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.