Chatting with NRDC’s Food Waste Luminary, Dana Gunders

by Chris Hunt

Published: 5/05/16, Last updated: 5/24/19

On May 10, GRACE is proud to be joining a coalition of nonprofits, government agencies and civil institutions to host  Feeding the 5000 NYC, an event created to raise public awareness about food waste and to highlight solutions to the problem. In preparation for Feeding the 5000, we’ve interviewed several leaders in the bourgeoning US food waste reduction movement.

Recently, food waste has become a hot topic, capturing the attention of industry, advocates, policymakers and the public. While a number of factors were responsible for the emergence and rapid growth of the US food waste movement, it’s arguable that the most significant among them has been one woman: Dana Gunders. As a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Dana thrust US food waste into the collective consciousness with her 2012 report, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Since then, Dana has remained a tireless advocate for food waste reduction, spearheading NRDC’s efforts on the issue, and working with stakeholders across the supply chain to promote solutions to the problem.

This year, Dana published the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, a guide to food waste reduction for home cooks, served on the steering committee of ReFED to inform the production of its seminal report, Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste by 20 Percent, and launched Save the Food, a groundbreaking food waste PSA campaign created by the Ad Council and NRDC.

We’ve had the distinct pleasure of working closely with Dana on a number of food waste projects over the years, and are happy to present this interview with one of our favorite leaders in the movement.

You’ve been a pioneer in the movement to address US food waste; tell us about your work and NRDC’s ongoing efforts in this area.

Our work aims to triage the issue from a number of angles. First, we are trying to shift the cultural paradigm around wasting food so that it’s less acceptable. While this might take decades, it’s important because of the dispersed way in which wasting food happens. We are doing this through a campaign called Save the Food that we recently launched in partnership with the Ad Council (hopefully, coming to a billboard near you soon!). We are also still working to standardize the date labels on food so that they stop confusing people and leading them to throw perfectly good food away prematurely. And we’re working with Nashville, TN and possibly a couple other cities to create a replicable model for how cities might tackle food waste within their borders.

How did you get involved in the food waste issue?

I really stumbled upon it as part of a project on sustainable agriculture with the fruit and vegetable industry. At the time, I couldn’t believe the numbers because I thought if they were true, everyone would be talking about it. The more I dug in, the more I realized in fact they were true. This led me to write a report on the topic, and between that and all the other good work happening, I’m happy to say that these days it feels like everyone is talking about it!

What’s one thing about food waste that you wish more people knew?

It’s not all or nothing. Fixing just a small aspect of it — which is important because there is no one, single big aspect of it — does actually help make a dent in the problem.

We each have our own spheres of influence, and working through those, we can together be powerful.

What’s the best way for people to make a difference?

It sounds cliché, but start in your own life, whatever that means. If you’re the person who orders food for the office parties, start there. If you’re a teacher, perhaps educating your students about it. We each have our own spheres of influence, and working through those, we can together be powerful.

Do you have a personal favorite food waste reduction technique?

Right now, it’s putting a clear plastic mat under my one-year-old daughter’s high chair. I clean it before feeding her and then pick up everything she throws on the floor and put it back on her plate. The thing about wasting less food in your own life is that you need to create solutions that fit your particular situation!

Is there any particular food that you struggle to avoid wasting?

Cilantro. I wish stores would sell it by the sprig. I just can’t seem to use up the whole bunch, and since I really like it fresh, freezing it hasn’t been all that effective for my favorite dishes. I just today bought a cilantro plant at the store in the hopes that growing my own will help on this front.

What’s most needed in the food waste reduction space?

With so much happening on the food waste front right now, I believe we are really on the right track. Mostly we need time and continued momentum along with it, so that more and more people get on board and start making changes in their own lives, businesses and communities.

What role should government play in addressing food waste? Do you have any policy recommendations?

Most immediately, standardizing date labels is a policy that seems relatively easy to pass and implement. I would also love to see local governments spur action in their communities by embracing and adopting the US target to cut food waste in half in the next 15 years.

What’s most exciting to you in the food waste arena? Are there any compelling innovations? Any particularly inspiring food waste solutions?

I’m excited that this year, solutions that had only been ideas previously are really coming to life. Several businesses are finding ways to sell off-grade produce that was previously going to waste, businesses and policymakers are working towards standardizing date labels on food, and a national media campaign is finally out there to raise awareness in a broader cross section of Americans. We are really moving from ideas to action, and I’m thrilled to see the work maturing in that direction.

See more of Dana’s work at, read her book, the  Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, and follow her on Twitter @dgunders.

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