Meet the Waste Watcher

NRDC scientist Dana Gunders has written the book on the mounting problem of food waste.

Growing up, Dana Gunders remembers more than one dinner at which her parents embarrassed her in front of friends. They would suck on chicken bones to get all the meat off or swirl water around in the jar of pasta sauce to make sure every last bit wound up in the pot—not in the trash.

Dana Gunders in the kitchen
Photo by Aaron Draper

But even though frugality was part of her upbringing, Gunders never imagined she would become the queen of food-waste awareness.

After living on a host family’s subsistence farm in India during her years studying at Stanford University, Gunders grew intrigued by the idea of food as a powerful and unifying global force. She went on to earn a master’s degree in sustainable business practices, and—following a few stints at other organizations, including Fair Trade U.S.A.—she wound up at NRDC, helping farmers find a way to measure their environmental impact using the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops.

“I was coordinating the metric around waste and was shocked to learn that up to 40 percent of the food produced in this country is never eaten,” she says. “I thought, Oh my gosh, this can’t possibly be true.”

Gunders kept digging. For the next two to three years, she dissected each stage of the food supply chain to figure out exactly what was driving these astronomical waste numbers. “I started asking producers to verify the data, and they’d just say, ‘Yeah, that sounds about right,’ ” Gunders says. “I was surprised both by the affirmation and by the nonchalance.”

She compiled her findings into a report and brought it to NRDC's executive director, Peter Lehner. The original title, Gunders remembers, was something along the lines of "The Inefficiencies of the U.S. Food System: Understanding Drivers and Working Toward Solutions."

Lehner told her, "This title is so boring I can’t even get through it," and walked away, Gunders recalls with a laugh. 

The rebranded 2012 report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” is anything but boring. Among the most eye-opening findings is that more than 20 pounds of food per American goes uneaten each month, which equals a loss of $165 billion a year—not to mention all the unnecessary energy, water, chemicals, and land used during production. Similar stats had been reported previously by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Jonathan Bloom in his book American Wasteland, but Gunders' research sparked a media blitz. “Maybe there were no big world events on August 21, 2012, but for whatever reason, the story was picked up by every major news outlet,” Gunders says. “I’d barely ever spoken to a reporter before, and all of a sudden I was being interviewed on CNBC.”

From Gunders' research, we can also learn that we’re 50 percent more wasteful today than we were in the 1970s. Gunders suspects there are multiple factors behind this. Food has gotten cheaper, so we worry less when we throw it out, and many of us don’t cook or we cook half-prepared food—like frozen dumplings from Trader Joe’s. We no longer stress the importance of basic cooking knowledge. “Even just the ability to whip something up using whatever we have in the fridge is rarer today than it was a few generations ago,” Gunders says.

Americans also have misconceptions about expiration dates that cause them to toss food before it’s actually spoiled. This particular problem sparked Gunders to work with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic to release a follow-up report in 2013 called “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” In it, she stresses that manufacturers aren’t necessarily saying food shouldn’t be eaten once it’s past the date printed on the package. “Those are just suggestions for peak quality,” Gunders says. “You might still have days, weeks, or even months before the food is bad.”

Gunders believes many Americans are too disconnected from the origin of their food and don't understand how many resources actually go into producing the now-wilted greens in the crisper or the half-plate of restaurant leftovers they don’t bother taking home. “There’s a cultural paradigm that essentially makes it OK to toss food out,” she says. “The same people who think it’s awful to throw an empty potato chip bag on the sidewalk might not think twice about throwing a full one in the trash can.”

Thanks to the conversation Gunders helped spark, attitudes are starting to shift—witness chef Dan Barber’s March 2015 food-scrap pop-up restaurant WastED in New York City, the USDA’s FoodKeeper app, or the buzz-garnering documentary Just Eat It. But she still believes more people need to be mindful of this issue. “Because food waste is so under our radar, the situation is actually hopeful,” she says. “As soon as people start to pay attention, they can have an impact.”

To keep things cooking, Gunders wrote Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook—a guide to smarter shopping, storing, and cooking strategies—published by Chronicle Books in September 2015 and worked on a national food-waste campaign with the Ad Council, the nonprofit behind the Smokey the Bear’s forest-fire warnings and Iron Eyes Cody’s pollution-provoked tear. 

She's also spreading awareness and furthering research efforts by helping forge partnerships between concerned people and institutions outside of NRDC. “Because NRDC put out that keystone report, we’ve become a hub for everyone who wants to engage,” she says. “I'm proud to be able to play that connector role. It just amplifies our impact.”

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