Reducing food waste with $15m grant from the National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation has awarded $15m in grants in the fight towards reducing food waste and increasing food security.

In the US alone, almost 40% of all food produced is never eaten, leading to massive amounts of food waste, lost resources, financial costs to households and businesses, as well as decreased food security and negative climate impacts.

Studying interconnected systems

Currently, the US is working towards meeting the ambitious target of halving food waste by 2030, and this novel grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will be utilised to develop the nation’s first-ever academic research network on wasted food.

Through the grant, researchers from American University will lead 13 other institutions in a five-year project that aims to expand our comprehension of how the sources of food waste are interlinked and how they intersect with other regional systems beyond food. The researchers will take a systems approach to enhance data on food waste, with the objective of constructing and bolstering sustainable solutions to reducing food waste.

One of the institutions receiving funding is the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), which has been awarded $1.8m for an interdisciplinary project with community partners. Callie Babbitt, a professor of sustainability in RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS), will act as a co-principal investigator for the project titled ‘Multiscale RECIPES for Sustainable Food Systems’.

Incorporating food waste into the circular economy

“Our research will re-envision wasted food as a valuable resource as it relates to the circular economy,” Babbitt said. “RIT will collaborate with business and industry partners to explore and create solutions that maximise the healthy, nutritious food used to feed people, minimise costly inefficiencies, and recycle unavoidable wastes into bio-based products and clean energy that powers the regional economy.”

The project collaborators will deliver data and information on regional food system challenges and work with the network to develop solutions that diminish and recycle food waste and provide economic growth.

According to Babbitt, RIT’s attention will be centred on expanding current NSF food waste research and an NSF-funded workshop the university held in 2019. Researchers will examine novel technologies for recovering the energy, water, and nutrients contained in food waste in a circular economy framework, she added.

“We are studying their overall performance, economics, and ecological footprint,” Babbitt explained. “One issue, for example, involves food waste mixed with packaging, which is a contaminant during recovery. Some technologies can co-process both. But that might lead to micro-plastic releases to local ecosystems, which builds on Christy Tyler’s work on plastics in the environment.”

The five-year project will involve communities in California, and the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast regions. As well as RIT, research partners include the Maryland Institute College of Art, World Wildlife Fund, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, University of Albany, Louisiana State University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Illinois Institute of Technology, Duke University, and University of California-Davis.

Project areas

The NSF project encompasses work in a variety of areas and will involve communities and frontline workers in food industries, on top of nonprofit, government, and private-sector stakeholders.

  • Smarter data and predictive modelling – New math models can integrate data, take multiple factors into account and show the way to food systems solutions that balance sustainability, resilience, and equity outcomes
  • STEM K–12 and post-secondary education – A general education course and open educational resource, Wasted Food 101, and the first undergraduate student science journal on food systems will be created.
  • Strategies to minimise household-level food waste – Mapping trends and other digital tools will be used to assess wasted food and design educational and social marketing campaigns aimed at preventing waste and addressing the social determinants of health in communities.

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