OPINION: Feeding people, not trash cans

3 years ago
food waste


My passion with keeping food out of the trash can began in college, where I saw trays of perfectly good food being dumped down the garbage disposal in the cafeteria. It was a jolting contrast to my experience volunteering and living with families in South East Asia just a year prior.  Overwhelmed by the abundance, excess and waste of food, I developed a habit of eating my friends’ pizza crusts and other leftovers. Eventually this resulted in my gaining 25 lbs and realizing I needed to come up with a better solution.

Despite national efforts to alleviate hunger and reduce food waste, these problems persist and are in fact more heightened than ever before. We are throwing away 40% of all the food we produce while 50 million Americans don’t have adequate access to food. I see this as one of the most disturbing and yet solvable paradoxes of our time. Reducing food losses by just 15% could feed more than 25 million Americans.

In addition to the absurd amount of lost nutrition and environmental damage as a result of food waste, we’re spending $750 million each year just to dispose of all this food.

What if businesses and municipalities were to shift just a fraction of these funds towards the recovery and redistribution of excess food instead? What if we were to invest in the creation of a professional food recovery service sector as an extension of our current waste management system and as an opportunity to create jobs in the green economy? This is Food Shift’s vision.

We believe we can employ and train thousands of people in the recovery, redistribution and processing of surplus food.

This requires a shift in our thinking around both food recovery and food assistance. For decades, we have relied on charity groups to address these massive challenges of food waste and hunger. Despite their obvious value, most food recovery groups in the U.S. provide a free service, receive limited financial support and depend on volunteer commitments to operate. This structure is unsustainable and limits their ability to expand, increase impact, purchase necessary infrastructure, provide wages, and effectively tackle a crisis of this magnitude.

Additionally, food alone will not solve the problem of hunger. A free meal or bag of groceries is only a temporary fix to a complex problem rooted in unemployment and structural inequality. And that is why Food Shift is working so hard to shift the paradigm around food recovery and food assistance from one that is volunteer and hand-out based to one that focuses on jobs and self-sufficiency. Food Shift is developing innovative food recovery models that generate revenue so individuals can be trained and employed in the process.

Currently we are exploring a fee-for-service model in Oakland,  California with Andronico’s Community Markets. Yes, they are actually willing to pay us to recover and redistribute food from their 5 store locations. Why? Well for one, it makes sense.  Grocers pay for trash and recycling removal, why not pay the people who are removing  unwanted, discarded food? They also see it as a way to reduce waste disposal costs, receive tax deductions, and benefit the community and environment which of course is valuable for marketing and branding.

Additionally, we are working with St. Vincent de Paul and Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) to make use of cosmetically imperfect and surplus food from farms and grocers.  With this food we are going to set up farmers markets, in communities like West Oakland, where we have liquor stores but no grocery stores.  We are going to sell the produce at a low cost on a sliding scale so low-income individuals and families can access affordable nutritious food.

We also are piloting a program in which we will utilize this food to create value-added products – like jams, sauces and chutneys. Both of these programs will be used as job training opportunities for individuals who are overcoming difficult life circumstances.

These are realistic strategies that embrace the potential of food to be used as a tool to empower people and strengthen communities. This is a way we can do more than just feed people through a soup kitchen but also “feed” them through skill building, employment and opportunity. Rather than spending resources on waste disposal, we need to explore, invest in, and replicate these models that are creating opportunity and developing more healthy communities.

Part of this vision involves developing new systems, piloting and testing new models, and figuring out what works in our communities and contexts. But, we also can learn from similar programs that have already demonstrated success like DC Central Kitchen where for 25 years they have been reducing waste, feeding the hungry, providing jobs and generating revenue.

On behalf of Food Shift, I invite you to join us in the movement to shift the abundance of food in our nation away from trash cans and toward empowerment and opportunity. If you believe food is too good to waste, please subscribe to our monthly newsletter, donate what you can, and vote here until May 12th to help Food Shift win free advertising on San Francisco’s public transit. Together we can increase awareness about the social and environmental impacts of wasted food and inspire us all to be part of the solution!

Dana is Founder of Food Shift. For over a decade she has worked to inspire, support and create social change through her work on college campuses, with businesses, and at Ashoka’s Changemakers. Food Shift is an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project based in Oakland, CA dedicated to developing long-term sustainable solutions to reduce food waste by working collaboratively with communities, businesses and governments.

 RYOT NOTE: We know that food waste is a major, major issue, not just nationally but globally. Especially considering how many around the world die of starvation, we need to shift our thinking in order to help solve this problem. Food Shift is trying to solve the problem of food waste, starting with San Francisco. They have a great, scalable model that uses food abundance to feed the hungry rather than go to waste. Take a minute to vote in the action box above to help them win free public transit advertising to get the word out about the impacts of food waste.

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