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Food Waste Around the World, Episode 47: USA

Food Waste Around the World is a Food Circle project to provide information and raise awareness about food waste. The project is designed as a series of interviews with students from different countries to understand how this issue is tackled and perceived around the world. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the globe, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Today we're speaking with Jeannette Phan from the United States of America

But first, let's add some context

Sustainable Targets: The USA is one of 193 countries in the UN to join the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, in fact, it was an integral part of instituting the 17 objectives which target social, environmental, and economic issues. These goals are mutually dependent and are held to measure the country's action towards achieving them by 2030 as they "reflect American values and anticipate the governing vision and key priorities articulated by the Biden administration." [1]

Country's Performance: With this said, a 2021 sustainable development report showed that states are not acting in an urgent manner and seem to be diverting from initial plans of reaching the SDGs. According to the report, the situation surrounding racial inequality, homelessness, access to affordable healthcare, and employment have gotten recognizably worse when compared to other places around the world. [2]


Hello, Jeannette! Thank you for participating in the interview. Before we start, could you please briefly introduce yourself?

Hi! My name is Jeannette, and I am Vietnamese-American. I have lived most of my life in Portland, Oregon, but spent a year and a half in western Montana where I was introduced to the world of food and sustainability. I moved to the Netherlands a little of a year ago, and I am so grateful to be here! I love the outdoors, aerial acrobatics, bouldering, and once a week, I volunteer my time at a local organic food gardening in Amsterdam that donates directly to the food bank for those facing economic challenges. I have a background in anthropology, and this upcoming fall, I will begin my master’s in Organic Agriculture program at Wageningen University, with a focus on Sustainable Food Systems.

Can you help give some background about the attitude towards food waste and sustainability in the USA?

With the U.S. being such an immense country, the overarching sentiments to food waste and sustainability are diverse as the different regions, cities, and communities that comprise the country. Still, there are some commonalities that I believe can be said about the U.S. as a whole. Food waste and sustainability is often viewed as a class issue, meaning the more economically stable you are, the more you can/are expected to enact sustainable practices into your life in the U.S. In this way, it is as if it is considered more like a luxury. I think this cultural norm in regards to food waste and sustainable agricultural practices is due in large part to the industrialized practice of agriculture in the U.S. which is seen as an equalizer in that it brought down food prices in the U.S. significantly, but also has caused us to overproduce, and the consumers to have the ability to needlessly overbuy.

Indeed, though the U.S. is certainly not the richest country in the world per capita, we spend the smallest percentage of our income on food compared to other developed countries: because food is cheaper. It seems contradictory that the average household in the U.S. produces a significant amount of food waste even when compared to these other countries.

In your opinion, what challenges does the USA face concerning the country’s sustainable development targets?

The work that we are doing in the U.S. to improve food waste has the feeling of a grassroots movement where it is continually growing but has yet to reach critical mass in impact. Even so, I will venture to say that every state and major city has a nonprofit working to fight food waste in creative and innovative ways. As strong as their causes and passion may be, I believe the biggest hurdle we face is that oftentimes, these efforts are limited as a result of a decentralized cultural movement. Even with composting, more and more communities on the municipal or county level are implementing compost bins that are separated and taken out just like the garbage and recycling. This is a great development, but it really depends on where you are in the U.S. Instead of all these initiatives leaning on each other and having strong, reliable network of knowledge and support, I think every new venture experiences what it is like to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, when they are starting to take action to make changes in their respective communities.

What can we learn from the American people? Could you tell us about their values, habits, or recipes that we could adapt and learn from to reduce food waste?

I think I can be critical about the sustainable food situation in the U.S., but it is because there is so much potential and desire for something better! It’s easy to distance yourself from your food in a place like the U.S., and I think there is a yearning for more connection. As more individuals and groups tap back into that, we call back to the collective memory of a time not that long ago that the U.S. was a young country with a lot of agriculture industry. Beyond that, not the least to mention native knowledge that has never gone away but has been often suppressed. I have experienced such consciousness, and it’s a beautiful thing. At the same time, there is a lot to learn and a lot of potential from innovative practices going on in the US, and many organizations whose main goal is to reduce food waste in the community with embedded cultural practices. The values and practices are there; they just need to be brought more to the forefront.

Do you know of any significant organizations that are tackling food waste? Who’s doing good work to tackle this problem? Who should we support and get involved with?

The one that comes to mind is DC Central Kitchen located in Washington DC. They do great integrative and impactful work in their community. Focusing on more vulnerable populations that would have few other places for support. What I especially admire about their work is how specifically catered it is to their communities’ needs. It’s people-oriented; it’s not complicated. I highly recommend taking a look at what they’ve done, and I know for a fact that they have inspired many other organizations across the country with their effectiveness and more whole-picture systems approach.

Based on what we talked about reducing food waste, what’s the most frustrating thing to you about food waste?

As I alluded to above, I disagree with the narrative that changing habits about food waste reduction and making decisions for more sustainable food is connected only to money and class. Some of the most effective practices I have found in my own household come at a very low monetary cost to me, and it only took a bit of learning of new practices and unlearning of bad habits. If we can learn and then enact these practices into our lives, it just becomes normalized. There’s so many ways to go about it, so it doesn’t have to be a linear solution.

Due to your perspective about reducing food waste worldwide, what do you recommend people do differently?

I want to emphasize the power of the consumer, the power in numbers and our buying power can really dictate the market and the supply. To me, that’s where it starts, and we cannot diminish the effectiveness of ourselves when we come together, because ultimately, the changes need to come culturally and institutionally.

Thank you so much for your time and participation!

That was a conversation with Jeannette Phan from our Project Coordination team at Sapient.

Interviewed: Jeannette Phan

Interviewer and Writer: Rima Qayed


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