Sustainable America Blog

Tackling the Food Waste Crisis

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With some 7 billion people on the planet and growing, the demand for calories is increasing with no end in sight. Today, there are many dynamic people and organizations working diligently to increase food supply and make our food systems more efficient.

Food waste is a huge part of the problem that needs to be addressed. A recent NRDC report showed that Americans waste some 40% of the food that is produced and we are not the only ones, food waste is a worldwide issue.

Anna Lappe and Danielle Nierenberg are two women at the forefront of the sustainable food movement. They are pioneering innovative ways to deal with issues like food waste and increasing food supply through speaking, writing and engaging social entreprenuership.

Anna Lappe co-authored Hope’s Edge in 2002 with her mother Frances Moore Lappe, a famous activist in her own right who some 30 years ago wrote the now classic book Diet for a Small Planet. Hope’s Edge offers a window into various social movements around the world that are creatively seeking to end hunger. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Anna is a respected author and educator focused on the pressing issues around sustainable food systems.

Her most recent book released in 2010, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, takes a hard look at the ways that modern agriculture is contributing to human-induced climate change.

Anna and Frances also founded the Small Planet Institute, an international network for research and education around the root causes of poverty and hunger. They administrate the Small Planet Fund, through which they have raised over $785,000 for social movements worldwide.

Danielle Nierenberg, along with another dynamic food activist Ellen Gustafson, is co-founder of FoodTank: The Food Think Tank. An expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues, Danielle recently spent two years traveling to 35 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia to learn environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty.

In a field rife with dire predictions, Nierenberg and Gustafson take an optimist’s approach: “Food Tank will highlight hope and success in agriculture. We will feature innovative ideas that are already working on the ground, in cities, in kitchens, in fields and in laboratories.”

Together, Anne Lappe and Danielle Nierenberg recently teamed up to write an article for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Hungering for a Solution to Food Losses.” It’s a call to action around the complex problem of worldwide rampant food waste.

They point out some facts that should startle and inspire action. The article opens with the amazing fact that, “Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, you and I and everyone we know will waste about five million tons of food—enough to fill 125,000 18-wheelers, which would stretch from Chicago to Seattle.” And that’s just one holiday season, in one country in the world.

The problem of food waste touches everyone. In the developing world, the waste issue primarily stems from inadequate storage and transportation of food. Sometimes really simple solutions can make a huge difference. In Pakistan for example, “the U.N. has helped farmers reduce grain-storage losses by up to 70% just by replacing jute storage bags and mud silos with metal grain-storage containers that protect against moisture and prevent insects and rats from eating grain.”

In America, food waste is typically happening at the retailer or point of consumption. The EPA estimates that Americans throw away approximately 1.5 pounds of food per person per day. Sustainable America created a special infographic to explain some of the ways food is wasted and lost around the globe, inspired by Lappe and Nierenberg’s Wall Street Journal piece.

Lappe and Nierenberg cite the success of the California Association of Food Banks’ “Farm to Family” initiative. Launched in 2006, it tackles food waste by collecting produce from growers and packers that would have otherwise gone to waste. Typically the produce is simply not aesthetically fit for the grocery store shelves and discerning consumers. By 2011, the program was distributing some 120 million pounds of fruits and vegetables around the state.

Both of these dynamic women believe that there is enough food to feed everyone, and that by tackling the issues of distribution and waste along the food chain, we will realize this abundance in the future. Whether you agree with them or not, they embody the sort of unwavering optimism and ‘can-do’ attitude that is needed as we work towards creating sustainable food systems to feed our growing populations into the future.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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