Meet the MISFITS: Roni Neff
Tell us more about your program on food systems, sustainability and health at the Center for a Livable Future.
The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) is an academic center that has been working at the intersection of food systems and public health since 1996. The food systems sustainability and public health started in about 2013 and at that point I had the opportunity to really look around and say where are we going to put some major energy as we develop this program? Wasted food, it just totally seemed like THE place I needed to be and put a lot of energy in. It’s one of the three areas where our program is putting in a lot of energy and we’re doing research and we’ll be building up our policy and practice activities with some staff changes.
What are some things you are excited about that the CLF is currently working on to tackle food waste?
Currently we’re involved in several research projects. We just published this analysis on food waste and public health. We also published one looking at seafood waste through the supply chain and quantifying the amount of seafood that gets wasted in the United States. Some of our other projects are looking at the general loss of nutrition from the food that we waste. We had done this national consumer survey because the more we understand about how people think about wasted food the better we’re going to be at addressing it. We published one analysis, and we have another analysis that’s going to come out, looking at that data. So we’ve got those kinds of projects.
My hope is to start some broader level data collection that would enable some even larger projects looking at consumer food waste and policies related to wasted food. But then on the practice side, I think the sky is the limit so we are trying to bring our academic expertise to helping practice and policy efforts in whatever ways we can be supportive.
How are public health and food waste related?
Actually I just published a new article that exactly examines that. We focused on three main areas, food security, food safety and nutrition. First, in terms of food security, addressing wasted food is one way to close the gap between the amount of food we have and the amount of food we need, although there is still a challenge of distributing it. Second, in terms of food safety, there’s a tension between food waste and food safety and, when we’re not sure of how good the food is, are we going to take the risk and it eat or are we going to just throw it out? So on one side you risk the safety and on the other side you risk the food waste. The way I like to think about it, because I’m a public health person, is we want to prevent the food from going bad in the first place. We don’t want to have to struggle with having to make that decision. We also want to help people have some clarity in making those decisions. The third is nutrition. I think that there are a few commonalities between food waste and nutrition in terms of the sort of drivers within the food system that push over-supply of food. When you have too much food you either throw it away or eat it. Of course we could preserve it more but we don’t necessarily.
"We don’t plan ahead, we buy too much, our portion sizes are too big and all of those again lead towards both waste and overconsumption."
That’s where you guys come in. Even though there’s been a lot of innovation in terms of finding ways to profit from addressing wasted food, overall the incentive is for manufacturers and those in the food industry to get us to buy more than we need. Again that leads to both waste and over-nutrition. Another piece of that is how we as consumers deal with food, you know we don’t plan ahead, we buy too much, our portion sizes are too big and all of those again lead towards both waste and overconsumption.
Do you think that addressing food waste could be a catalyst for other types of social change?
Absolutely. That was kind of what we elaborated in the article—that in all these areas there are a lot of interventions that we could take that have these kinds of win-win effects. That’s a good way to bring on a lot of other partners to expand the efforts on wasted food.
What gets you really frustrated about studying food waste? What keeps you up at night related to this topic?
The first is when you think of the volume of food that’s wasted, it’s so vast and there’s so much that we could do, it’s just a matter of bringing together more person power, and more energy, and more funding to just tap what’s very low hanging fruit—that’s one piece of it. Then the other thing I guess that keeps me up at night is that sometimes it’s really hard, we think we have the solutions, but it’s always easier said than done.
On a more positive note, what gets you up in the morning? What gets you going? What excites or encourages you about the future of food?
I guess in some ways the same things that keep me up at night. Part of what drove me to these issues is that there’s so much possibility and there’s so much energy behind it that that makes this a place where we could really make a difference. That’s one piece of it and because it’s so challenging, it makes it engaging to work on.
"Part of what drove me to these issues is that there’s so much possibility and there’s so much energy behind it that that makes this a place where we could really make a difference."
What’s a personal way that you try to reduce consumption and waste?
One piece of what attracted me to this issue was because I was not a role model. So it’s an area that I work really hard on and the more that I know about it, the more effort I put into it. I think that for individuals maybe one of the best ways to reduce your own waste is to write down everything that you throw out for a week or two. Write what it is and maybe something a little bit about it and what led to that decision. If you look back at that at the end of a week or two you will have a road map for exactly what you need to do and you will be a little bit ashamed. We all are.
Roni recently attended the Paris Talks to discuss how more meat means more heat. Meat consumption, another environmental issue related to our food system, accounts for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Don't have a New Year's Resolution yet?! Make your Mondays meatless!