The Food Waste-Hunger Paradox
In the United States each year we waste 133 billion pounds of food while 48 million people face hunger, including 15 million children, according to Feeding America and the US Department of Agriculture. So we are wasting 31% of our food while 15% of our population is hungry. This is a worldwide problem which is even more severe in developing countries.
How can so much food waste and so much hunger occur simultaneously?
Food Waste and Hunger are Invisible
The problems of food waste and hunger are largely invisible to most people most of the time. Food waste usually doesn’t register on our awareness at all. There is plenty of cheap food available everywhere to people who are not poor, so we don’t need to be careful about what we buy at the grocery store and we don’t get sad if we wind up throwing it out. Huge restaurant portions are more than we can eat and if we don’t take it home, or even if we do, it gets thrown out too. The environmental impact of food waste typically doesn’t get considered either.
Hunger may get a little attention during times when charitable giving is explicitly encouraged, such as the year end holiday season or corporate United Way fundraising drives. Otherwise the average person isn’t thinking about hunger or the poverty that drives hunger. But the reality Feeding America has shown us is that hunger affects working people, students, and veterans, who may be forced to make choices between food and medical care, housing or transportation.
The USDA recently announced a goal of cutting food waste in the United States by 50% in 15 years. I felt the announcement itself was largely symbolic because it lacked details about program funding or specific legislative goals. Still, it should have a great impact by raising consumer awareness in the United States, and by inspiring greater collaboration among the non-governmental organizations, businesses and state governments that have been working hard to reduce the food waste-hunger paradox in this decade.
The food waste-hunger paradox was included in the USDA announcement: “reducing food losses by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, helping to sharply reduce incidences of food insecurity for millions.” They also spoke to the environmental impact of food waste. So the issue has been framed well, which is a big accomplishment for the experts and advocates I know have been working hard to make that a reality.
To Learn More
At the Zero Food Waste Forum in Berkeley last year I had the pleasure of meeting producer Jenny Rustemeyer and director Grant Baldwin when they screened their sustainable food documentary “Just Eat It” for more than 100 thought leaders in food waste reduction from the United States and Europe. The movie follows the couple as they commit to eating entirely from food that was going to be thrown out from grocers, restaurants, etc., and shows how we waste entirely too much healthy edible food as a society when there are so many who go hungry. The tone of this movie isn’t preachy or overly serious: there is plenty of humor and the outdoor scenes feature Grant’s amazing cinematography. “Just Eat It” is available on demand starting October 20.
Self-described “Food Waste Warrior” Dana Gunders has followed up her authoritative study with a new book to help consumers. As one of the top experts on food waste in the United States, Dana focuses on practical tips to stop wasting so much food at home. Dana led the Zero Food Waste Forum and her enthusiasm for reducing food waste is contagious.
My intent is to be thought-provoking and idea-generating. Whether you share these visions and are trying to pursue them, or you have a completely opposite view, let’s keep the conversation going at @mikefenocketti.
- Feeding America. “Hunger and Poverty Fact Sheet”. 2014.
- Feeding America. “Key Findings” of the report “Hunger in America 2014”.
- Malcolm, Hadley. “Government agencies set goal to cut food waste in half by 2030”. USA Today. September 16, 2015.
- United Nations Environment Programme. “Food Waste Facts”. 2013.
- United Nations World Food Programme. “Hunger Statistics”. 2015.
- USDA News Release. “USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation’s First Food Waste Reduction Goals”. September 16, 2015.