In 1848, a catastrophic fire broke out in the fur-trading city of St Louis, MO, spreading from the docks on the Mississippi River into the city itself. It quickly became clear the flames could not be controlled, and soon the whole city would be ablaze. That is when city officials, led by the fire marshal, made the tough and unconventional decision to demolish all of St. Louis’s Second Avenue to create a firebreak – a forward-thinking move that saved what was left of the city. Today, the famous Gateway Arch sits on the former site of Second Avenue.
It was in the shadow of the Arch that ReFED Executive Director Dana Gunders opened the 2023 Food Waste Solutions Summit with a simple message that was once embraced by the St. Louis fire marshal – think bigger. Are we at the point where the fight against food waste should be growing beyond a “movement,” where the level of work is commensurate with the opportunities that solving it will present? Being clear about the scope of the issue – telling the story as accurately as we can – can lead to more funding, more business initiatives, more policies, and more action towards creating a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system.
And the way to create that action is by building a bigger and more connected community, doubling down on our commitment to do the right thing, and working as small but mighty catalysts for real action. Reducing food waste has many solutions, and it all begins with a strong community making the commitment to work together. That means entrenching values of inclusion and diversity, as well as the willingness to prioritize pre-competitive sharing and open dialogue. As we heard many times throughout the Summit, and first from Flashfood President & COO Nicholas Bertram, “We are not competing against each other – we are competing against the problem.”
An area for increased commitment is the funding of food waste solutions. The simple message from Summit attendees was that there is not enough investment happening in the space. This is a major concern, not just for the food waste space, but for climate action writ large. As ReFED’s Vice President of Capital, Innovation, & Engagement Alex Coari pointed out, the amount of funding in the space does not align with the scale and impacts of the issue – even while the size of the food waste opportunity is becoming more and more evident. According to mainstage panelist Eric Turner of Drawdown Fund, food waste investments offer “massive impact” and are “very, very scalable. A lot of good investment opportunities in the space.” ReFED aims to spark additional funding into the space through resources like the Catalytic Grant Fund, which recently announced the organizations receiving funding as part of its first open call – many of which were represented at the Summit. Also as announced at the Summit, ReFED will soon be adding data on philanthropic funding to its Food Waste Capital Tracker tool, to highlight the impact that philanthropic funders have had – and the many funding gaps that still remain.
Catalyzation was another powerful concept that energized Summit attendees, as many discussions focused on the need to accelerate action and create transformative change. Attendees explored various ways to spark progress, not only through policy and innovation advancements, but crucially through education and awareness to catalyze behavior change among consumers and businesses. Storytelling was identified as the most effective way to spread awareness.
As Summit keynote speaker Stephen Satterfield told the audience, “There is nothing more powerful in the world than stories – that is the most powerful form of power that exists.” In that spirit, the keynote session featured a discussion of power and inclusion, and individual sessions on the intersection of food waste with issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) allowed for open-mic style discussions, in which space was made for anyone to share stories, learnings, and ideas for improvement. [ReFED will be continuing this discussion in the coming month, as we release a landscape assessment exploring the link between food waste and JEDI and host a webinar to present its findings along with further opportunities for learning.]
The food waste community is small but mighty, and while it continues to grow, Satterfield urged us to ask ourselves who is missing? “An exploration into omission is revelatory,” he stated. “It will tell you who has the power, and where the power lives based on who is omitted from the story.”
If we were to explore the story of food waste today, who and what is being omitted? How can we make space for those people to join the movement and work together to grow the movement in a just, equitable and inclusive way? Ultimately the most powerful solution to food waste will be making sure everyone is able to tell their story and connect with the deeper value of food and community. By leading with these values, we can help ensure that all solutions to food waste will reach their full potential.