Sam Buck: Building Philanthropic Connections to Accelerate Change Across the Food System

Sam Buck: Building Philanthropic Connections to Accelerate Change Across the Food System


Sam Buck: Building Philanthropic Connections to Accelerate Change Across the Food System

  |   May 1, 2024

Sam Buck joined ReFED in 2022 as the Senior Manager of Development. He began his career in education fundraising. Working at several schools, including Stanford Graduate School of Business, he developed a passion for philanthropy and building long-term relationships to drive impact. “[At Stanford], I had the opportunity to audit a few classes that opened my eyes to how the levers of society—philanthropy, government, and business—can work together to create true, lasting systems change,” says Sam about his turning point.

This led him to pursue both an MBA and an MS in Sustainability at the University of Michigan, which is where he fell down what he jokingly calls “the food waste rabbit hole.” While in graduate school, he was able to design a food recovery business for a branch of the California Conservation Corps, a project that left him “fully bought in on food waste reduction as the single most powerful and underinvested solution we have to address climate change.”

While reducing food waste has been identified as a top solution to climate change—and despite the availability of many scalable solutions across the supply chain—the food waste reduction sector has traditionally been underfunded, particularly when it comes to philanthropic funding. But philanthropy, as Sam explains, is critical to the development and widespread adoption of solutions to reduce food waste, ultimately impacting the planet and its people for generations to come.

“The food waste movement is the perfect case study for how philanthropy can successfully catalyze change,” he explains. “We all know intuitively that wasting food is wrong. The connections that philanthropy made between people, organizations, and sectors helped illuminate that problem, creating a space for stakeholders to come together and drive change.”

It didn’t take long for Sam to realize that ReFED—an organization that relies on philanthropy to run its operations—was at the center of that stakeholder conversation. “Even when I was still learning about this in graduate school, it was clear to me that ReFED was going to play an outsized role in building the movement and providing credible information to decision-makers across the food system.”

Building connections between different stakeholders in the food system is a key component of ReFED’s work, and Sam is right in the center of many of those conversations. “I earmark time each day for what I call ‘you two should talk’ emails,” Sam explains about his daily routine. Because of ReFED’s nonprofit status, Sam’s relationships go beyond just funders, and often, his work encompasses telling the story about everything that’s going on at ReFED.

One project he works on to tell this story is ReFED’s Annual Impact Report, a yearly publication that he describes as “ReFED SparkNotes.” Designed to concisely show progress in food waste reduction over the previous year, 2023’s Annual Impact Report included information on one of ReFED’s biggest years yet.

In addition to releasing two major data updates to the Insights Engine—one in May and one in November—ReFED was a co-founder of the Zero Food Waste Coalition, a partnership between a number of organizations educating about policy solutions to reduce food waste in the United States. At COP28 in Dubai, ReFED also formally co-launched the U.S. Food Waste Pact, the first national voluntary agreement that utilizes the global “target, measure, act” framework to reduce food waste in businesses across the system, and announced the publication of Reducing Food Loss & Waste: A Roadmap For Philanthropy, a roadmap co-developed by ReFED that identified $300M in ready-to-fund philanthropic initiatives to reduce food waste globally.

At the end of last year, ReFED also secured $15 million in funding from Ballmer Group to expand its direct impact on food waste. These milestones scratch the surface of what Sam describes as “a banner year for ReFED.” And though it’s still early in 2024, Sam predicts that 2024 will set the bar even higher. “There’s a lot to be excited about right now,” he says of ReFED’s direction. “We’re entering what I call ReFED’s second chapter, which is all about putting actionable information in the hands of partners, so that they can shape effective legislation, deploy funding where it’s most needed, and adopt proven solutions.”

As for food waste reduction more generally, the momentum is only growing. “Governments, philanthropists, investors, and businesses have all given clear signals that they want to move fast and decisively on this issue,” says Sam. And because food waste reduction sits at the intersection of issues beyond the food system—climate change, food security, resource management, and nutrition, to name just a few—a cornerstone of the food waste movement will continue to be bringing people together and building connections.

“Our food system includes a massive range of stakeholders, each bringing its own super powers, motivations, limitations, and perspectives. And we need them all,” Sam explains. “Each stakeholder is holding a piece of the puzzle. ReFED’s job is to help them place it in the right spot.”

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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