Will Curbing Food Waste Catch on in U.S. Philanthropy?

Food and agriculture sustainability is a hot topic in philanthropy, both in poverty and environment funding circles. But food waste is not a huge cause yet, aside from a recently unveiled program from Rockefeller. Mainly an international program, Rock’s latest move will take on waste in the U.S. 

The Rockefeller Foundation is a huge philanthropic player that has an interest in a wide set of issues—climate change, food security, resilience, health, global development. So while food waste is still not a very widespread cause for funders, it makes a lot of sense that Rockefeller recently kicked off YieldWise, a $130 million initiative that seeks to demonstrate how the world can halve food loss by 2030. Judging from the issue's traction in Europe, food waste could have a lot of potential for philanthropy and nonprofits in the States. 

While the Rockefeller program’s primary focus is Africa, more in line with its global development work, YieldWise recently ventured into the United States, where there is plenty of work to be done. We waste some $218 billion a year on food that’s never eaten, tossing out up to 63 million tons a year. 

Related: Waste Not, Want Not: Why the Rockefeller Foundation Is So Interested in Food Loss

The initiative’s latest project is supporting Feedback, a London-based nonprofit that has been fighting food loss in Europe since 2009, and is taking on American food waste for the first time this year. 

Feedback holds guerilla-style movement-building tactics, and is starting its work in the U.S. with "Feeding the 5000" events in major American cities, funded by Rockefeller and in association with 40 other groups. Feeding the 5000 will start its U.S. operations in New York, with each event feeding 5,000 members of the public for free with ingredients that would otherwise have been wasted. 

The tactic was a hit in Europe, where there’s a strong and growing food waste movement. This year, France became the first country to ban supermarkets from tossing unsold food, instead requiring them to donate it to charity. 

So far, the lens through which we view food waste has been largely rooted in combatting hunger, and it’s a bigger issue for lower-income Americans than you might expect, with Feedback citing 49 million Americans living in food-insecure households. 

But there are a lot of other reasons for philanthropy to get involved in the issue, especially related to climate and sustainability. A recent study found that up to 14 percent of agriculture-related emissions in 2050 could be curbed by improving management and distribution of food. Based on the response in Europe, it’s also an issue with traction, easy to grasp and even kind of fun. Food waste could become the next low-hanging fruit for American philanthropy to grab.

Other funders have woken up to this opportunity, working at a much smaller scale than Rockefeller. One is the Fink Family Foundation, which has made food waste one of its top priorities. Additional small funders that have kicked grants to this cause include the Agua Fund and the John Merck Fund. The New Venture Fund, a funding intermediary, has been involved in some of this work. It is the fiscal sponsor of the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders, a network with food waste on its radar.