Why are we still ditching fresh food when more and more families are now having to turn to Food Banks?
Of all food wasted, the largest percentage being ditched in landfill is fresh fruit and vegetables - exactly the type of food that Food Banks and Food Assistance programmes are short of.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), more fruit and vegetables in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – a combined total of 52 per cent - are sent to landfill than actually eaten by consumers.
So what’s going wrong? Why are we still ditching fresh food when more and more families now having to turn to Food Banks, Soup Kitchens and other Food Assistance programmes? And with Western austerity cuts now biting, why aren’t more of us joining the dots and treating food waste as a food resource?
“I had naively thought we would have eradicated hunger by now,” reflects Nancy Fishman, as she thinks back twenty something years to when she founded food-recycling charity Forgotten Harvest. “Instead, the need for food has grown over the years to a proportion none of us ever imagined.”
Nancy had been flicking through a newspaper one unremarkable day in 1988, when she stumbled across a story about a woman delivering leftover food from restaurants to soup kitchens in her jeep. “I was struck by a bolt of lightening! I had a jeep!” she explains. The next day she drove from one restaurant to the next, collecting surplus food and delivering it to a handful of soup kitchens in her native Detroit, Michigan.
A year after her first food deliveries, Nancy herself was featured in her local paper. The next day, she received a phone call from a rabbi, who told her an elderly couple from his congregation wanted to anonymously donate a refrigerated van to her – and Forgotten Harvest was born.
As with most fledgling organisations, the beginning was far from plain sailing. “When I first started Forgotten Harvest, lots of people told me I couldn't possibly do what I imagined.
“One day, when I was riding in the truck with our first driver, we pulled into the ally behind a soup kitchen to make a delivery. I saw two men standing on a pile of ice foraging for food in a dumpster behind the shelter. That image stayed with me through all the adversity.”
After being registered as a charity in 1990, Forgotten Harvest’s small board of directors had enough money to pay one driver for six months. A target of delivering 1,000 meals a month to Detroit soup kitchens was met within that time, and within ten years a fleet of Forgotten Harvest trucks was delivering 10 million meals a year to soup kitchens, shelters, children’s homes and other charities.
Today, Forgotten Harvest transports over 42 million meals a year to poverty-stricken people across Detroit and the wider area – making it the largest fresh food-rescuing organisation in the world.
Open Door Ministry is a food pantry (charity) based in Canton, Michigan. In 2011 it served meals to over 64,000 people, and received around half of that redistributed food from Forgotten Harvest. Steve Darr governs the food bank, and is more than familiar with the challenges people using Open Door Ministry are experiencing.
“The families we feed face a variety of problems – the most common of which is finding a job,” he says. “We also have many families with single parents raising several children, which makes it very difficult for them to feed themselves.
“They rely heavily on help from Open Door Ministry to make it through each week - and we, of course, rely on Forgotten Harvest for the food that we can then serve them.”
At Open Door Ministry, like so many other food banks both in the United States and throughout the world, the numbers of people needing to use the service have been increasing year on year - with a 12% rise in 2011. Steve believes the main reason for this is both unemployment, and a sharp reduction in working hours resulting in families not being able to afford food. Paying for the treatment of health problems has also driven some people to rely on food banks and soup kitchens in the US.
Charities providing food for people in poverty have also experienced problems, and Open Door Ministry is no different. “Our major problem now is getting enough of certain kinds of food,” Steve explains. “The actual type of food varies from season to season. Early spring meant we were short of fresh vegetables and fruit. Now we are short on meat and have plenty of fresh products. Each family has to make do with what they receive.”
Steve believes difficulties such as a lack of food variety can be solved simply by informing families, restaurants, shops, farms and other organisations that sell food about food rescue (including Food Bank) services, as many businesses are simply unaware such schemes exist and so don’t donate to them. Nancy agrees, adding: “when donors realise how safe and simple it is to donate, and how they can actually save money and help the environment as well, they are very eager to join forces.”
Encouraging households and organisations to donate to food rescue charities has become even more important when viewed against the amount of food wasted in the United States every year. A recent report by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggests that a staggering 40% of all food in the United States is thrown away, worth $165 billion. The NRDC states that if 15% of this was donated to food rescue services, it could feed an extra 25 million Americans each year.
To combat food wastage on this terrible scale, the NRDC recommends updating federal tax incentives for food donations. A temporary allowance for small charities to benefit from tax deductions has recently expired, affecting how many charities operate. Also, most excess food produced by farms and in factories is not packaged, as without tax changes it is more expensive for companies to package and donate food than it is to send it to landfill.
Despite these difficulties, food recovery organisations have been increasing both in the UK and across the United States; something Nancy Fishman is cautiously optimistic about. “When I think of where we will be in 10 years time, I no longer think we will have eradicated world hunger. But I hope that other communities across the globe adopt our model, and we begin to make a serious dent in starvation across the world.”
Paul Creeney is a freelance reporter specialising in environmental and human rights issues. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.