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Food Waste And Food Insecurity: Connecting The Issues For Solutions For Change

According to a report by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS), the United States wasted 31% of its available food supply in 2010. This staggering number equates to a loss of 133 billion pounds out of the available 430 billion pounds of US food. The USDA and ERS define food loss as “the edible amount of food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason. It includes cooking loss and natural shrinkage (for example, moisture loss); loss from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; and food waste”. The massive amount of food that ends up in a landfill rather than on someone’s plate has dramatic consequences for both the economy and the environment; it also presents a potential solution to food insecurity in the US.

The ERS estimated that $161.6 billion of food was lost in 2010 at the retail and consumer level in the United States. Within this figure, loss of meat, poultry, and fish comprised $48 billion, while vegetables comprised $30 billion and dairy products made up the remaining $27 billion. Meat, fish, and poultry contributed 30% of the US’s total food waste and vegetables and dairy products contributed 19% and 17% respectively.

USDA Food Waste Inforgraphic, 2014

To make matters worse, food waste contributes to climate change by increasing the amount of waste sent to landfills, which are the source of 20% of the nation’s methane emissions. According to theEnvironmental Protection Agency (EPA), “more food reached landfills and combustion facilities than any other single material in our everyday trash, at 22% of the amount landfilled and at 22% of the amount combusted with energy recovery.”

Besides being an unnecessary drain on the nation’s economy and negatively contributing to climate change, the massive amount of food that is wasted in the US represents an opportunity to address another issue: food insecurity. In 2012, 49 million people lived in food-insecure households in the US. Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as “when the food intake of one or more household members is reduced and eating patterns are disrupted at times during the year because the household lacks money and other resources for food”. The fact that 14.5% of US households are food-insecure stands in direct contrast with the fact that 387 billion calories of food are wasted in the US every day. These two issues clearly oppose each other: if 49 million Americans are hungry, how can we continue to waste 133 billion pounds of food every year?

In 2015, the USDA and EPA announced a goal of reducing food waste to landfills and combustion with energy recovery by 50% by the year 2030. This goal is in alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In order to educate individuals—as well as leaders in private, government, nonprofit, academia, and faith sectors—on various food recovery strategies, the EPA released the Food Recovery Hierarchy in 2015. This chart ranks methods of food disposal from most preferred (source reduction and feeding the hungry) to least preferred (landfill/incarceration). 

Image from US EPA

In order to address these goals, organizations across the country are working in a wide variety of ways to address food waste and food insecurity at the national, state, and local levels. For example, Food Rescue works with children in over 700 schools to educate them about the dangers of food waste and provide them with a platform to discuss food waste at their own schools. This organization specifically targets students in kindergarten through 12th grade in order to create future leaders who are passionate about reducing food waste in their communities. Other organizations work directly with grocery stores to rescue and redistribute food. For example, La Soupe, a nonprofit in Cincinnati, Ohio, specializes in transforming rescued produce from grocery stores into healthy soups which are then distributed to feed those living in food insecurity. Since its inception, La Soupe has rescued 725,563 pounds of food and has donated 414,195 meals with the help of their community partners.

There are also local efforts working to address this issue. For example, one club at Emory is actively working to make a difference in their community and address the second tier of the Food Recovery Hierarchy through food redistribution. Emory Food Chain (EFC) is a student-run organization working to address both food waste and food insecurity through redistribution. During the Fall 2018 semester, the students recovered and donated 2,219 pounds of food, which is the equivalent of 1,850 meals. The club works closely with Emory Dining and the Emory Office of Sustainability Initiatives, as well as their local partners which include Atlanta MissionAtlanta Hospitality HouseToco Hills AllianceGrace Methodist ChurchMercy Community Church, andEmory Bread Coffeehouse. EFC also partners withSecond Helpings Atlanta to recover food from two Whole Foods locations on a weekly basis.

Although Emory Dining works to reduce food waste through source reduction, EFC plays an important role in reducing food waste at Emory because it is the university’s only food recovery program. According to EFC’s president, Madison Mainman, this club is, “…unique in that everyone can connect to [it] in some way. Everyone has some sort of primary experience with food as we all have to eat.” Many students, however, have even deeper connections with food. As Madison explains, “At Emory…there is a perception that most students are well off and don’t wonder where their next meal is coming from, but that’s just not the case […] Not many of us think about choosing between paying for textbooks or going grocery shopping that week, but it is a reality that some Emory students face.” In order to address this issue, Bread Coffee House, one of EFC’s local partners, has started a food pantry for students. Additionally, Emory’s Office of Student Success Programs and Services works to redistribute meal swipes to students who are food insecure. The Center for the Study of Human Health is partnering with Bread Coffeehouse and the Office of Student Success Programs and Services for the #EmoryBandTogether (EBT) campaign to raise awareness of food insecurity, which starts next week. 

This semester, EFC has organized 15 weekly shifts so that student volunteers can register for the ones that best fit their schedule. Volunteers sign up for shifts to pick up extra food from Emory’s dining halls and local grocery stores and deliver it to the club’s community partners. Students can also register for service shifts to volunteer with these organizations, or gardening shifts to help maintain the Cox Hall Garden. Madison believes that “our volunteers are our biggest strength; without them we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.” If you would like to get involved with EFC this semester, use this link before February 13th to register for club membership and sign up for one or more shifts.