When 40% of our food supply ends up in the trash, are we surprised that far too many people in our communities go hungry? Or that we’re destroying our land and making it unable to produce enough food to feed all that live on it? One of the easiest steps in eliminating hunger is diverting perfectly good food from disposal and ensuring it ends up on our dining tables.
Imagine if, every time you went to the grocery store, you purchased five bags of groceries and left two bags on the sidewalk as you walked into your house. Maybe you forgot about one. Maybe you decided the contents of the second wasn’t pretty enough to be eaten, despite being perfectly nutritious and wholesome. Maybe one piece of produce was bad, so you threw out the whole bag, just for simplicity. It might sound asinine, but it’s essentially the reality of food production cycles in our country. From the time the seeds are planted to the moment food is dumped in a landfill, more than 40% of the initial production is wasted.
Take a breath and think about that. That’s just crazy! And wasteful!
There are a plethora of disposal points for our food as it travels its journey from cradle to grave (common terminology in sustainability and ecological life cycle discussions). Some food is left in the fields because low prices make it unprofitable to harvest. In other words, the labor to collect and distribute the food costs more than farmers will earn for the products. Some things make it out of the field to be packaged but don’t leave the facility because they don’t meet aesthetic standards of our grocery stores and restaurants, standards inherently driven by consumers demands. We’ve learned to reject produce for simple beauty imperfections.
Another contingent of food is lost at grocery stores and in restaurants. Grocery stores throw away abundant amounts of food. They overstock shelves to make them look full, even late into the evening when they know they won’t sell things. At night’s end, the excess is trashed. Packaged items are thrown out in anticipation of expiration dates, many of which are “best buy” dates, not dates when food is no longer edible. The food is still perfectly good to eat. Restaurants serve gigantic portions that we don’t eat and throw away much of the excess.
After arriving home, consumers continue to waste even more food. We make ambitious plans to cook healthy dinners every night, and the days get away from us. Food hides out in the back of the fridge and is forgotten. We serve larger portions to fill ever-growing plates, and we don’t eat everything we served. For so many reasons, we buy far more food that we end up eating, and the remnants and leftovers rot until they end up in our trash cans, and ultimately our landfills.
While a certain amount of food waste is inevitable, there are many steps we can take to reduce our food waste and, more importantly, help more of our food make it’s way to food banks where it can fill the hungry stomachs of our neighbors in need.
Gleaning for Good
Have you ever heard of gleaning? Until I started learning more about food waste, I was not familiar with the practice. It dates far back into history, but it’s something we could still do more of today. Gleaning is the practice of going back to farm fields and collecting remaining harvest that farmers left behind. For the reasons I mentioned above, farmers don’t gather everything that grows in their fields.
Many food banks have volunteering opportunities to glean for the benefit of the food bank. Some food banks offer the opportunities through their own organizations while others partner with third party non-profit organizations or groups that organize the gleaning adventures. Family and friends can get together for a day out in the fields to gather by hand produce that was not harvested on local farms. Then the produce is donated to the food banks to help fill their shelves with much needed wholesome foods.
Gleaning, like gardening, often happens under a warm sun in the heat of the summer. It can be exhausting, for sure, but so fun to spend a day in the dirt in service to others. My boys aren’t quite old enough for gleaning opportunities in our area yet, but they love the garden so I know they will be ready to dig into the dirt when they are a bit older. For now, when the boys and I get our hands dirty in our garden, we’re sure to have plenty of drinks to stay hydrated.
Donate to a Food Bank or Pantry
Consider making a regular donation to a food pantry or food cupboard in your local area. Many people rely on these services to feed their families.
For those of us not experiencing food insecurity, I think it’s tough to imagine what it would really feel like. I think it’s even harder to understand how pervasive hunger is to a person’s life. Sometimes people joke about being “hangry” but it’s humbling to imagine that this is the “norm” for many people in our country.
It breaks my heart to think about a child trying to learn in school with a grumbling stomach distracting from the task at hand. As a parent, I can definitely understand how tough it must feel to not be able to provide your child with three meals a day.
Even with a small donation, we can help bring more food to the table for the families in our communities who are unable to fill their cabinets with wholesome food themselves.
Get Involved With a Food Recovery Organization
Non-profits around the country, some independent and some tied directly to food banks, work to recover food that would otherwise end up in the trash. This food primarily comes from grocery stores, food distribution companies and other businesses in the food industry who have excess supply. The excess may result for a myriad of reasons. As I mentioned above, grocery stores typically keep a full stock on their shelves because the abundant appearance is more aesthetically pleasing. However, the extra items on the shelf don’t always have a home at the end of the night, so food banks can take the perfectly healthy and wholesome stock to provide to their patrons.
Grocery stores and other food distributors also adhere to ‘sell by’ (and similar) dates printed by manufacturers. These dates indicate dates by which the manufacturer believes the food will be in its best condition, not the date of expiration when the food is no longer edible. Without food recovery services, much of this food is tossed into the trash even though it’s more than suitable for people to eat.
In both of these situations and many more, food recovery organizations work with grocery stores and other food distributors to transport this food to food banks. MealConnect, part of Feeding America, is one organization that helps connect the food distributors with local food pantries and non-profits to facilitate the partnerships. Though not as widely understood as one might hope, The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects food distributors from liability issues that are inherent in food donation. Hopefully, as this regulation is more widely upheld, food distributors will become more comfortable donating more food.
If you have a business that could donate food, be sure to check out MealConnect to find out how you can become part of their network and connect with the local food pantries in your area. Even if you don’t own a business such as this, we can all get involved in the food recovery efforts in our local area to help coordinate and execute the transportation of food to feed our hungry neighbors. Grab a friend and drive together around town getting good food to great people and families who need the food most.
Learn More About What Is Safe To Eat
There’s a whole lot of confusion swirling around our communities about what food is safe to eat and what should be thrown out. All too often, we throw out food long before it’s gone bad or because it doesn’t look just right. Have you ever thrown out a whole apple just because it had a bad spot on it? Would you buy the pineapple at the grocery store with the crooked top? Truth be told, most of probably don’t even know that tons of produce is “imperfect” because it never makes it to the grocery store shelves even though there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it.
Feeding America offers a Waste It or Taste It quiz to help gauge how much you know about what food in our system is wasted and why it is wasted. By taking the quiz, you can start to learn about some of the main causes of food waste and understand what we can do to change the fate of those “ugly” fruits and veggies at critical crossroads.
Be An Advocate In Your Community
Word of mouth is powerful. Most people have no idea how much food goes to waste. And why would they? Our food production is so far removed from the daily lives of most of the people who eat the food that it’s tough to expect everyone to understand how it traveled from farm to table. We waste food, in part, due to a lack of awareness of just how much wasted food is piling up and how much of an impact it could have if diverted to worthy causes.
Take the Waste It or Taste It quiz. Do a little research on your own. As you learn more about just how much food waste is piling up in our landfills and leaving families in our communities hungry, spread the word. Tell others, kindly, about the small steps they can take to be advocates for more efficient and effective food distribution in our country. You never know how much of an impact a few casual conversations can have as they travel through the grapevine.
I have a #FamiliesDoZeroWaste series on social media where I share ideas, many of which are related to food waste, about how families can help limit the waste we create. I also occasionally use my food waste as a spark for creativity, analyzing and drawing attention to it with my #iheartwastedart series, also on social media. Your word of mouth certainly doesn’t have to be as public as a social media account.
This past weekend, I pulled out my counter-top compost crock while we had family over for a dinner get-together and were preparing food. They asked where to find the trash for the food scraps, and I offered up the compost crock instead. It sparked some conversation about food waste and composting that surely wouldn’t have come up otherwise. I know they didn’t go home and buy compost crocks for their counters, but the more we share about food waste and food recovery topics, the more they become mainstream and top of mind.
Don’t be afraid to invite friends to go gleaning together or support a local food recovery organization. Sometimes just a little nudge goes a long way.
Host a Local Fundraiser
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, host a local fundraiser to support your food bank. If you’re not sure where to find your local food bank, Feeding America has a directory of all of their partners, which is a great place to start. Encourage your family and friends to come together to raise money or collect food for your local food bank. Be sure to reach out to your food bank to figure out what they need; sometimes food banks get too many of certain types of food and not enough of others.
While you’re doing your fundraiser, don’t forget to tell everyone to also take advantage of the Gold Peak Tea texting campaign and online food bank support campaign I mentioned above. Every little bit helps! And if you can help your local food bank win one of the $1,000 donations, that’s enough for 10,000 meals which is pretty amazing.
Some Change But Not All Change Requires Money
After graduating college, a donation to my local food bank was the very first large (to me) charitable contribution that I made. I know there are so many worthy organizations serving our communities, but there’s something about the simplicity of food that really strikes a chord with me. It’s so basic to our well-being and something each and every one of us can understand in a common language. We all know what it feels like to be hungry, some of us with more consistency than others, unfortunately.
The more I learn about our food cycle and all the pitfalls and dumping points along the way, the more I believe the “fixes” for hunger aren’t just about more food. It starts with creating systems that make better use of the food we already have, and we all play a part in limiting the waste that we create.
Changing the systems we have in place costs money. Whether we’re paying to transport food from the grocery store to the food bank and safely store it at the food bank, building technology to more efficiently connect lost food with hungry stomachs, or redesigning the whole darn system to make it economical for all food to make it to our tables (instead of being left in the fields or tossed in the trash), it’s important that our food-related organizations have funding to support their efforts.
We can also make a difference regardless of financial resources available. We can limit the waste that we produce. We can buy the “ugly” produce that might otherwise be tossed in the trash. We can volunteer at our local food bank or with a local food recovery organization. And we can speak up to remind others that 40% of our food ends up in landfills. That’s just not sustainable or beneficial to anyone.
What will you do today to help feed hungry neighbors in your community?