People of IonE: Jennifer Schmitt and the multifaceted fight against food waste
Jennifer Schmitt, program director and lead scientist for the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, has no typical day. Whether it’s collaborating with other researchers or meeting with IonE Director of Partnerships & Development Jan Gerstenberger to discuss future opportunities, there’s no question Schmitt has her hands full at NorthStar. Inside and outside of IonE, Schmitt advances research and engagement about complex issues near and dear to her heart, just one of which is the food wasted throughout Minnesota, the United States, and the world.
Recently, Schmitt collaborated with IonE Fellow and College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences Professor Hikaru Peterson and CFANS Ph.D. student Vanee Dusoruth to estimate a local food waste baseline, examining national, regional, and local studies to estimate the amount of food that is discarded, diverted, and landfilled in Minnesota. The research is significant not only for the scientific community, but also for all consumers. Below, Schmitt gives us a taste of what inspires her as a researcher, what she recommends we do to reduce our own food waste, and how she hopes IonE will help lead the way to a lower-waste, more sustainable future.
First, let’s talk about the paper you recently contributed to with Peterson and Dusoruth. As you tailored your research to focus specifically on Minnesota food waste, in what ways did you see Minnesota differ from the rest of the nation? In what ways were the results similar?
In the creation of food waste, Minnesota is largely the same as the rest of the United States. We do have more agriculture than many areas and a fair number of food processors, but with 40 percent of food waste occurring at the household level, Minnesota food waste is like other U.S. household waste.
That being said, I believe Minnesota differs in the opportunities for addressing the food waste problem. We have large food industry corporations in our backyard that are working on this issue, and a hotbed of sustainability focused companies and many local governmental entities working on food waste solutions. And in the University of Minnesota, we have a leading R1 institution with remarkable scientists working on agriculture, animals science, waste to energy, and soil health. Last but certainly not least, we have communities that value our natural resources and demand composting options. All of these merge to make Minnesota an ideal place to solve the problem of food waste.
Residential losses account for the largest amount of food waste – not just in Minnesota, but nationwide. What is the significance of this finding? And what do you believe are some opportunities to reduce food waste in homes?
Yes, households are the biggest source of food waste. This makes the problem of food waste very difficult in that the problem is dispersed and the waste is co-mingled with other waste. Even when sorted for curbside composting, the food waste is mixed with items such as paper towels that limit the alternatives to landfilling. Obviously you cannot recover food waste for hunger relief, but when contaminated with non-food items such as napkins you also cannot recover the food waste for animal feed.
As for some opportunities to reduce waste in homes, I think we need to demand curbside composting. We also need to demand smaller portions at restaurants to cut down on waste there – or the waste when we bring home the food and don’t eat it. Which reminds me – eat your leftovers!
Past research has found that food waste accounts for about 2 percent of U.S. energy consumption. Many people might not draw this connection, and I’m wondering: What do you see as the significance of this figure?
The important thing to remember about food waste (or any waste) is that in order for it to get on your plate, food required lots of inputs: water, nutrients, energy, land, money, and many more. All of these inputs are being used for something that we are just throwing away! How crazy is that?
So if we think about 2 percent of all energy consumption in the economy being used for food waste – that’s the equivalent of running 112,000 wind turbines for a year. The significance here is that decreasing food waste systemically can have savings in many areas, including energy use (and thus carbon emissions), water use, and money.
What motivates and inspires you as a scientist and a researcher?
Bringing about positive change in our world. My academic career path has always been focused on getting the skills and knowledge to make a difference. Initially I was focused on environmental improvements, but I increasingly find myself drawn to the intersection of social and environmental change.
What’s ahead for you?
I’ve just joined the board of the Food Recovery Network, and I plan on using my growing networks in hunger relief along with my work and partners focused on the environmental issues of food waste to help Minnesota become a leader in food waste reductions at all points of waste in the supply chains.
I plan to use this area of research to foster collaborative science and humanities research that does more than provide the technical fixes to food waste, but that brings the scientific and economic solutions to the ethnographic reasons why we waste food. Ultimately, I am determined for IonE to be a key player in the research and solutions to food waste.
Grace Becker is the IonE Communications Assistant and an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she is studying Strategic Communications, Spanish, and Sustainability Studies.