I am fresh from a weeklong immersion into my family’s beautiful relationship with food. During my recent visit home to France I was reminded that, for my relatives, every meal is a celebration of taste and delight, togetherness and joy. Part of this gratitude and reverence is connected to my father’s first five years, which were spent in Nazi-occupied Paris. This time of depravation and struggle taught my father, who taught me, that every morsel of food is a blessing. It is sacred. Food is never something to be taken for granted or wasted. I don’t know a single family who doesn’t have a similar story; of times of abundance and times of need.
Much has changed for the good since my father’s childhood. Food is now abundant, both where I grew up in France and here in the heartland of America. The bounty of fresh produce, protein and grains that we enjoy here in Minnesota is astounding. Still, it seems we’ve lost our sense of the sacred when it comes to food. We have come to expect very full plates — heaping restaurant portions have become the norm at family tables — and this overflow makes it hard to imagine our neighbors going hungry. In fact, hunger persists for 1 in 11 people in Minnesota.
Too many are one medical bill away from hunger
Yes, unemployment is low, and the economy is solid for some, but too many members of our community are just one flat tire or one big medical bill away from facing hunger.
How did we get to this point? How could we have come so far in so many ways in the last century and still accept prevalent hunger? I think it goes back to what my father and so many others during his time guarded against: food waste.
It is nearly impossible to talk about hunger without talking about food waste. Approximately 72 billion pounds of food is wasted each year — including 20 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables that go unharvested — and this doesn’t even include the 72 billion pounds of food that consumers waste at home. Let that sink in for a minute. 72 billion pounds.
30+ percent of food goes uneaten
This perfectly good food ends up in landfills and incinerators. Across the U.S., more than 30 percent of food produced goes uneaten, and when that food is disposed of in landfills it generates large quantities of methane — a potent greenhouse gas emitter.
This isn’t about casting blame. Waste happens at every point in the food production process. Buyers backing out of orders, unfavorable weather and overforecasting can leave hardworking farmers with excess crop. Variances in the way food is harvested or packaged can cause some perfectly edible food to be labeled “off-spec”— meaning the food doesn’t meet the stringent specifications set by the buyer. Produce with minor cosmetic blemishes may be turned away by grocery stores and other retailers trying to meet their customers’ preference for beautiful food.
Moreover, our abundant supply of food means that even perfect foods must be removed to make room for today’s deliveries. These are just a few of the many reasons edible food may not be used.
Rescuing food: How it works
At Second Harvest Heartland we’ve worked alongside our partners to initiate a massive response to rescue all this food. We gather up all this healthy food and transport it to nearby meal programs and food shelves. It just makes sense for our community and the environment. Here’s how we get it done:
Our Agricultural Surplus Program accepts food donations that would otherwise go un-harvested or unsold from Minnesota farmers, commercial growers and processors. When brought to our distribution center, this donated food is visually inspected to ensure that, although it might be imperfect, it is still safe and edible. In the rare case that a food item cannot be salvaged, it still doesn’t go to waste.
If food donated to our facility isn’t suitable for people to eat, we work with a local farmer who turns the produce into animal feed. As a last resort, we will send our produce to a local composter. Logistically speaking, this is a major feat. That our volunteer workforce and food program partners help us move this much food to and from the Second Harvest Heartland distribution center always amazes me.
Next, our Retail Food Rescue Program partners with grocers and hospitality retailers to rescue food being diverted from grocery store shelves. Every day, the professional Retail Food Rescue fleet and trained food shelf partners collect thousands of pounds of produce, dairy, deli, meat, bakery and grocery items. This donated product is quickly distributed to food shelves, meal programs and shelters.
Matching prepared food to those who need it
Finally, our Prepared Food Rescue program uses an online platform called MealConnect. The platform makes it easy to match donations from caterers, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and school kitchens to meal programs, homeless shelters and other organizations that serve meals to our neighbors experiencing hunger. Donations are either collected by an agency partner or a trained volunteer.
Last year, we collected 275,000 pounds of food through MealConnect, and we expect this program to grow as more prepared food partners and hunger programs use the app to connect.
In 2018, we rerouted 38.8 million pounds of surplus food from nearly 500 local retail, hotel, restaurant and catering partners. We delivered that food to our partners across the region, who provided 32 million meals for people experiencing hunger. Still, we need to do more. If we all work together, we can move even more of this perfectly good food to those who need it. We can honor our parents and grandparents who knew that food was something to be viewed as sacred and shared.
Thierry Ibri is the chief operation and program officer at Second Harvest Heartland.
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