Why does a third of our food end up in dumpsters instead of helping the hungry?
Here’s the great paradox about food insecurity in our country: The United States produces more than enough to feed everyone. But chronic poverty and inequitable access to nutritious meals mean that far too many people go to bed hungry each night. Then there’s the problem of waste – with some 219 pounds of food going unsold or uneaten per person each year, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Imagine if that sustenance were channeled to neighbors in need
Fortunately, many community-based organizations work with manufacturers, distributors, retailers, foodservice companies, and farmers to gather food before it goes to waste. The Food Equity Roundtable recently heard suggestions from several leaders in our region about how to improve retail/consumer dynamics and supply chain inefficiencies that lead to chronic food waste. Here, Food Forward’s CEO Rick Nahmias and Food Finders Executive Director Diana Lara share their take on how to get more food out of dumpsters and onto family table
Most people have no idea how much food is wasted in the U.S. each year. How bad is the problem?
Rick Nahmias: 35% of the food produced in the U.S. goes unsold or uneaten, and just one third of the food thrown away could feed every food insecure person in the country – an unimaginable disparity.
Why do we waste so much food as a society? What are some of the root causes?
Diana Lara: When most people think about food waste they think about restaurants. But most food waste happens in our own homes. There are no marketing campaigns about the amount of food waste or what we can do to prevent it. I don’t think people intend to waste food. When we grocery shop we plan to use it but then life happens. You work late and then just pick up takeout. Or you don’t feel well and decide to make something easy instead of what was planned. Or you just plain forget you bought that broccoli. I also think lack of a standardized food dating system also adds to the problem. From a marketing perspective there is no incentive for a manufacturer to support a standardized system when their focus is on sales
How can reducing food waste help reduce the amount of overall food insecurity in our society? How many people could we better feed if we found a way to redirect wasted food?
Lara: Statewide measures such as SB 1383 will hold manufacturers and distributors accountable for reducing food waste and collaborating with local foodbanks. Even a 25% reduction would provide enough food to feed millions of people annually.
What are the biggest obstacles to getting food out of dumpsters/landfills and onto plates for those who need nutritional support?
Nahmias: Education is key – teaching communities about their individual responsibility and impact on the environment and economy when food is left to rot in landfills. We also have to improve access to underserved neighborhoods.
Lara: Companies should have stainability departments within their organizations. The goals would be to minimize all waste from food to packaging and setting up systems for the waste streams.
Tell us more about SB 1383. Why is the legislation an important step?
Lara: Having met for many years with [supply chain and retail food] managers who only care about their profits, the legislation is very important. We are now getting calls from waste haulers, cities, and companies that we have approached many times about potential partnerships.
Nahmias: SB 1383 was introduced to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants through statewide organic waste recycling and surplus food recovery. The primary emission produced by organic waste in landfills is methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, capable of trapping a lot of heat and contributing to climate change. The bill will not only to reduce food waste, but it will also help the environment.
Beyond macro-sized change in our food systems, what can individuals do in their daily lives to reduce food waste?
Nahmias: Being mindful and taking inventory of our food purchases is key. Learning proper food storing tips, utilizing your freezer, growing your own fruits and vegetables, and getting involved in your community gardens and legislative efforts that affect food waste are easy first steps to solving this global issue.
Lara: We need to cook less or make sure to eat the leftovers the next day. Meal plan better or write a list of what is in the refrigerator and leave it on the fridge to remind yourself. And never shop hungry!
I know you think about food on a daily basis as a professional, but what does food mean to you on a personal level? Why did you get into this work?
Nahmias: I am a big believer in equal access to food. Knowing that there was an abundance of nutritious food going to waste, I couldn’t sit around and allow the long-term ramifications of food waste to continue without trying to make change. Having the ability to connect with partners and expanding our workforce to service a vital need while inspiring others has been extremely fulfilling.
Lara: Being a person of color and seeing how hard my culture works it saddens me to know they struggle with food insecurity. Especially when they are the ones cooking my meals at restaurants. Food is a basic right everyone deserves. I do not feel like this is a job. I truly believe I am doing God’s work. Amen!