Waste Not, Want Not

What to do with that uneaten food

Forty percent of all food in the United States today goes uneaten. Think about that for a minute. Forty percent!

There are two ways to look at this startling statistic and both are profoundly unsettling. The first is the enormity of resources used to produce that food. The second is the number of people in the U.S. (and the world) who are hungry.

A few months ago, the National Resources Defense Council released an issue paper titled Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. The paper’s findings are especially poignant in light of comments made by Fr. Alex Zanotelli at the 2012 Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy. Fr. Zanotelli said hunger is the result of a conscious decision to allow it, and thus is decidedly immoral.

The food waste study makes clear that hunger can be prevented. By throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion of food each year, we choose not to prevent it. Food saved by reducing waste by just fifteen percent could feed more than twenty-five-million Americans each year.

This is a multifaceted problem. There are farm production issues. It’s estimated that seven percent of planted fields in the   U.S. are typically not harvested each year. There are significant losses in processing, distribution, retail and food service. The report calls for businesses to help by removing inefficiencies in the food supply system.

Consumers are critical players as well. We too often shop impulsively, miscalculate when food goes bad, pass over perfectly edible produce we deem too unattractive, cook too much food and throw out leftovers. Evidence suggests a cultural aspect to this issue; Americans waste ten times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia, for example. And the amount of food we waste today is up fifty percent from the 1970s.

Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions, including localized efforts to fight food waste. The Goodman Community Center has received a three-year USDA grant to fund a replicable model that creates training opportunities for at-risk kids with a focus on sustainable and healthy food systems. It involves teaching preservation and canning skills and taking advantage of underutilized resources to stock the food pantry with healthy food. The program is designed in part to keep food from being wasted. And it’s working.

Last October, Vermont Valley Community Farm called the GCC to say they had extra butternut squash. Because the GCC was set up to work on food preservation, they were able to take all the leftover squash, process it, freeze it and then use it to make holiday pies for five hundred of the two thousand Thanksgiving food baskets the center provided last year. It was the perfect circle of collaboration. Vermont Valley was proactive and generous, the center was nimble enough to take the produce, the kids learned a ton, and good, healthy food that would have been wasted got to people who needed it.

Obviously we need many more such vehicles to make a dent in food waste. The Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, for example, is asking people with fruit trees to consider donating unused fruit. CAC volunteers will even come and pick it if need be.

California, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado make tax credits available for donation of excess produce to state food banks. And a half dozen or so countries have “the right to food” as a basic human rights guarantee written into national constitutions. We have to change our thinking, and of course we have to change our behavior. Hunger is preventable. And the best place to start is by being less wasteful of the food we already have.        

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.

Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

Read more Genuine Articles columns here

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