Monday, September 28, 2015

Food waste and hunger

Did you go to see the movie "Just Eat It" earlier this evening?

If you did, I'm sure you were startled by some of what the movie's producers found!  But, sadly, I was not surprised at all.  After thrty years of running a Feeding America food bank in Connecticut, I have seen both the scope of the problem of food waste and the scope of the problem of hunger.

Foodshare, where I was the CEO, distributed 14 million pounds of food last year - that's more than a tractor-trailer load of food every single day!  And most of this food is product that would otherwise have been wasted due to sell-by dates, manufacturing errors, shipping errors, crop surpluses, or cosmetic issues.

While I'm proud of what we accomplished there, especially that we had transitioned from the old style food bank that gave out primarily  non-perishable items to a food bank that distributed 50% fresh fruits and vegetables and another 20% other perishables, including meat, I also have serious questions about the model.

Distributing that food certainly wasn't solving hunger.  Every single year of my thirty years, both the number of people needing food and the amount of food distributed grew.  And by 2014, the unmet need was about twice the 14 million pounds we were distributing!

I found myself very troubled by the idea that these food "seconds" were good enough for poor people.   This was brought home loud and clear by the food pantry in one wealthy Hartford suburb where they sorted out the out-of-code and dented items and gave them to the inner city pantries.  That food was not good enough for their town, but was okay to give to city residents!  Why are low-income people not entitled to the same fresh, healthy food as the rest of us.

And really, anyone I ever met standing in a food line or eating at a soup kitchen would have much preferred to be going to the grocery store and the farmers market and getting their food the same way as anyone else!

I'm not advocating that we throw good food away, but I don't believe recovering and distributing it is a solution to the problem of hunger.  Hunger is only a symptom of poverty.  We need to work on economic, education, and other social solutions to bring people out of poverty.  Even while we work on improving our system of food production and distribution so we don't waste so much.

Read more on this topic as written by one of my mentors, Mark Winne, here.