Happy New Year!!!!
I hope everyone’s holidays were restful and fun, and that people are easing into the new work phases. I know my eyes are being ripped apart assignment after assignment.
I am so excited for what the blog accomplished during its initial months, as well as the new additions to the blog this year. The first guest post on the blog will be written by Emily Markowitz.
Emily is an awesome classmate, student, friend, and environmental steward! I learned about her work with food waste earlier this year, and I think her knowledge and determination to help our planet is really awesome.
Emily has written a ~super duper amazing~ article on both the current state of affairs of food waste and her work therein. All articles are hyperlinked (highlighted in pink), and I encourage you guys to read further, as Emily’s work does make me curious about such an important environmental issue. I hope you guys are as inspired as I am!!!
How Do People Still Go Hungry in a World of Overproduction? The Nexus of Food Waste and Food Insecurity in Local Communities
By Emily Markowitz
Producing 2.9 trillion pounds of extra food per year globally, we have the ability to feed three billion individuals, nearly half the world’s population, more than twice over. However, a contradiction exists in our society. Eight hundred million people worldwide suffer from hunger and many more from food insecurity, yet, we squander 40% of available calories. The disproportionate system of food distribution, where some cannot get enough while others dissipate the surplus, results in the large and often overlooked problem of food waste in our community and our nation. Stores dump all the food not sold by closing time. Manufacturers toss whole cartons of eggs when only one is cracked. From the surplus harvests on farms to excess inventory in stores to the food left on one’s plate, food waste exists at all steps of production and consumption. The issue goes against our moral grain; however, it current remains largely ignored, partially due to its morally ambiguous nature, partially because of the economic benefits it bestows on those in control of the agriculture industry.
In developed nations, with hyper-efficient farming practices, refrigeration, transportation, and storage facilities, food waste just does not make logical sense: Why waste one third of our food supply while so many go hungry? The question seems so easy to answer, but the reasons underlying this contradiction have exposed to me some of the serious flaws in our societal and global agricultural systems. I was first introduced to the issue of food waste last March in a National Geographic issue. Staring at its cover, where images of misshaped fruits and veggies took center stage, an epiphany moment occurred. I devoured the article, overcome by the immediacy of this issue and amazed at how I had never thought twice when discarding the food on my plate. The solutions seemed so straight-forward and feasible – essentially, stop wasting food. So, why, then, does this problem go largely ignored? In the article, I read about individuals and organizations that began taking action to combat the issue of food waste in their communities. I saw these individuals as empowering figures, and I realized that I, too, wanted to become involved. I have researched this issue, spoke with many individuals at the source of the problem, and have discovered, on a local level, why food waste has been largely ignored. Now, after building a solid foundation for understanding, I have proceeded in exploring solutions. I am currently working on one that involves my school cafeteria.
The first reason this issue is overlooked is that, while the social and humanitarian costs of food waste are palpable, its environmental consequences remain less apparent. According to Jan Lundqvist, a professor of water and environmental studies at Sweden’s Linkoping University, “there’s a misconception among the people that throwing away food is environmentally benign.” As we discard the scraps on our plates, little thought is paid to the fate of this food after it leaves our sight. We do not understand that throwing out food actually assumes a negative role for both our environment and our limited resources and energy supply systems. Food scraps eventually travel to landfills, along with the rest of our trash, becoming the second-largest component of the national waste stream and making up 19 percent of what we dump in landfills. This large depositing of food has contributed to the current complication of overflowing dumps. We, for the first time, are running out of secure locations to eliminate our trash. While sitting in landfills, squandered food also releases significant amounts of methane – a greenhouse gas more harmful than other carbon emissions – into the atmosphere. Landfills account for 23 percent of all methane emissions, and, of all materials, food has the highest methane yield. To put it in perspective, if global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest generator of greenhouse gases in the world behind China and the United States.
In addition to its effect on our landfills and our atmosphere, squandering one third of our food supply also wastes the large quantities of water, fossil fuel energy, and fertilizers needed to produce these products. Oil, water, and fecund farming land are limited resources and are becoming even more scarce; yet, these valuable resources are dissipated in producing the 2.9 trillion pounds of food that is not used. Globally, the production of unused food guzzles enough oil equivalent to the annual flow of the Volga, Europe’s longest river. And, a collective 3.5 billion acres of land – an area significantly larger than Canada – is plowed to grow food or to support livestock that no one eats. Producing food only to be wasted is a practice so unsustainable it endangers our whole agricultural system and depletes our limited resources. Consequently, it is key that we find alternative means to redistribute or recycle these calories so as not to misuse the fossil fuel energy, water, and land needed for production.
While food waste, and its environmental ramifications, are often neglected and ignored, it is not as if they are completely unrecognized by those at the source of the issue. Talking to managers and owners of small farms and local food institutions, I have found many who willingly admit the issue exists but actively choose to ignore its consequences as they contribute to the problem. Of those I have engaged, these individuals include the employees of a local bagel store who reported that, “bags of bagels are thrown out at the end of each day” to avoid selling stale products to consumers the following morning. They also include the manager of a local deli, who nodded consensually as I explained the issue to him. He added that, for his business, this was a daily occurrence. As my contacts expanded from neighboring food stores to local farms, farmers in my region indicated to me that “ugly fruits”, those not aesthetically pleasing to consumers, get discarded in large numbers instead of being sold. The owner of a pick-your-own-apple orchard described a scene of “truckloads” of extra apples being left on trees at the end of the growing season. Rather than being picked and redistributed to people who could benefit from their nutritious content, these apples continue to rot on trees throughout the late fall and winter. He elaborated that the state offers him tax deductions if he donates the extra harvest but described it is “too much of a hassle” and not economically beneficial to pick the extra apples that consumers leave behind. Through these tax deductions, the government is indeed motivated to combat food waste, using monetary relief as a reward; however, the private industry is still lagging behind, lacking the incentives to implement these changes into their processes of production.
On the local level, food waste persists because it is economically beneficial for many companies, and they lack of motivation and initiative for change. For supermarkets, it makes more economic sense to discard surplus fruits as opposed to lower their prices, which could undercut sales of full-priced produce. In farms, it is economically beneficial to leave entire rows of greens to rot in the fields rather than introduce them to market, which would disrupt the laws of supply and demand by introducing excess product on the market. While economic benefit plays a large role in perpetuating this issue, inertia is also a contributor. I have found that farmers and store owners do not want the inconvenience of redistributing surplus foods to those in other locations. It is much easier to simply discard these products rather taking the time and the effort to transport them elsewhere.
As I began to explore viable solutions to combat the issue of food waste in my own community, I initially devised the plan to collect the extra food that would be thrown out at the end of the day from local delis and food stores and redistribute it to shelters and soup kitchens, putting to use calories that would be wasted. However, as I talked to managers about my ideas, many appeared interested but not committed. Would I come every day to collect it? Would I be there at just the right time, exactly after all the customers have been serviced but immediately before the doors were locked? How would I transport hot products, like soup? And products that must be kept cold? Many feared economic liability. I assured them that under the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, there exists legislation to protect food donors from being sued. However, their fears prevailed. I soon began to realize that a feasible solution to combat this issue would not come easily. I had falsely believed that food waste was a problem so undoubtedly rectifiable. However, it is one, in fact, so ingrained in the food industry that attempts to change our ways and counteract inertia are exceedingly difficult.
Eventually, however, I began to achieve progress. Learning that cafeterias are a large contributor to national food waste, I inquired about my own school lunchroom and met with the lady in charge. I was happy to find that my cafeteria makes an effort to curb waste, meticulously planning school menus and food orders to produce the right amount to service the student body. Nevertheless, food waste still persists at the end of the week – food cannot be kept over the weekend and sold the following week, for it would become stale and nonsalable. Now, I collect this extra food every Friday, placing a tub in the kitchen and retrieving it, contents full, at the end of the day. I deliver it to a nearby homeless shelter where there is a need for extra food.
After retrieving my tub from the cafeteria the first time, I was happy to see it half-filled with pre-made sandwiches, salads, yogurt parfaits, and sushi. The next week, I was even more surprised to find that this tub had, in fact, been too small. It was overflowing with extra food – roughly 39 pounds! This pattern has continued, and each week I go to collect the surplus and redistribute it to those experiencing food insecurity. However, I understand that these impacts are minimal, and I hope to extend these efforts to the other cafeterias in my school system, like my middle school, and potentially to the other schools in my county.
Food waste is an issue so extensive, and it affects all steps of food production and all institutions involved in the process – cafeterias being just one of them. More comprehensive and far-ranging efforts are required. Individual involvement is not sufficient. I believe that institutionalized government-sponsored programs, either on county, state, or federal levels, should be created to form more accessible links between food producers and those experiencing food insecurity. Government support of this issue is needed, perhaps in the form of tax deductions or credits to companies donating excess food, to motivate change. Additionally, the creation of city-run collections of food scraps – similar to what is now being done with paper recycling – would allow nutrients from food to be reused rather than squandered forever.