Meet the MISFITs: JoAnne Berkenkamp / by Ann Yang

JoAnne Berkenkamp is a Senior Advocate in the Food & Agriculture Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  After two decades of experience working to develop healthier and more sustainable food systems, JoAnne decided to focus her energies and expertise on food waste.

How did you first become passionate about the food system?

I started working with food and agriculture issues in the late 1990s.  I had my first taste of it through a connection with the Kellogg Foundation, which at that time was the predominant funder in the sustainable agriculture and food systems arena.  I had an opportunity to assess efforts all over the United States that ranged from consumer education, to regional food systems, policy efforts, food enterprise development, supply chain development and so forth. It was a wonderfully deep dive into the state of the food system in the United States.  Once I got into food systems work, I’ve never looked back.

Prior to working on food issues, what was your main area of focus? 

I actually got my professional start in investment banking.  Thereafter I went overseas and worked for a large international development agency through field programs all over Africa, Asia and Latin America.  After that, I dove into environmental and agriculture work. 

Having worked on international and domestic issues in your career, how did you come to have your specific focus be on wasted food in the United States? 

A report crossed my desk in 2012 that really changed the direction of my professional career.  That report was called “Wasted” and it was written by Dana Gunders of the National Resource Defense Council.  When I read that report I was so floored to hear about how much food was going to waste. It really put my own work in food systems into a new context.  I contacted Dana and I said, “You don’t know me, but I think the work you’re doing is amazing and I would love to be in conversation with you about it.”  One thing led to another and I started working with NRDC about a year ago.

 "I contacted Dana and I said, 'You don’t know me, but I think the work you’re doing is amazing and I would love to be in conversation with you about it.'  One thing led to another and I started working with NRDC about a year ago."

Are you hopeful that new federal legislation on food waste and the new US target to cut food waste in half by 2030 will usher in progress on food waste nationally?  Does consumer awareness have to be a part of the formula? 

I am quite optimistic about that.  The new US goal to reduce food waste by fifty percent by 2030 is a critical development in the food waste sector.  This is the first time the U.S. has put a stake in the ground by creating a national goal on food waste -- and it’s a very ambitious one, it’s long term, it’s audacious.  It says that this issue matters on a national level and that it’s time for us to rally around making long-term change.  The change needs to happen not only within the federal government, but particularly with business and with consumers. 

When you look at where food waste is occurring, something like forty percent of it is occurring in consumers’ homes.  Consumers are really critical to this and we need them to be part of the solution.   By the same token, we need grocers, restaurants and other food-related businesses to do their part as well.

On the policy front, the omnibus spending bill that passed the U.S. Congress a few weeks ago included a key provision to foster more food donation to people in need.  It expands federal tax deductions for food donations by entities like small and mid-size farms, independent grocery stores and restaurants, small chains and franchises that are not C corporations.  It also provides those tax breaks on a permanent basis and improves the way they are calculated.  That policy change was definitely a step in the right direction for expanding food donations and should encourage more businesses across the country to be part of the solution.

"This is the first time the U.S. has put a stake in the ground by creating a national goal on food waste."

Can you please tell me what you found most interesting about your recent study “Beyond Beauty: the Opportunities and Challenges of Cosmetically Imperfect Produce?”

The Beyond Beauty Initiative looks at the issue of imperfect fruits and vegetables and the potential to develop markets for it, particularly among college and university food service buyers.  Beyond Beauty is a collaboration between my consulting firm (Tomorrow’s Table) and the Real Food Challenge

We’ve been researching the issue through the eyes of farmers that grow fruits and vegetables, distributors and fresh cut processors that cut it and distribute produce, and college food service providers in Minnesota.  We’ve been able to do that with the support of USDA.  It’s been a fascinating process. 

We’ve spent a lot of time interacting with farmers in Minnesota to understand their perspective on imperfects and we’ve found a number of things.  One is that nature produces a significant volume of product that is a little too big or too small or misshapen to meet today’s commercial standards around cosmetic perfection.  We found in Minnesota that it typically ranges up to twenty percent of growers’ production and can be higher in years with bad weather. 

We’re talking about product that is different due to its appearance only and is just as fresh and tasty as what you’d normally see in the grocery store.  There’s a lot of that imperfect product that never makes it off the farm.  We also saw that farmers are interested in selling more of what they grow.  The lack of attractive markets is generally identified as the biggest barrier.  Please stay tuned, as we will issue research about the fresh-cut processing and foodservice pieces of the puzzle this summer, along with lessons learned from Minnesota’s emergency food system about using imperfect produce.

Is there anyway the federal government could incentivize farmers to do more with “seconds?” 

There are a number of things the federal government could do.  Key strategies for using more imperfect produce are to add value to it by processing it or through innovative marketing that makes a virtue of imperfection.  There are many government grant, loan and loan guarantee programs that could support those efforts whether directly with individual farms or, more likely, through businesses that would aggregate larger supplies of imperfect fruits and vegetables to be processed.

Also, the available data about the availability of imperfect produce is very limited.  At a national level, we don’t really know how much produce is involved.  USDA should fund a comprehensive research effort to document those losses and their causes so that we can really get a solid picture of what’s happening on the ground nationally. 

Federal agencies should also help expand the capacity of the emergency food system to handle donations of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy, perishable foods.  Capacity can be particularly limited among food shelves, pantries and shelters, especially so in rural areas.  They often have limited refrigeration and freezer space and need training for volunteers.  We need to make sure that donations of perishable foods are scaled up in synch with the system’s ability to handle those donations.  That will be key to getting more healthy choices to people in need across the country.

What is the food justice issue, beyond food waste, you’re most passionate about? 

Ultimately, so many issues are rooted in barriers to economic opportunity and people having the income they need to maintain a complete and healthy diet.  Ultimately, those are some of the underlying issues that need to be addressed.  In the near term, we clearly need to expand access to healthy foods that are culturally appropriate, and that are available in ways that work for people’s lifestyles.

I think imperfect produce could be part of that solution.  I see so much produce that is really high quality, but it gets rejected because it’s not quite perfect enough.  That’s a crazy reality at a time when the vast majority of American aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables.  If we can find ways to connect that product with a wide range of consumers it could be a win-win solution not only for farmers and for people who lack access to fresh, high quality produce, but also for the environment as well.

Environmentally, when produce is grown, water is being used, agricultural chemicals are being used, labor is being used, greenhouse gases are emitted.  All of that goes to waste when the food itself goes to waste.  If we can do a better job making sure the food we’re growing actually gets to people, it could be a win-win for both food equity and a healthier environment.

"If we can do a better job making sure the food we’re growing actually gets to people, it could be a win-win for both food equity and a healthier environment."

Our favorite thing about NRDC is how accessible the materials are.  You are able to make complicated issues such as food waste surprisingly digestible.  What is your favorite part about working at the NRDC?

NRDC is an amazing place.  Staff here are smart and focused, and there’s a real commitment to doing the hard, sustained work that is needed to effectively tackle tough issues.  NRDC is very much a science-based organization and I find that there’s a strong sense of integrity in the way that our work is pursued.  I’m honored to be part of a team that packs such a powerful punch.