edible food.”

(By Ashlie Chandler)