Food waste has become a moral issue in my household. An ardent recycler, my wife admirably seeks ways to reduce the amount of trash our family generates. When I get lazy and toss some food scrap into the garbage can, rather than the green waste bin, she dutifully pulls it out and puts it in the right place.
Food waste seems to be taking over my life outside the home, as well. I recently authored a book, Big Hunger, critiquing the failure of the anti-hunger field to address systemic issues that cause hunger. Attendees at my book talks frequently ask my opinion on food waste as a solution to hunger.
The more I immerse myself in this topic, the more I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth. And watching the new Rockefeller Foundation-funded film Wasted! The Story of Food Waste only serves to exacerbate this feeling. Narrated by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Wasted! does provide an important contribution. It calls into question the obscene amounts of food that we waste from farm to table, along with the environmental damage such waste causes.
The film provides examples of how such waste could be repurposed, following the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy of using surplus food for people, animals, bioenergy, compost, and landfills, in that order. Wasted! entertains and educates as it seeks to inspire cultural change in the way we approach such factors as cosmetically imperfect produce, expiration dates, and the numerous unused parts of plants and animals that get plowed under or turned into pet food.
But the film goes bad in the first few minutes when it skips over source reduction, reducing the volume of surplus food generated, which is the first step in the EPA’s inverted pyramid hierarchy. It fails to address the much more complicated question of why we waste so much food in the first place.
As a nation, we seem to have the tendency to avoid these sticky political questions in favor of technological solutions, and in doing so ignore the economic system, policies, and incentives that encourage 40 percent of all food to go to waste .
Historically, food wasn’t wasted in lean times, when cultures had to survive literally on the crusts. Yet today, the industrialization of agriculture has rendered food relatively inexpensive, although the 12 percent of the population considered food insecure would likely disagree.
According to the USDA, Americans spend just 6.4 percent of their household income on food, less than any other nation.
Food is cheap not just because of mechanization, but also because we externalize the costs of its production onto the public till. Likewise, the price of food at the checkout does not reflect the full cost of labor. Companies such as Walmart, for example, routinely underpay their workers and encourage them to patronize food pantries or enroll in public food assistance programs to supplement their wages.
According to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, food chain workers are the lowest paid of any sector, earning on average $10 per hour as compared to the median wage for all industries of $17.53. Food-chain workers are more likely to rely on public assistance and be more food insecure than in any other economic sector.
Thus, the low cost of ingredients and labor enable food waste. And if the food industry is addicted to overproduction, then the emergency food system is its enabler. Shelves at food pantries overflow with donated bakery products—things like breads and pastries. Why? Cheap sugar, wheat, butter, and labor make it economically viable for supermarkets to overproduce or over-order. They have found, by and large, that shoppers prefer an appearance of abundance and a wide selection from which to choose.
And when the unpurchased baked goods pass their “sell-by date,” retailers earn a tax deduction for donating them to charities at the generous midpoint between retail and wholesale price, allowing them to recapture part of their overhead. In addition, charitable donations can help retailers reduce their garbage disposal costs as well as improve their public image.
But what if these products are so unhealthy that dumping them onto the poor, who typically suffer from high rates of diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, just reinforces structural inequities in our society?
To their credit, many food banks around the country have dramatically increased the amount of fruits and veggies they distribute. A smaller number are refusing to accept junk food, especially soda. For example, the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., has removed 84 percent of unhealthy foods from its distribution stream by refusing full-calorie sodas, holiday candy, and sheet cakes, among other items.
At a recent talk I gave in Madison, Wisconsin, one attendee mentioned that after being provided information on diet-related health disparities and healthy food pantry initiatives, one food bank wanted to reduce the amount of pastries it distributed to customers. Following the EPA Food Recovery hierarchy, it found a pig farmer who would take the baked goods. All was fine, until a month later when the hog farmer informed them that he could no longer take the pastries because his pigs were getting too aggressive since consuming them. The similarities between pig and human physiology are well-documented.
It makes little sense to be rewarding companies with $200 million in tax deductions for donating surplus food to charity if our goal is to reduce food waste in the first place. Seen through a health lens, providing these tax deductions for junk food contradicts our nation’s dietary guidelines, which discourage consumption of foods high in sugar and salt.
And the food banks have become hooked, as well. I write in my book that the preservation of the tax deduction that companies receive for donating wasted food has been at the top of the legislative agenda of the nation’s food banking hub, Feeding America.
Perhaps what we need, as the film Wasted!suggests, is a culture shift, in which surplus food donations are seen as a badge of shame rather than one of corporate social responsibility. What if we taxed food waste rather than gave companies a tax break? What if, at minimum, we limited the tax deduction to only healthy foods, such as produce? What if food banks sought to make themselves obsolete within two decades by eliminating poverty rather than just perpetuating themselves by encouraging food waste?
In November, I was in Scotland, where the government is doing just that: looking for an exit strategy from the rapid growth of food charity, because they believe relying on food banks to be an inherently undignified way of life. Earlier in the year, I heard Toronto food activists liken the low quality of surplus food to the patronizing attitude with which the poor are too often treated. These critics said that food banks distribute “garbage food for garbage people.”
Here in the U.S., we badly need to shift our charity culture, to view food waste through the lens of the dignity, not to mention health, of the poor rather than through the prism of logistics and efficiency. During my years of research for Big Hunger, I have discovered racism and oppressive power dynamics within food pantries, as typically white and middle-class volunteers, such as myself, control the food that working-class and often people of color receive.
So, what should the industry do about existing food waste? Distributing surplus healthy food to people is clearly a superior option to throwing it away. Yet, food pantries are not the only option. Social enterprises such as L.A. Kitchen, Food Shift in Oakland, California, and Real Junk Food cafes in the U.K. provide other benefits, such as job creation and skills development. Many food banks have also moved in this direction, creating food processing and catering businesses.
Let’s be clear. Food waste distribution is not the solution to hunger except on a temporary basis. Hunger is a symptom of poverty. Eliminating poverty will not be achieved by giving people day-old baguettes or even carrots and kale, but by working in solidarity to help them build their skills, education, wages, and political power. A bag of groceries is a measly substitute for political power.
Teaser photo credit: Photo from Wasted! directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye.