National Spotlight: Italy

Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 5.1 million tonnes

Considering that food waste annually costs the national economy an estimated €12 billion, it is no surprise that Italy has been stepping up its efforts to save food from the garbage. Agricultural Minister Maurizio Martina has stated that he wants the country to recover one billion tons of excess food by the end of this year, and there are many new initiatives underway that could make his goal a reality.

italy1At the end of July, Italy’s senate reinvigorated the country’s food recovery policies by providing incentives for and removing bureaucratic hurdles associated with donating surpluses to charities. For instance, restaurants, retailers, and manufacturers must no longer declare each donation in advance but instead complete only one declaration for all donations made each month. Additionally, products can be donated after their sell-by dates; farmers can freely give excess produce to charities; and all food donors will be rewarded with tax reductions. Ministers hope that the law will save at least 1 million tons of food from going to waste each year.

The agricultural ministry has also been looking at reducing consumer waste. Much like France, Italy is home to strong anti-doggy-bag bias that stops many restaurant customers from saving the food they don’t finish in one sitting. The term ‘family bag’ is now being promoted to emphasize that leftovers provide families with delicious second meals and distance the idea from the negative connotation of dog food. Another campaign is researching new forms of packaging to preserve food better, especially during transit.

Unsurprisingly, Italy is home to many organizations that connect recovered food to hungry mouths. Rete Banco Alimentare is a national network of 21 food banks that redistributes donations from producers, restaurants, caterers, and retailers to nearly 9,000 charitable organizations throughout the country. The volunteer-based organization started in 1989 and, eight years later, launched National Food Collection Day, in which customers can buy food to be redistributed to charities. In 2013, more than 11,000 supermarkets participated in the annual event, allowing over 9,000 tons of food to be collected by 135,000 participants.

italy capreseAlongside government programs and charitable organizations, activists within the food industry are getting international attention for combating waste. Chef Massimo Bottura, head of the World’s Best Restaurant 2016 Osteria Francescana, made headlines at the Expo Milano and again at the 2016 Olympic Games for setting up soup kitchens that utilized excess food from the respective events to feed those in need. Another renowned Italian chef, Ugo Alciati, requires his customers to reserve at his restaurant and eat from a fixed menu to minimize the amount of food left in his kitchen at the end of each day.

Bravo, Italy! Dire di no a rifiuti alimentari.

Additional Sources:

Stephanie Kirchgaessner (The Guardian) – Italy Tackles Food Waste with Law Encouraging Firms to Donate Food

National Spotlight: Japan

Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 18 million tons in 2010, according to the Ministry of Agriculture

When global climate change awareness started gaining traction in the 1990s, Japan was quick to put recycling on the national agenda. Since then, its recovery and waste management policies have included innovative food waste solutions focused on repurposing would-be waste for animal feed and fertilizer.

japan recycling
Photo courtesy of Timothy Takemoto

The Food Waste Recycling Law (English summary here), passed in 2001, called for the development of national food loss reduction targets and standards for businesses as well as recycling promotion strategies. Six years later, the law was given more teeth: it assigned recycling volume targets by  food industry sector, required businesses to report their waste quantity and their recycling efforts each year, and encouraged collaboration between the food and recycling industries. These measures spawned Recycling Business Plans, aka “recycling loops,” to circulate resources. For instance, a retailer might pass its waste to a business that converts it into fertilizer or animal feed, which is then used to produce foods that the retailer purchases to sell. Much organic waste is also diverted to biofuel production.

Thanks primarily to the recycling law, Japan recycled 82% of its food waste in 2010. Nevertheless, food constituted 25-30% of municipal solid waste in that same year. A leading culprit for these disappointing figures is the “one-third rule” that many companies follow. Looking at a product from its manufacture to its best-by date, manufacturers must deliver the food to retailers within the first third of its lifespan, and it cannot be sold after the second third. So, a can of nuts manufactured in January 2015 with a best-by date of January 2017 a) has to be delivered to retailers by August 2015 and b) has to be purchased by April 2016 – otherwise, it’s thrown out. The annual values of food returns to wholesalers and to manufacturers based on date-expiration sum to more than ¥155 billion. In a few exemplary cases (16%), though, products past the sell-by period are sold at discounted prices, rather than trashed. Fortunately, Japan has been reexamining the unwritten “rule” over the last couple of years and extending shelf-life labels of shelf-stable foods such as canned products, bottled water, and packaged rice cakes.

japan sushiAesthetic perfectionism is another cause of waste that Japan is just starting to address. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that food rejected for purely visual reasons accounts for roughly one-third of the country’s annual waste. To call attention to this issue, the company a-dot has launched four distinct restaurants across Tokyo that specialize in using foods that are deemed “unsellable” by retail aesthetic standards. The project, called Mottainai (“wasteful”) Action, not only saves food from being tossed but also rewards producers and market vendors for their products (otherwise, they would have earned no profit for unsold food).

Finally, there is the Foodloss Challenge Project, launched in 2012 to analyze how and why food waste occurs and strategize what can be done about it. The project began with studies that examined food waste management practices at all levels of the food supply chain. Participants in the research (farmers, retailers, manufacturers, restauranteurs, chefs, consumers, etc.) not only learned about the economic inefficiency and ecological harms of waste but also brainstormed ways to raise public awareness and promote new practices to cut down on waste. The campaign then hosted a “salvage party” on household waste reduction tips in which consumers brought leftovers from their homes for on-site chefs to improvise into new dishes. Additionally, the project has launched extracurricular programs to teach children about waste as well as a sticker for retailers to affix to products approaching their expiration date to encourage customers to buy them sooner. Meanwhile, nonprofit food banks have become increasingly prevalent, redistributing unwanted consumer-, farmer-, and company-donated food items to people in need.

japanAlthough Japan still has a lot of work to do in the food waste prevention department, the country’s steps to improve waste management are laudable. Japan is worth keeping an eye on as it develops more mechanisms to deal with waste.

Keep pushing forward, Japan! 食品廃棄物にノーと言います.


Additional Sources:

Federica Marra (Food Tank) – Food Waste in Japan: How Eco-towns and Recycling Loops are Encouraging Self-Sufficiency

Kaori Iwashita and Junko Edahiro (Japan for Sustainability Newsletter) – The Foodloss Challenge Project, a Co-created Project on Food Loss and Waste

OECD – Preventing Food Waste: Case Studies of Japan and the United Kingdom

Preventing Waste vs. Eating Healthily: Is There a Conflict?

People need to learn how to eat better. Poor diet contributes to the two leading causes of death worldwide – heart disease and stroke – as well as a slew of other medical problems including obesity, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Without a doubt, promoting proper nutrition is one of the most important food policy focuses of our time. However, it is by no means the only issue.

I recently spoke with someone who is not entirely convinced of the importance of saving food. She understands the principle of preventing waste but cares far more about getting people to eat healthily. Her example: if a person were deciding between throwing away a half-eaten bag of potato chips or saving them, she’d say to throw them away. It’s not worth salvaging junk food that can wreak so much damage on our bodies, her logic goes. chips

As someone whose life’s mission is to fight food waste but also cares deeply about nutrition, I needed a moment to wrestle with this argument. Since I used to overeat in the name of preventing waste (here’s my reflection post about it), I know how the pretense of saving food can clash with healthy eating intentions. Many weight loss diets even explicitly say that people shouldn’t eat everything on their plates, since portion sizes tend to be excessively large. So, does trying to avoid waste mean making poor dietary choices? In a word, no. The keys are storage and smart decisions.

Back to the potato chip example: I say the eater should save the chips as leftovers. That way, the next time the person has a craving for salty, fatty food, he/she can have more chips from the bag, rather than buying a new bag (i.e. giving more money to junk food companies). Plus, with half the chips already eaten, the portion size is limited, whereas a brand new bag would present the temptation to devour all the chips at once. Alternatively, the remaining chips could be shared with friends or served at a party.

nutsBringing leftover junk food home seems like it just invites bad choices; but that’s where my “smart decisions” point comes in. Once food is in the home, it can lose some of its novelty, making it easier to moderate intake. Since the food will still be there tomorrow, there’s less temptation to overindulge now. Unhealthy cravings can be sated in moderation. Moreover, the root of the problem is buying potato chips in the first place. If you don’t want to consume so much sodium and fat, buy a healthier snack!

I realize my counterargument isn’t perfect, but neither is our food environment. Ideally, junk food wouldn’t be so prevalent, nor portion sizes so large, that we have to debate saving unhealthy food for later. Teaching people how to eat well can only go so far as long as we’re surrounded by unhealthy options.  Nevertheless, the pursuit of good nutrition does not have to undercut food waste reduction.

Who took my lunch, Mrs. Obama?

For students who love pizza, fries and hamburgers, being told to eat salads, whole grains and less sugar, can be shocking. To some it might even seem disastrous! Enough to make a few want to film a complaint video (at the off chance that it becomes viral and grabs media attention).

Well, that’s exactly what happened to a group of students whose school was forced to phase out fat, sugar and sodium rich meals for more healthy options. It was required by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

If you read the New York Times article by Nicholas Confessore, you’ll be surprised at how political this issue is. And when you start reading some of the historic procedures that created today’s diet problems, your jaw will swing open. Decisions made by Jimmy Carter to cut school-lunch subsidies, and Ronald Reagan’s decision to cut them even further, while also making some condiments passable for vegetables, paved a way for disaster.

And while these rules didn’t last long, the cuts and changes created a pocket of opportunity for big companies, who eagerly jumped at the offer to make more money. Fact is: “most districts required food service to earn enough revenue to cover expenses, including labor.” With less money to spend, and more mouths to feed, school officials and lunch ladies turned to cheaper calories. Pretty soon, schools in USA were making deals with McDonal’s, Chick-fil-A, and other fast food giants to start selling fast food meals directly to kids.

Legal Drugs

Sugar triggers a similar dopamine “reward” response in the brain as cocaine. (Photos: Radius-TWC)
Sugar triggers a similar dopamine “reward” response in the brain as cocaine. (Photos: Radius-TWC)

After years of eating fried, salty and sugar filled foods, cutting down this intake can give the body and the mind a shock, a withdrawal. (Sugar and cocaine light up similar parts of the brain.) But that’s not all. Replacing the menu from cheap calories, to more fresh and healthy ones, increases budget expenses. Whether or not the law was thoroughly discussed, it created a mess.

Students and many lunch ladies were not happy with new ‘healthy’ options. But the government, who sees the devastating effects fast food diets have on people, were surprised by the wave of criticism. Most of this criticism, unfairly, was geared at Michelle Obama. First Lady, mother of two and an intelligent woman, who wanted to clean up the culinary mess previous presidents left in school kitchens.

Sadly, there was one thing that corporations got right, that Mrs. Obama didn’t – they knew how to make us addicted. And have poured millions of dollars into research and advertisement to make sure we buy and crave their unhealthy products.

The Human Factor

Summer_kids_eat_lunch_saynotofoodwaste_healthy_food_students_-_Flickr_-_USDAgovSince fat, sugar and salt are difficult to find in nature, big corporations began piling ingredient like substances into our food to make them irresistible and cheap to produce. The result, we consume more sugar and salt than ever imagined. This is ruining our health! Things are so bad that a new military report said Americans are too fat to fight for their country.

But, we can use our humans nature to benefit us. People are social creatures, we mimic the behavior of people we like. We also shift our behaviors to adapt to larger groups. It means that, while new changes in school lunches have rubbed big corporations, lunch ladies and students the wrong way, with time, we can reap benefits from this law.


There are four recommendations I want to suggest to governments and schools faced with above mentioned dilemmas.

1. Use Celebrity Endorsements

Get famous individuals, local heroes or young actors to talk about healthy eating. It will encourage school kids to approach ‘healthy options’ with a more positive outlook if the people they look up to tell them it’s not a bad choice. When acknowledging mass advertisement campaigns kids see on TV and around shopping malls, encouraging them to grab a sugary and processed meal, we quickly realize that ‘healthy’ is up against a big, fat giant, and will need more than truth and facts to win.

2. Gather student input

No individual likes to be told what to do. It’s especially true of students who in the midst of identity crisis and power rebellions hate to see schools involved in their diet choices. Imagine how it would feel to have government tell you what you can or can’t eat. Instead of giving top-down instructions, it is best to give students back their voices and hear their feedback about these changes. Through surveys and interviews, we can learn what they hate the most, what they might like and where we can find a middle ground with food. Hearing their views will open up a dialogue, enriching the decision making process. This is part of the Collective Impact philosophy, which highlights that long-lasting change occur when all stakeholders have a say.

3. Make healthy fun!

School Breakfast and School Lunch at Washington-Lee High School Arlington, Virginia, saynotofoodwaste, eat healthy, sustainable, happyFood really impacts our behavior. Seeing a colorful plate of greens and veggies energizes the body. Truth is, we are visual creatures. We eat with our eyes first and assess quality long before we bite into something. A valuable thing to consider when serving food is the plate presentation. Adding color, shape and volume to served food will make students more eager to consume what’s given. Every lunch can become an adventure and a discovery of something new for the palate.

4. Educate students about food

Many people fear what they don’t know. Sadly, many parents stopped cooking at home due to time constraints. This means children are losing their knowledge about food. Without shopping for food, many don’t learn vegetables names, or how they need to be prepared and stored. They also don’t know what they taste like, unless served as processed food. It’s time to change the diets and the minds of youth, by expanding their knowledge of produce. Humans love to learn and share information. Where better to share this wealth of knowledge than at school cafeterias, with everyone gathered for a meal?

I look forward to seeing more thoughts and feedback from students, government officials and parents on this issue.

Healthy eating to all!