It’s 8:30 a.m., and our first pick-up is underway. Not a substantial haul, but not a small one either, and it looks something like this: 600 pounds of organic milk, 5 days before it’s expiration date; 38 pounds of raspberries, perfect, red and ripe. There’s also 56 pounds of wholesome, locally-produced bread that was baked last night, 64 pounds of sandwiches and salads made yesterday, and 45 pounds of fresh, organic chicken breasts, too. All of this is on top of the crates upon crates of fresh produce, teeming with perfect tomatoes, chard, baby lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, and more.
This is what we pick up every morning. This is what America is throwing away.
For our food rescue, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, this is one pick-up, from one supermarket, on one morning in one city. Which begs the question ― why is this happening?
Americans discard 40 percent of the food we produce. That amounts to 63 million tons of food each year. Moreover, consumers, food producers and retailers in the U.S. spend $218 billion (or 1.3 percent of the GDP) producing, transporting, and disposing food that is ultimately wasted. According to ReFed, that’s 52 million tons of food sent to landfill annually, plus another 10 million tons that is discarded or left unharvested on farms.
There are a multitude of causes which contribute to the staggering amount of unsalable product out there, and chief among them is imperfection. Cosmetic blemishes, mislabeling, anything that doesn’t meet the current consumer standard of perfection.
And perfection, or the perception thereof, is driving our waste problem. When was the last time you walked into a grocery store and saw a display of bananas that were freckled or apples that were bruised?
To boot, there is the factor of excess. Let’s look at the produce department at a grocery store. Stores believe that consumers buy more when selecting from an abundant display of produce. So, they overstock product, thinking it will lead to happier customers who will buy more produce. The result? More product than the grocer can sell, which must be replaced with the new product that arrives. That less-fresh produce is usually destined for the dumpster ― all to keep that produce pyramid of apples and tomatoes appearing stocked.
Then, there are expiration dates. For perishable food, expiration dates don’t necessarily serve as a guarantee of freshness but rather a date to sell-by. This encourages the consumer to buy more, quicker, thereby requiring larger and faster re-ordering from the store.
Dairy is routinely pulled from the shelves almost one entire week before its sell-by date, as a best practice among retailers. Consider your own experience ― when you are standing in front of the dairy case and you have the choice between two cartons of milk, one having an expiration date of July 15 and the other August 1, which one do you pick? Ever consider what happens to the milk that is still within the sell-by date?
Wasted food is the single-largest component of the waste stream. For food not incinerated, it rots in landfills, and emits methane, a gas twenty-five times more harmful than CO2. Imagine football stadiums worth of food, decomposing in landfills.
Moreover, it is impossible to acknowledge the havoc food waste is wreaking on our environment, without also recognizing the resources that are being wasted along with it. It’s not just the food being wasted ― so, too, is the water (one-quarter of all freshwater goes towards producing food that is ultimately wasted), the oil and the energy being wasted. And the energy of that of our nation’s farmers. They are growing food to watch it get thrown away.
And finally, we must acknowledge climate change and the role food waste has in contributing to it. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, globally more than 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide is released into our atmosphere as a result of the the production, transportation, distribution and packaging of wasted food.
Here’s the good news: wasting this much food is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT PREVENTABLE. How many problems of this scale can we say that about? With the help of pioneering organizations like City Harvest and DC Central Kitchen, Lovin’ Spoonfuls has created a system utilizing modern technology, community partnerships, and logistical best practices to perfect a process that is replicable and adaptable to any geographic area in this country.
Since we began in 2010, Lovin’ Spoonfuls has rescued and prevented more than 4 million pounds of fresh, healthy food from going into landfills, diverting it instead to soup kitchens, shelters, senior services, children’s programs, and community programs that feed a collective 20,000 underserved people each week in Massachusetts. Our refrigerated trucks rescue thousands of pounds of pristine perishable food each day ― more than 35,000 weekly ― doing same-day distribution to the folks that need it the most.
Across the country, 47 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from (in Massachusetts, it’s more than 700,000 people). One in five children live in food insecure households, and we’re literally throwing the answer ― and their lifeline ― away.
Every problem needs a solution, and everything preventable ought to be prevented. Food rescue tackles our wasted food problem simply and effectively, providing a solid triple-bottom line solution that benefits people, the planet, and profit.
Let’s work to reframe the way we think about food, reframe the way we think about need, and reframe the way we think about access. Hunger is not about ‘not enough’, it is a matter of distribution. There is enough food out there, we just need to bring it where it needs to go.
Let’s put the value back in food, our strongest and most necessary resource ―and stop throwing it away.