NO, we don’t mean “yo’ mama” jokes. We’re talking about the amount of food that goes to waste in the United States – estimates say as much as 40%. At a cost of more than $160 billion to the U.S. economy annually, it’s a big problem, and it’s something the government, businesses and consumers are taking seriously.
Think back to the recent holiday season. Once the gifts were unwrapped and stowed away, the decorations were ready to return to the attic, and out-of-of town visitors had returned to their various destinations, had all the food you’d purchased, received as a gift or prepared been eaten? Or did some – maybe even a substantial portion – end up in the trash?
If everything was eaten, congratulations are in order. That’s likely a testament to careful planning as well as enviable cooking skills, not to mention a hearty appetite or two. However, for those of you who found some leftover stuffing or an uneaten fruit cake making its way into the garbage, you’re not alone.
Food waste is a large and growing issue, both domestically and internationally, and the Tampa Bay area is no exception to the larger trends. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 20% of garbage in American landfills is food waste – the biggest contributor. And the Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the average family of four wastes close to $1,600 worth of food each year. That translates to a little more than 9 cents of every dollar we spend on food. So much for clipping coupons, huh?
This degree of waste has impacts on a number of levels – social, environmental, economic – and for society at large. None of them are positive.
- Food related energy consumption represents as much as 15% of total U.S. energy use.
- Agriculture is the world’s biggest consumer of freshwater, accounting for 70% of all use, and a quarter of water used in America going towards wasted food.
- Food waste that ends up in landfills decomposes and generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
- All things considered, food waste costs an estimated $750 billion globally and $240 billion domestically each year.
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
In terms of waste reduction, the EPA has produced a recommended hierarchy for food recovery. At the most preferred level is the charge to reduce food waste at its source – be that on a farm, at a grocery store or in the consumer’s home. While there is lots of work to be done to address the waste in our current industrialized food system, since consumer-level losses – meaning food tossed out by individuals like you and me – represent 21% or 90 billion pounds of total waste, it makes sense to start at home.
Feeding hungry people is the next most-desired outcome, and Feeding America Tampa Bay – which is part of a nationwide non-profit organization and network of food banks that feeds more that 37 million people – plays a substantial role in making this happen in our area.
For instance, the organization is working in conjunction with the state government to recover produce that otherwise would end up rotting in the field. That’s currently the fate of approximately two million pounds of produce per year, for reasons such as demand not being high enough to justify the expense of harvest or that the crops aren’t aesthetically pleasing enough for grocery store standards, among other reasons. The good news is that the amount being redirected to food banks is increasing each year: six million pounds in 2013, up to 10 million pounds in 2014.
Feeding America Tampa Bay is also partnering with retailers such as Trader Joe’s and Panera Bread, who have made process improvements that allow them to donate prepared foods – which typically present a challenge for food banks, where it can be difficult to ensure proper temperatures are maintained throughout the entire chain of command – directly to soup kitchens, where staff have the necessary training and equipment to handle these foods. Ideally, these programs can be used as models for other companies that currently are sending prepared foods to the dumpster.
THE END OF THE LINE
Once food has reached a disposal facility, there are still options for reducing the impact of the waste. Many municipalities, including both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, burn garbage to produce energy, a practice that does put the trash to use, though the benefits and disadvantages are widely debated. But even with incineration, a sizable amount of waste still ends up in landfills.
For example, in Pinellas County, about 15% of solid waste doesn’t meet requirements for burning and, according to Solid Waste Program Supervisor Bill Embree, a study his department commissioned this past summer showed that a little more than 16% of waste at the site consists of food or other organic materials (such as paper or wood) – less than the national average, but still in the same ballpark.
Using this information, the county is evaluating programs that would allow organic materials to be recycled or composted, similar to waste-management programs established in other cities around the country, with the intent of getting closer to the state’s goal of recycling 75% of waste by the year 2020.
In the end, easy come, easy go is the current state of our food system. When previous generations had to milk the cow, hoe the rows of vegetables and slaughter the pigs for meat, the value of their food was obvious. They knew the time, effort and sacrifice involved in bringing food to the table. Today, we can pick up a gallon of milk the same place we buy a gallon of gas, our vegetables come pristine from supermarket shelves, and our meat is processed and packaged in a way that distances it from ever having been an animal. Food is easily replaceable, even in a society where some go hungry.
The local food movement is helping to bring us back to a more responsible relationship with food. Knowing your food’s source and the farmer who grew it may take more effort and yes, in some cases more money, but it’s also likely to make you think twice before you let those cucumbers rot in the vegetable drawer. It’s about respect … something that shouldn’t be tossed out with your trash.
SAVING FOOD, SERVING FOOD
Feeding America Tampa Bay covers 10 counties and more than 700,000 hungry individuals, including 250,000 children. According to Thomas Mantz, Executive Director of Feeding America Tampa Bay, their goal is “to put a plate in front of a person who’s hungry.” That means anyone who doesn’t know when their next meal will be or where it will come from, what the agency refers to as “food insecure.”
To help meet the need for roughly 110 million meals per year for the hungry in Tampa Bay, Feeding America receives donations from a large number of familiar names – Publix, Winn Dixie, Walmart – as well as local farms and food distributors.
Usually, the items would be thrown away if they were not donated.
At times, that can mean an entire tractor- trailer of fresh strawberries, peppers, cabbages or watermelons. It can also mean more unique items – think bottles of high-end sparkling water, or two trucks full of clam juice. The food must meet the same quality standards as anything sold in a grocery store … not only safe, but also good to eat.
Based on 2013 data, Feeding America met a little more than a third of what would fully fill demand for food in our area, or 40 million meals, providing a critical service in the community – both in terms of reducing waste and feeding the hungry. However, there is still much work to do.
As Mantz puts it, “The good news is there is enough food to feed everybody. The challenge is that it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.”