In the advanced world that we live in, it is hard to believe that there are still millions of people without access to the most basic of human needs: enough food to eat. It is even more absurd because in the most developed nations, there is the exact opposite of a food shortage. According to the USDA, approximately 30-40% of our food supply in the United States ends up uneaten and in landfills, when it could have provided crucial nutrition to one of the 815 million people in the world suffering from chronic undernourishment (World Hunger). Even worse, organic material sitting in landfills releases methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases, which causes significant harm to our atmosphere (Climate Central). A statement from the chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, Paul Polman, sums up the issue fairly well: “We don’t need more technology to solve these (environmental and social) problems. What we need is willpower. Do we really care? We’re so good at making food we waste 30-40% of it. We know how to build houses, but homelessness in Seattle and San Francisco is worse than what you might see in Africa. Diarrhea still kills 3 million children per year. We have the solutions. We don’t have the leadership to implement them.” The amount of food waste in the world today is enough to feed every hungry person twice over, amounting to about one trillion dollars (World Food Program USA). So the question I have sought to answer is, how did this happen, and how can we fix it? The answer is more complicated than it seems.
While large organizations are definitely at fault, Americans as individuals waste a lot of food, amounting to 150,000 tons per day (Milman). Mainly, it is a result of poor planning or forgotten leftovers in the back of the refrigerator, which calls for a major change in behavior from everyone. The Environmental Protection Agency has created what they call the “Food Recovery Hierarchy,” that lists different ways the individual consumer can reduce their food waste in a descending order of effectiveness (EPA). The inverted pyramid begins with source reduction at the top, which involves creating less waste by purchasing only what you will use, and then follows with donating extra food to a food bank, feeding animals, industrial use, composting, and finally, tossing extra food in a landfill. This is an excellent format for informing and encouraging people to take their food waste into their own hands, but requires a great deal of time, effort, and resources that not everyone has. The solutions are clearly there, however they are not accessible to a very large group of people. Composting requires not only the purchase of a special bin for your kitchen and a large vessel for the backyard, but it also requires a backyard, and spare time to learn about what can be composted, and how to turn and maintain the pile. Sustainability is very interconnected with privilege, leaving poorer consumers with no other option than to purchase cheaper items with a larger negative environmental impact than more expensive items. Even in the case of eating out, the cheaper options (fast food) are, not surprisingly, some of the biggest contributors to food waste, amounting to 32 Billion pounds per year (Social Impact). More luxurious dining establishments have the profit margin and more well off owners/ workers that allow them to invest in systems to donate leftover food. The higher prices allow them to increase sustainability, which fast food establishments do not have.
In order to make sustainable and waste free eating accessible to people with limited resources, we need to make the physical and educational resources available to everyone. Programs such as FEAST Virginia that teach people how to make nutritional food with low cost, plant based, items are a crucial part of reducing food waste and building a more sustainable food chain and society. The more people know about the impact of what they eat, and are able to make more conscious decisions about what is good for their body and the planet, the better.