Solving the Food Waste Problem with ReFED’s Coari (Transcript)

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360’s NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:25] Liz: Hi everyone, I want to make sure that you all know that WasteExpo Together Online registration is open. You can go to WasteExpo.com to register, check out who’s speaking, and the amazing content we have lined up for you guys. We’re super excited and know you will be too.

Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Alex Coari, Director of Capital & Innovation at ReFED. She’s also one of our steam 2020 40 Under 40 winners, we’re thrilled to have her with us today. Welcome, Alex, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:59] Alex Coari: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Liz.

[00:01:01] Liz: We usually start at the beginning, can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you found your way to ReFED?

[00:01:08] Alex: Absolutely. My background is actually a bit eclectic, or so I’m told. I actually started my career on Wall Street working as an investment banker, mostly focused on emerging markets and industries that really are not related to food at all. I was actually focused on metals, mining, oil, gas, and the financial institution market. Food didn’t really seem to be in the future for me at that point in my career, but food had always been a personal passion point. As I got a bit burnt out from years working on Wall Street, decided to shift things in my career a bit, and moved into the sustainable food supply chain certification space with Fair Trade USA. That was really my first foray into working in the food industry.

I completely became enamored with the industry, with the players, with the tangible nature of the work. Being able to taste, and smell all of the hard work that we did on a daily basis. After a handful of years doing that work, really got the bug to work in the innovation and startup space. Wanted to figure out how to use market based approaches through business to solve challenges related to topics of food.  Spent a couple years working in startup acceleration space. Actually, worked at a health and wellness startup before going down to Latin America, and working with social entrepreneurs down there.

When I came back to the states, back in the beginning of 2018, I did some thinking about what a recruiter had once told me, which is looking at all of this mix of experiences and skills that I had. He wasn’t sure if I wanted to make money, or if I wanted to make an impact in the world. It was that point in my life that I started to realize that I rejected that notion that I would have to pick between the two. I found that the food industry, particularly the waste industry when I heard about this opportunity at ReFED to become the director of Capital & Innovation, was really a great marriage of being able to make money. I’m not talking personal money, I’m talking about business profits, savings for consumers, helping startups grow their business, but also doing good in the world.

We all know about food waste, and how food waste has negative impacts on climate change. If we fight food waste, we can start fighting climate change, we can start creating jobs, we can start providing food to the hungry. It’s a really perfect match of making money, or making economics work, and making an impact. I was really excited to find this opportunity in the waste industry.

[00:04:05] Liz: That’s great. What a great use of your skill set coming from the financial sector to really view this as a business, I love that. ReFED has really had its hands full during the pandemic, can you tell us a little bit about how it impacted the work that you’re doing there?

[00:04:25] Alex: Yes, absolutely. Food waste has been a problem for a long time. Before COVID came around, everybody knows the stats were wasting about a third of our food, and yet 40 million Americans plus are experiencing food insecurity and hunger on a daily basis. This dichotomy has been around for a while, but really because of COVID, a lot of the weaknesses in our system have been exposed, they’ve been exacerbated.

The work of ReFED has continued how it used to be, but we have had to make some changes. For instance, the heart and soul of what we do at ReFED is really all about putting data, and economics to the topic of food waste to really understanding how much food waste is happening out there. More importantly, what are the viable solutions, scalable solutions to the topic, and then, what is necessary to get the right players to the table to start solving this problem.

That has stayed the same no doubt, but when COVID hit, we actually had to parallel path a couple of existing projects that we had planned for the year, and add some new projects to really meet the moment, I would say, with COVID. I think the best manifestation, and example of that is this year ReFED really had planned to focus primarily on the development of what we’re calling our insights engine, which is a generational leap in our original 2016 roadmap to reduce US food waste. We were going to spend a lot of time, and energy on that.

We have been spending a lot of time, and energy on that. But at the same time, when COVID hit, we started to realize that there was a real need in the market, and a value that ReFED could play given our skills, and expertise by launching our COVID-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund, or what became that fund because we were seeing that funders out in the space really wanted to start to put their money to work, to help food recovery organizations fight food waste, also help fight hunger.

We all saw the pictures, and the videos of those long lines of food banks, and food pantries, as unemployment was picking up really needing emergency, and supplemental food services. We knew at ReFED, that we had the network, and the connections to be able to help those funders get those monies to organizations in need much quicker than they could do on their own. We launched the fund, I’m really excited to say that we were able to raise more than three point five million dollars. We ended up re-granting that over the course of just three months to more than 37 organizations around the country.

It’s been a fantastic example of how donors, and food recovery organizations can come together really quickly to solve this problem, and do something in the immediate board solving food waste, and hunger. At the same time keep things going internally at ReFED on our standard strategy that we had planned for this year. It really did require all hands on deck to put a new project in place to really meet the moment. We didn’t want to miss that moment, that’s why we did that.

[00:07:38] Liz: What a moment, such an impact. Last I had heard, the fund had distributed three million, you crushed. [laughs]

[00:07:48] Alex: It’s been exciting, it’s been a lot of work, but it’s been one of the most rewarding things I think I’ve done in my career so far. Our work it’s really the organizations that are on the front lines doing the hard work every day of getting that food, recovering that food, and giving it to people in need. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, we’re really just here to help facilitate the work that they do.

[00:08:11] Liz: That’s great, amazing. Speaking of COVID, do you think people in general would carry the lessons learned during the pandemic with them beyond the pandemic around food waste? What people have learned? There seems to be a heightened awareness of food waste now, are you seeing that?

[00:08:32] Alex: I am starting to see that. What gives me, and what has been giving me a lot of hope is that even before COVID hit, you were starting to see real interest, and recognition, particularly from new segments of funders that could come into the space, help to fight food waste, and scale solutions. Primarily, I’m talking about climate funders, who we’re starting to recognize that the power of the fight against food waste has a really big impact on our ability to fight climate change, so those funders were really already starting to see this space.

When COVID started to hit, I think hunger funders were really motivated. Other players in the food space were starting to put money to work to help scale solutions that really, I think, would shift the food chain going forward and hopefully become more resilient in the future. I’m really excited about this growing recognition and work being actually done by climate funders to recognize that all of this challenge is related with climate, with our food system, our health system, and the outcomes that we want to achieve there with continuing to improve nutrition of our population.

There’s a lot of intersect there, so I’m really excited to see more players coming to the table. Some of the innovations and scaling of solutions that probably would have happened 10 years ago have really just accelerated the need for those and the ability for those to happen much sooner. It’s going to take capital to do that, so I think that’s why I focus a lot funding, because it takes money to make money, and it takes money to make an impact.

It’s exciting to see that more and more individuals, foundations, firms are wanting to focus their efforts on supporting what I hope will become a much more resilient food system in the future. There’s much more interest in helping new technologies, new business models, new innovations emerge because of COVID, so if there’s any silver lining perhaps that’s it.

[00:10:42] Liz: That’s a good one, though. I know the work that you do requires a lot of great partners and partnerships. They’re a critical part of your work. You must be very skilled in collaboration, can you talk about that a little? What you think makes a good partner and what facets of good collaboration can you share? I think it could really help others in other areas and sectors of the industry.

[00:11:08] Alex: Yes, absolutely. I love that question, because I think another kind of core activity that I think ReFED has become really skilled at is this collaboration and connection activity. The way that we look at how we’re going to solve this problem of food waste and ultimately fight climate change, hunger, and just drive economic development, has a lot to do with convening and connecting the various stakeholders that work across the value chain.

If you think about it, from farm, all the way to the consumer, there are a lot of players involved and there’s actually a lot of institutions that surround that system as well. It’s not just farms, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers, but what about government agencies? What about universities that are working on research? I know on your program you’ve interviewed Emily Broad Leib from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Some of the work that they do, for instance, is really critical in terms of leveling the playing field, setting the rules of the game, helping government agencies really put the best policies and legislation forward so that this system can grow, and scale as quickly and as needed.

All of those players we’ve recognized at ReFED are really important to get in the same room, to work together, to partner together, but without somebody in the middle that’s actually looking at the problem on a systems level, starting to connect those dots, understanding who’s doing what, where their duplicative efforts, what more can be created if we just got the right players in the room, that a lot of this food waste fighting wouldn’t happen. I think that’s been a critical role that ReFED has played.

If I think about some of the best practices for forming partnerships and collaboration, we actually just put out a Scaling Food Recovery and Hunger Relief Effort Report, which is based on the Food Recovery Accelerator Program that we launched last year. We wrote this report to make sure that some of those lessons learned and best practices got out into the broader sector. One of the best practices is around partnership and collaboration. Some of the things that we highlight there is just making sure that each party understands really fully what they’re bringing to the table, what is their skill, or expertise that really is unique to them and how is that complementary to what the other person or organization is bringing. Being really upfront about that.

I think, sometimes what I see in this industry, or just in general, is that a lot of partnerships are aspirational, or they don’t really communicate very well what they’re hoping to get out of the partnership and there’s a lot of assumptions that are made. I think that’s where partnerships and collaboration start to break down. I think also just being really explicit about timelines and how many resources are going to be dedicated to a particular project or partnership that are coming together is really important. Then, just making sure that missions are aligned. I think, again, there’s a lot of challenges that can arise when assumptions are made, so just really making sure that the mission and objective of each partner is explicit, as well.

[00:14:27] Liz: That’s great advice. It really is and can go across all industries, I think. You’re speaking at WasteExpo Together Online, we’re super excited about that. You’re speaking in two sessions, can you give our listeners an idea of what they’ll learn in the two that you’re speaking in?

[00:14:45] Alex: Yes. One of the panels that I am speaking on highlights a couple other of my 40 Under 40 colleagues. In that conversation, it’s really all about how the three of us got into this industry, some of the changes that we’re seeing, why we find the waste industry so exciting, as a little bit of a preview to that. I think at the end of the presentation something that we all share, or at least I really echoed, is I didn’t actually even know this was an industry before I came into it.

Particularly, didn’t seem the sexiest when I was first finding out about it, but it really is very exciting and very innovative. It provides a lot of opportunities that hopefully come across in that conversation as something that inspires others to think about careers in this industry. I would highly recommend people listen to that. Then, my second conversation is actually with several food recovery organizations across the country. We’re actually talking about some of the lessons that they’ve learned over the years about how best to rescue perfectly good food and provide that to those in need, and how because of COVID that has really shifted how they operated.

It’s presented new challenges, but also new opportunities, and what they need, hope, and see for the future of the sector. Because, right now, what a lot of people are talking about is, of course, an immediate response to COVID, but quite quickly here, people are starting to shift to your previous question, Liz, about how we build a more resilient food system. We have that conversation with three food recovery organizations.

[00:16:30] Liz: It’s going to be awesome. I had another question, just because ReFED, specifically the work you do, I feel like a lot of us rely on data and stats from you guys. How important is data to the work that you all do?

[00:16:48] Alex: It’s the core. It’s the heart and soul of our organization. We really believe that, as the saying goes, “What gets measured, gets managed”, I believe? Without the data, without the insights that can be gleaned from that data and really shared with the industry, people are really just walking blind and operating blindly. There will certainly be good things that come from individual efforts to fight food waste but, really, we need to be solving this problem at a systems level and looking at it from a systems level, because not one in particular player can solve this on their own.

The system is just way too interconnected and really nobody, at the end of the day, has an end-of-year-performance metric around food waste reduction necessarily. If we’re talking about a retailer and house, it really spans different departments and different individuals. We have to be using data to help individuals understand how fighting food waste can impact their bottom line, or their headcounts, or provide other opportunities in the future towards solving some of the challenges and impacts that they want to solve. We’re really excited to continue to improve the data, and insights we’re able to provide to the sector, like I said, with the launch of what we’re calling our Insights Engine which will come out in the fall of this year.

[00:18:13] Liz: That’s great. Please keep us posted on that, we’d love to see-

[00:18:16] Alex: Absolutely.

[00:18:18] Liz: Awesome. The work that you’ve been doing, with your financial background, and your work now in the food system itself, what do you feel will be progress to you in terms of the work within the food system itself? I know it’s systemic and you’re saying it’s a systems-level problem, but if you were to walk away at your retirement, what would make you feel good about progress that you’ve made, ReFED has made, and, I guess, the system as a whole? I know it’s a big question.

[laughter]

[00:18:59] Alex: I’m, hopefully, a good number of years away from retirement but that’s a great question, they get me thinking because yes, maybe I should be trying to work backwards from that. But from ReFED’s perspective, we’re really focused on adoption rates of viable solutions to food waste, participation from major industry players, and commitments for major industry players. Particularly for the work that I do on the Capital & Innovation side of food waste, is really tracking the amount of investment that is coming into the space.

Because what’s important to remember is that wide-scale adoption of solutions that make our food system more resilient, are going to require billions of dollars in financing and that will come from this mixture of public, private, and philanthropic capital, especially catalytic capital that will be needed to de-risk and unlock more traditional sources of financing. But without that capital, a lot of these solutions will be tough to implement and to scale.

I would say when my retirement rolls around, I’m hopeful that the amount of dollars coming into the sector is several times more than it was when I started, that adoption rates by major food businesses of solutions to food waste, has grown significantly, and that the topic of food waste continues to grow and not be seen as niche, but really as a means to solving some of the biggest challenges of our time, like I said, climate change, hunger relief, economic development.

[00:20:41] Liz: I have faith and you have at least a hundred years to get there.

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[00:20:51] Liz: I know you’ll probably address this in what you talked about with your Rising Leaders Talk Trash session at WasteExpo Together Online, but what advice would you give to other young professionals entering waste and recycling?

[00:21:06] Alex: Some of the pieces of advice that I would probably give have to do with just recognizing that- when I first got into the industry, I have a colleague who said to me that what was most attractive to him about the field is that it almost felt like you could wrap your arms around the problem of food waste, and really start to make inroads quite fast.

While I think that’s true, I also think that being realistic about the time that it takes to convene and encourage collaboration across the food system, is significant because people have different motives, they have different incentives, so you have to be patient when you come into this industry and you’re really trying to solve the topic of food waste, but more and more I’m encouraged every day. Like I said, it’s really a bipartisan topic, it’s hard to find somebody that says, “Oh, I’m anti-fighting food waste.” Everybody agrees that wasting food is bad, and so you’ve already gotten over one hump but in order to make real action happen, it takes patience, it takes persistence, it takes a good understanding of various motivations, and really being able to map how those overlap with each other so you can start to build coalition.

The other thing I would say is, just definitely give the industry a try, like I said, I didn’t know that it was an industry before I got into it but it is a never-ending learning process, and so, for people who are evergreen learners, who like to have different challenges thrown at them on a daily basis, and feel like they’re always working to master their craft, this is a great industry to be in.

[00:23:00] Liz: That’s awesome. What’s next for you? I know you have lofty goals.

[laughter]

[00:23:08] Alex: Yes. What’s next is, we have, fortunately, gotten all of that three point five million dollars re-granted and out the door to those 37 organizations. We’re going to spend the next several months continuing to support that cohort of organizations whether that’s helping them connect to food supply, helping them form partnerships between each other, connections to donors, things like that. In addition, we’re focusing much more of the attention now -I’m excited to say- on the insights engine, so all roads lead to the publication of that insights engine coming out later this year.

Then, really, because there’s so much more energy and focus on this industry right now, we’re already pulling together as you might imagine our strategy for 2021 and beyond. We’ve got a really big and exciting capital campaign that we’re going to be doing at the organization to really set us up to help support the industry going forward, and for the next several years. That’s where a lot of our time and effort is going to be spent at least through the end of the year and going into 2021.

[00:24:20] Liz: Amazing. I just love the work you’re all doing. You probably get this question a lot, is there anything that individuals can do to help combat food waste and/or help others? Any call to action you have for listeners?

[00:24:38] Alex: Yes, absolutely. The most exciting thing I think about food waste is that, like I said, it’s very tangible, you’re able to have an impact even in a very individualized basis, and fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of where food waste happens is actually at the consumer level, more than 40% of food waste happens at the household level.

Perhaps it’s empowering to know that we, as consumers, have a lot of say and potential impact to drive in solving the problem of food waste. A couple of tips and tricks that I have, personally, learned from our Executive Director Dana Gunders who literally wrote the book on food waste, has to do with freezing leftovers, definitely creating stocks using some of those leftover trims that we have from the produce and vegetables that we generally use on a daily basis.

I would also say think about what I call garbage salads or, otherwise, waste salads. All the little bits of salami that you have, your extra lettuce, and, “Oh, you’ve got a can of chickpeas.” Salads are a great way to just throw a lot of different things together, throw some delicious dressing on it, and eat that. Thinking about new ways to add value to the food that you have, that maybe wouldn’t otherwise go together.

Generally, I would say really thinking about menu planning, I know in today’s world we’re all pretty stressed, but thinking ahead about what we want to eat that week and what we will batch make, is a really great way to make sure we’re not overbuying, and that can really help us reduce our waste as well.

[00:26:23] Liz: That’s great advice and something we can all practice, like you said. This has been awesome thank you so much, Alex, for your insights and we really look forward to watching you on WasteExpo Together Online and seeing what else you do. For such a young person, you’ve accomplished so much so thank you for the work you’ve done and will do.

[00:26:47] Alex: Absolutely. Thank you for the opportunity, Liz, it’s wonderful to speak with you and just, really, I’m encouraged by the continued work of people like you and others in the industry, so thank you.

[00:26:57] Liz: You’re welcome. Thank you.

[00:26:59] Alex: Yes, sounds good. Have a great day.

[00:27:01] Liz: You too. Bye-bye.  

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— to www.waste360.com

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