Cheryl Coleman: Educating a nation about food waste

Cheryl Coleman, director of the Resource Conservation and Sustainability Division at the Environmental Protection Agency, comes a family dedicated to public service. Her parents were both teachers.

“They encouraged us to really take the values that were instilled in us in the household and share them throughout the community through service,” she said. “They taught us that leadership was not being served, but it was serving others.

Coleman first spent 25 years working for South Carolina’s Environmental Protection Agency. Now, she oversees the EPA’s efforts to reduce food waste in the United States.

Tell us something about your job that most people don’t know or realize.

The average person may not realize that they waste $370 a year by throwing away food. They also may not realize that the average family throws away $1,500 a year in food. Each person in the United States generates about 4.4 pounds of waste every day. It’s important for us to address this because by 2050, there are some predictions that there will not be enough food for people to eat on this earth. By 2040, there will not be enough water.

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Most people think that U.S. EPA is a regulatory agency, and that’s an important part of what we do. The exciting thing about my job is that work in a voluntary space. I work with corporations. I help develop tools for consumers, for businesses, for faith organizations, for non-profits and for just about anyone who wants to do things in order to minimize waste production and conserve resources.

Cheryl Coleman oversees the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to reduce national food waste. (Federal News Radio/Nicole Ogrysko)
Cheryl Coleman oversees the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce national food waste. (Federal News Radio/Nicole Ogrysko)

How does your job connect the government with citizens in a more efficient or effective way?

We work with schools. We put things on our website that help students and families. We develop tools. For example, we developed the Food Too Good to Waste tool, which helps families identify ways that they can reduce wasted food in their households. We run campaigns to help American citizens understand  how we can use that aluminum can they we may throw away when we finish a soda or that plastic bottle when we finish drinking a bottle of water. We help them realize that those are valuable resources that can be put back into production in the manufacturing process to create new products.

Growing up, I was always taught that everybody has a voice, and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard. Through my work at EPA, I have the opportunity to bring people together at the table to solve problems collaboratively. It’s important for that corporate leaders to hear from the everyday consumer how his business impacts their household. I think about families where you have parents who put water in milk to try to make sure that their children at least have something to eat. When others hear that, it makes them want to do something. It makes them want to help others. The work that I do enables me to bring government leaders, everyday citizens, corporate leaders, non-profits [and] NGOs all together to talk about how we can solve problems together. I can’t know how what I’m doing is impacting you if I don’t have the opportunity to hear that from you. At EPA, we create that environment for those discussions to occur and help make a difference.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your job with the government?

The best thing about my job is that I get to work with everyone. I’m not limited to just corporations or just consumers. I get to work with everyone. It can be a staff person in the office that I’m helping from a professional standpoint develop their skills. It can be a student who’s working on a project who wants to learn more about how he or she can protect the environment. It can be a corporation that wants to learn ways that they can voluntarily put in business practices that will help them not only save money but also have positive social and environmental impacts.

Hearing the stories about families who struggle every day to try to feed their children, sharing those families, that family with that cup of milk, who chopped that banana up to create a meal for six kids, who poured water to try to make sure that all of their children at least gets something in their stomachs. When we share those kinds of stories with grocery stores, with other faith communities, with corporations, it prompts them to look for ways to make donations. If you look around and you see that a lot of the corporate entities now have put into their business practices commitments to make food available to hungry families. I think us being able to amplify when those situations are occurring and call it to others’ attention, strikes that nerve either in the corporate sector or just every day people to say, “I need to do something about that, and I can do something about that.” Because the reality is we all can do something. It may not seem like much to you, but it can mean everything to everybody else.

What’s the best piece of job related advice you ever got?

It came from an aunt of mine who died when she was 107. When I got my first job she said to me, “Failure is an opportunity waiting to happen. Don’t be afraid of failure. Embrace it.”

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Read all our coverage of the 2016 Public Service Recognition Week.