Opinion: Closing the Food Gap

On a Tuesday morning, volunteers at East End House—a food pantry in Cambridge—prepare for a special delivery. Trucks filled with boxes of fruits and vegetables arrive, which the volunteers eagerly unload. The produce was salvaged from grocery stores, wholesalers, and farmers markets by a few local non-profits, and will eventually end up in the hands of the hungry and food-insecure.

In the U.S., at least 49 million people suffer from food insecurity, 700,000 of whom live in Massachusetts, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, at least half of the food produced in the U.S. is discarded before it ever reaches a plate, according to a report released last year by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Diverting food waste that is destined for  landfills into the hands of the food-insecure already happens on a small scale in cities across the country, but if we want to see real change, it needs to take place on a national level.

Though the stereotype of “hunger” conjures images of sallow-cheeked children in Africa, the face of the problem in America is more subtle.  The hungry in America are often not starving, but food-insecure. They are working families who wake up in a house with no food, and no promise of three meals. They subsist on junk food because the 99-cent value meal is all they can afford. It’s not always easy to tell that a neighbor, coworker or classmate is undernourished.

We can address  America’s hunger problem by using food more efficiently, but first we need to re-examine and re-define our food system. In the Boston area, several non-profit groups such as Food for Free and Lovin’ Spoonfuls are doing that by linking food retailers with the hungry. These organizations collect fruits and vegetables that are edible but not pretty enough to be sold—the bananas with a few too many spots—and deliver them to food pantries.  But what sounds like a simple solution isn’t.

Food falls through the cracks at every level of the food supply chain. In developed countries like the United States, at least 10 percent of the total food supply is lost at the retail level thanks to industry standards that integrate waste into the business model and reinforce wasteful consumer behavior. For example, supermarkets overstock shelves to appeal to shoppers, damaging a lot of the product in the process.

But the major roadblock to decreasing waste for retailers is the limited flexibility of the system. Grocery stores receive produce in preset quantities and are often left with extra that will not sell before it expires. “Our food system is trying to serve a culture that expects everything all the time,” said Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food for Free. “It’s really easy to waste.”

Part of the responsibility for reducing waste rests on businesses. Although increasing donations bolsters non-profits, lobbying for a system that better caters to their needs will be more effective at stemming the waste flow.

Although food pantries offer a variety of fresh produce thanks to these non-profits, some people are still hesitant to take fruits and vegetables that they’re unfamiliar with and don’t know how to cook, such as beets or cabbage. In order to warm recipients’ attitudes toward produce, Tim Severyn of East End House provides simple recipes for the produce available in the pantry. “It’s a slow process to adjust food culture, but I think people are appreciating [healthy food] a lot more than they were a few years ago,” he said.

Food for Free and other non-profits have a sizeable impact on the waste and insecurity problem in Greater Boston. In 2012, Food for Free and Lovin’ Spoonfuls delivered nearly 2 million pounds of food and fed more than 50,000 people. But for all of the good that food rescues do locally, they hardly make a dent nationally. With no infrastructure to deal with the fundamental problems contributing to food waste and no money in the food rescue business, there aren’t many non-profits popping up. Even so, a handful of non-profits alone could not solve the problem of food waste and insecurity anyway.

Recently, the administration of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick proposed a bill that re-defines the Bay State’s food policy and recognizes the link between food waste and food insecurity—an acknowledgement that’s desperately needed to find permanent solutions. The proposal bans large institutions such as supermarkets, colleges, hotels, and hospitals from disposing of food waste and instead requires them to donate the food before converting what’s leftover into energy through anaerobic digestion. Ultimately, the state’s food waste would decrease by 30 percent in just six years, and decrease by 80 percent by 2050. This approach not only spares overflowing landfills and feeds the hungry, but as an added bonus also promotes alternative energy.

The NRDC estimates that reducing waste by just 15 percent would feed more than 25 million Americans annually, but for that to happen there needs to be more collaboration between businesses, governments, and consumers. Massachusetts’ newfound approach sets an example for the rest of the country to follow.

Originally published at Boston University News Service, October 30, 2013.

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