Penn grad students create challenge to reduce food waste

Every year in the United States, 133 billion pounds of food get discarded, amounting to more than 30 percent of the total food supply or an estimated 141 trillion calories lost.

One group at Penn is trying to raise awareness about the issue, which encompasses more than just products going uneaten. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, discarded food in landfills is the third largest worldwide emitter of carbon behind the United States and China.

Students in “Global Pennovation,” a course in the Organizational Dynamics master’s program, created the Zero Food Waste Challenge, a social media campaign to engage a broad audience on the subject, including those often excluded from environmental conversations. Their work culminated in a booth at the Philadelphia Farm and Food Fest, a brochure detailing food waste statistics, and a video. 

“The co-existence of wasted food and hunger just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” says Steven Finn, of Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies, who taught the class. “When you present people with the data, the light bulb often goes off. That’s kind of what happened here.”

Finn offered a few topic proposals, but the graduate students gravitated toward food waste. They were tasked with figuring out how to present it and where, as well as who would lead—as close to a real-world workplace experience as possible.

“We wanted to do something that could be actionable that could make a small difference,” says Juliet Shen, who is working toward her master’s in liberal arts. “When you’re wasting food, you’re releasing carbon into the atmosphere. You’re also wasting the water and energy and manpower that went into growing the food. We thought that was interesting to focus on.”

Rather than concentrating on scare tactics promoting irreparable harm to the planet and its inhabitants, the class elected to share how an individual could help. To that end, they created an upbeat Facebook page and a list of tips to avoid food waste at home. At the Farm Fest, they engaged with as many people as possible.

Through the process came self-reflection, too.

“I consider myself environmentally savvy and I already know about food waste, but when I looked at what I was doing in my daily life, I was wasting a lot of food,” Shen says. “We live in a consumerist culture. We like to shop. We also lead fairly busy lives; you might buy something and just not have time to cook it.”

Shen says she’s trying to make changes due to this raised awareness.

“I don’t think anyone is really immune to this issue,” she says.

This is the fourth year Finn has led Global Pennovation. Previous topics have included sustainable cities, water security, and food security. The overall theme of this year’s course was the intersection of food, water, and energy.

“It’s been great to see the impact that these classes have had on the students,” Finn says. “Many have very poignant moments of behavior change. [That] makes me feel that we’re on the right track in terms of creating future sustainability leaders.”

Zero Food Waste