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You Gonna Eat That?

Lessons in how to reduce America’s staggering amount of food waste

by Amy Halloran on April 17, 2014 · 4 comments

 

The other day, I picked up three cases of green beans from Honest Weight. I brought the beans, which were a little past their prime and unsaleable, to Unity House in Troy and put them in the cooler. Later that night, my students from Russell Sage College sorted through the green beans, composting the really bruised and unappealing ones, and snipping the stems off the ones that were still good.

Another group of students chopped a lot of garlic, and two women stood at the griddle for a good long time, sautéing the garlic and adding the green beans. We ended up with about 100 servings of garlicky green beans, which were served as a side dish at lunch the next day.

These green beans could have been part of a stunning statistic, but we made something of them. Industrial agriculture certainly deserves its fair share of finger wagging on Earth Day, but one facet of the food system that doesn’t get enough regular demerits is the environmental cost of food at the other end of its life cycle.

We waste a lot of food in our country. The National Resources Defense Council quantified how much in a report titled “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” The 2012 report said: “This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.”

Food waste occurs at every point on the path from farm to table, and while there are more organizations than ever working to enhance food recovery, they can’t reach into your kitchen: It is estimated that American households throw out 25 percent of their food purchases. The waste occurs when we buy too much food, store it incorrectly, cook too much, and throw out leftovers.

If that old moral saw about kids starving in China and Africa doesn’t get you to clean your plate, maybe the ethical and environmental saws about food waste rotting in the trash will get you to think twice about how you handle food. Forty percent? That is a lot.

Composting is a great way to divert food from the waste stream, and there are now commercial enterprises that do so. The Radix Center in Albany provides a community composting service, and Empire Zero is a company that does so on a much larger scale.

Even better than composting, though, is getting the less-than-lovely fruits and vegetables of the world into our bellies. In the Capital Region, recovering produce that is no longer ready for supermarket close-ups is a big job. The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York distributed 5.7 million pounds of produce last year, catching fruits and vegetables from retail sites, growers, truckers and other sources. This is about 19 percent of the total amount of the food the agency distributed.

Capital District Community Gardens’ Squash Hunger is another program that keeps produce out of the landfill. Last year it caught close to 50,000 pounds of produce by organizing gleanings at farms and orchards, and working with distributors to handle food that looks imperfect but is perfectly good. Gardeners also grow food specifically for Squash Hunger, or donate surplus vegetables.

The Veggie Mobile—the organization’s produce aisle on wheels—also runs through a lot of food it can’t sell. In addition to selling in spots where full-service supermarkets have vanished, the truck functions as a distributor, delivering produce to corner stores they’ve kitted out with refrigerator cases. The food that is still edible is passed on to emergency food sites through Squash Hunger, and what isn’t edible is composted at the Produce Project, the youth-powered farm on Eighth Street.

Unity House runs a soup kitchen that feeds anywhere from 60 to 150 people breakfast and lunch seven days a week. I get to cook here, and that is a great thing. The kitchen has access to culled produce from Squash Hunger and the Regional Food Bank. Sometimes the food arrives right in the cooler, in boxes. Sometimes the agency has to fetch it. But always, having enough hands to handle that produce is a tall order.

Last fall, we got four cases of cauliflower at once. That was a lot of cream of cauliflower soup, and a lot of mac and cheese with cauliflower. The beautiful white heads landed on a week when the kitchen was shy of volunteers and workers. One woman and I carved them into edible pieces, and both had bad dreams of cutting up brains.

The night of the green beans was different. We ran out of cutting boards and knives fast, and could have made quick work of that cauliflower.

Through the Women Changing the World program at Sage, about 20 seniors a semester work with me in the community, exploring food justice in Troy. We learn about food issues globally, nationally and locally, partnering with the Produce Project, and with the soup kitchen at Unity House.

The green beans taught my class that night. I didn’t even need to open my mouth. The women noticed how many hands it took to turn the near-compost into a dish. That noticing reminded them of the farm workers they’d read about in Tracie McMillan’s book, The American Way of Eating. The author worked in the bottom tiers of the food system, in California fields, at the produce department in a Detroit Walmart, and as an expediter at a chain restaurant.

The green beans taught me, too. Getting them from the coop and having a large group of people help sort them made me see that more hands is what we need everywhere in food. We need more farmers, and more home gardeners, and more people working together in all kinds of community cooking enterprises.

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rod Averbuch April 17, 2014 at 6:44 pm

The large amount of food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, the struggling families in today’s tough economy and for the food retailers. There is no single cure, or silver bullet for food waste reduction therefore, we should address the food waste problem in every link in our food supply chain. For example, the excess inventory of perishable food items close to their expiration on supermarket shelves causes waste.
The consumer “Last In First Out” shopping behavior might be one of the weakest links of the fresh food supply chain.
The new open GS1 DataBar standard enables applications that encourage efficient consumer shopping by offering him automatic and dynamic purchasing incentives for perishables approaching their expiration dates before they end up in a landfill.
The “End Grocery Waste” application, which is based on the open GS1 DataBar standard, encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue, makes fresh food affordable for all families and effectively reduces the global carbon footprint. You can look this application up at EndGroceryWaste.com

Rod,
Chicago, IL

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Kim McMann April 18, 2014 at 8:26 am

Bravo Amy – this is such an important link in the food security chain! Catching the good food that is headed for the landfill and creating delicious meals with it is a very inexpensive way for anybody to help – perhaps you can let everybody know some places to volunteer in a future issue of Metroland! Thanks for reminding us that we can all make a difference and we all need to work to make sure our farmers hard work isn’t headed for the landfill!

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Natasha Pernicka April 18, 2014 at 9:47 am

Amy, This is an insightful article. There are many more opportunities for people to help reduce waste and provide nutritious food to the 67,000 individuals in Albany, Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties who experience food insecurity – which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal. This includes 23,000 infants and children under 18 in the Capital District live in this condition – unable to consistently access nutritious and adequate amounts of food necessary for a healthy life. The Food Pantries for the Capital District “rescued” more than 250,000 pounds of bread and baked items last year through and delivered them directly members of our coalition of 53 local food pantries – Unity House is one of our members. Our coalition distributes enough grocery items to provide 2.5 million meals annually – we need a lot of food! Many of our member food pantries are looking for ways to access and provide more produce to those seeking assistance. If anyone would like to work with us on our produce initiative please contact us at 518-458-1167 or natasha@thefoodpantries.org! Thanks again for raising the awareness of and inspiring your readers!

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