Food Waste Reduction at Google and Beyond: Back to Basics


Food Waste Reduction at Google and Beyond: Back to Basics

April 13, 2022

“Fireside Chat: Dana Gunders Talks to Emily Ma, Head of Food For Good at Google”

Thursday, April 7, 2022

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Can reducing food waste be more difficult than rocket science? Maybe not, but when an organization is serving tens of millions of meals per year at locations across the world, it can certainly be a complex issue. Recently ReFED Executive Director Dana Gunders sat down with Emily Ma, Head of Food For Good at Google (and a ReFED Board member) to discuss Google’s journey into food waste initiatives, the critical role of data, and how the pandemic helped spur action on food waste and food insecurity, among other topics. 

Building on their 2019 commitment to create a “circular Google to maximize the reuse of finite resources across [its] operations, products, and supply chains and enable others to do the same,” Google recently announced two big and important pledges around food waste. By 2025, they aim to cut food waste in half for each Googler and send zero food waste from their operations to landfill. Ma said that starting with an ambitious goal is difficult but necessary to create the type of transformative change needed in the food system. Google recognizes that they are in a position to influence and empower their peers and create a strong tailwind for the broader movement, so they are acting on it. 

The time was right for Google to announce these goals based on their efforts to track back-of-house food waste for nearly a decade, and the fact that between the stories of food going to waste and the rise in those facing food insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic had made food waste a top priority.  

Google started tracking their food waste internally in 2014 via LeanPath. They have been gathering data through spot audits and recently started monitoring the waste that is going into their dumpsters. Ma made the point that the idea is not for the data to paint a perfect picture, but rather to pull together all that they can from different sources and get as close as possible to an accurate portrayal of what is happening. From there, an action plan was made. Google used the Impact Calculator from ReFED’s Insights Engine to help determine which actions would make the most impact in terms of meals recovered, waste diverted, carbon footprint, and water footprint. 

After meeting with ReFED and discussing potential solutions internally, Google narrowed it down to a top 10 that they could begin implementing.  Ma described it as a “back to basics” approach where all the low-hanging fruit could be quickly harvested. This included turning back on basic tracking systems and reinstituting best practices that had not been relevant during the pandemic due to their workforce mainly working from home. She also mentioned strategies like having more shallow plates to decrease portion sizes and reinforcing just-in-time cooking to better align output with demand. 

Ma emphasized that food insecurity is a major motivator for Google to address food waste. “I have always believed that reducing food waste and reducing food insecurity are two sides of the same coin,” she said. Her main suggestion for facilitating more food recovery is to remove friction from the process for busy kitchen workers. Right now, it is often easier to toss food than to save it, and that should be a focus point for change. In the Bay Area, Google works with Chefs To End Hunger to backhaul a lot of their edible food that is not used at Google Cafes. 

In the end, food is wasted by people, and everyone has their own personal relationship with food. Finding the motivation to stop food waste can come from many places, but it is more likely to happen when there is a spotlight on the issue. Google is working to shine that light and to leverage the power of small actions that are done several times a day by everyone, from chefs to users, which can really add up over time. 

ReFED is a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system by advancing data-driven solutions to the problem. ReFED leverages data and insights to highlight supply chain inefficiencies and economic opportunities; mobilizes and connects people to take targeted action; and catalyzes capital to spur innovation and scale high-impact initiatives. ReFED’s goal is a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.

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