Featured Student Profile

Julia Ruedig, Erb ’15, Sows the Seeds for a Career in Food System Sustainability

Julia Ruedig, Erb ’15, believes more can be done to reduce inefficiencies and improve the sustainability of America’s food system. “Food waste is a big problem that occurs in many areas, including our agricultural supply chains, retail sales outlets ─ and even our own homes,” she says. “Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for solving this sustainability problem. The solution will require a widespread approach.”

Putting food on America’s dinner tables consumes 10 percent of the nation’s total energy budget, 50 percent of its land and 80 percent of its potable freshwater. Yet 40 percent of the food in the U.S. today goes uneaten ─ the equivalent of more than 20 pounds per person every month, according to a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The increasing amount of waste is particularly troubling at a time when one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food.

During a 10-week summer internship with the NRDC, Ruedig helped its Food and Agriculture team work with Walmart to explore corporate strategies for mitigating the amount of greenhouse gases released into the environment throughout the retailer’s supply chain. “I looked at a broad spectrum of possibilities for incentivizing and assisting international suppliers in implementing more-sustainable processes that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she explains.

Ruedig also conducted research on how grocery stores handle “sell by” and “best by” expiration dates on food, and whether this contributes to excessive food waste in retail sales outlets. “I examined current practices in grocery stores in order to understand the potential economic benefits to grocers of changing the processes for stocking and removing food around expiration dates,” Ruedig says. “There is a great deal of misunderstanding among consumers about the meaning of date labels, resulting in an enormous amount of prematurely discarded food.” One industry expert cited in the NRDC’s 2012 report estimated that supermarkets destroy on average $2,300 worth out-of-date food every day, even though most of the food is still consumable. Ruedig’s research efforts contributed to the NRDC’s knowledge of the issue in advance of a new report issued jointly with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Currently, Ruedig is working with the World Wildlife Fund on a project which seeks to inform corporate purchasing managers and product designers about the environmental trade-offs of similar agricultural commodity choices, such as soy oil vs. palm oil. Around campus, she participates in conferences and activities sponsored by the Consortium on Agriculture, Food and the Environment. CAFE seeks to advance professional and academic development, stimulate dialogue and foster collaboration and leadership on the sustainability of food systems among U-M students and the greater global community.

“My passion for food comes alive when I get my hands in the earth,” says Ruedig, an avid gardener since childhood who now champions School of Natural Resources and Environment students who “grow blue” at the U-M Campus Farm operated by the University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program.

Before enrolling in graduate school at Michigan, Ruedig directed marketing and communications strategies at Blue Marble Biomaterials, a Missoula, Montana based manufacturer of natural and sustainable specialty chemicals. That experience piqued her interest in changing the status quo of America’s food system. However, it was the Erb Institute that helped “connect the dots” between her love of food and her desire to pursue a career in food system sustainability.

“Food touches so many aspects of our world─our farms, supply chains, businesses, natural environment and human health,” Ruedig explains. “Erb has enabled me to make connections across multiple disciplines and develop a broad-based framework for achieving greater sustainability in our food system.”