For most Americans, the economic downturn widely known as the “Great Recession,” which began in 2007, feels much more recent than almost a decade old. Though unemployment is down, our economy is growing, and stocks have reached record highs, some 48 million Americans currently experiencing food insecurity may feel left behind.
In the years after the recession, the amount of American households experiencing food insecurity rose from 11% to almost 15%. This meant that families often didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Obviously, this is problematic. Hungry workers are less efficient, hungry children are distracted in school, and hungry families become stressed and irritable, often relying on cheap, unhealthy food to keep their stomachs full. These things damper the ability of a society to succeed, holding the country back from reaching its full potential.
While the economy as a whole has recovered, many Americans have not reaped the benefits. Wages have remained stagnant for many workers, and levels of food insecurity have remained. Millions of Americans do not always know where their next meal will come from. Critics will say that the situation is improving, pointing out that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which replaced food stamps, is down, dropping by 4.2 million people since 2012. Lower participation, however, does not always equate to progress.
Much of this reduction is driven by a variety of changes to SNAP eligibility requirements that are largely intended to get people out of the program, but not necessarily through reducing food insecurity. Several changes that have been implemented in different states include work requirements, stipulations stating a recipient of SNAP must be employed or in a job training program to receive benefits, time limits, where a recipient cannot receive benefits for longer than an allotted time (adults without dependents can only receive snap for three months every three years), and drug tests for individuals seeking benefits.
Unfortunately, while these changes may be palatable to politicians seeking to free up room in state budgets, they are ill founded. In hard economic times, when jobs may be hard to come by, requiring food insecure individuals to be employed creates a barrier preventing those that are suffering to get access to the resources they need. Furthermore, time limits can harm families that are experiencing long term unemployment and poverty, the very people who need help most. Finally, statistics have shown that drug testing potential recipients has almost no benefits, rarely finding anyone who tests positive. Missouri spent over $300,000 testing 40,000 welfare applicants, finding only 48 tested positive for drugs. Clearly, these developments are deeply flawed.
We need to ensure that those most in need are fed. How can we expect children to grow, workers to strive for better opportunities, and families to thrive if they are hungry and concerned with where their next meal comes from. Social programs can be reined in, but only if the problem they are meant to solve is declining as well. Even though the economy has shown signs of improving, support is still necessary to ensure that no one is left behind.
How pretty does your plate have to look? A report by National Resources Defense Council suggests that up to 24% of fruits and vegetables are discarded before even reaching the store – often due to imperfections in shape, size and color. An exact total is hard to come by, but research suggests that blemished or aesthetically imperfect food is a major driver of food waste. Indeed, the largest component of US landfills is wasted food. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the discarded food was composed of scraps and leftovers that have gone bad, but in many cases this food has never even reached consumers. Instead, it was rejected by producers because many retailers refuse to purchase produce that looks anything less than perfect.
All this waste takes a huge toll on producers who have no choice but to discard blemished food, or feed it to livestock instead of taking it to market. Misshapen potatoes and slightly scarred fruits are tossed aside because they simply will not sell. Farmers interviewed by The Guardian reported that throwing away or feeding livestock a quarter of their crops that don’t meet market standards for beauty is normal. One grower reported that they are able to fill a truck with 22,000 pounds of unsellable tomatoes every forty minutes during harvest. Sometimes, food is left to rot in the fields where it is grown. Even the most careful farmers have to throw away huge portions of their crop due to growing conditions and weather that distorts how the produce looks. The food is unmarketable, but completely edible.
Imperfect food that is thrown away greatly damages the environment. Water, land, and other inputs are wasted if the food is not eaten. Globally, it is estimated that 60 trillion gallons of water are wasted each year due to food waste. Furthermore, the fruits and vegetables that are disposed of in landfills or incinerators release methane, a greenhouse gas that traps significantly more heat than carbon dioxide. Indeed, food waste is responsible for 8% of global climate pollution, a higher percentage than most developed nations.
This is a huge problem. Perfectly nutritious and edible food, albeit potentially aesthetically displeasing, is wasted at the same time as some 48 million Americans are experiencing food insecurity. This waste could be easily leveraged as a resource to feed families that don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. The lack of access to a huge amount of perfectly edible food is a tremendous injustice.
A solution isn’t hard to imagine. Producers could sell their wares at a discounted rate to stores willing to sell imperfect produce. This would allow families to buy healthy food at cheaper prices, boosting both personal and community health and allowing them to stretch their budgets further. This solution would also help reduce food waste, aiding the environment by conserving resources and preventing the release of greenhouse gasses. Everyone stands to benefit. It’s a win-win-win.
Fortunately for us, consumers are beginning to realize the opportunity to reduce food waste and feed our nation by utilizing “ugly” produce. Social media campaigns have been launched to try and change the stigma around unattractive produce – letting people know that a small bruise or blemish doesn’t mean that a fruit is bad for you. In fact, there is some evidence indicating that marred fruit may have nutritional benefits that prettier products may lack. We need stores to start stocking imperfect produce. Doing so will help farmers, consumers, and the world. Some grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, have started selling imperfect produce in limited stores. Programs like these need to be expanded, and a greater range of food retailers need to take up the cause. Groceries will receive benefits as well. Stores in Europe that began selling imperfect fruits and vegetables see increased traffic and sales. For an industry that has thin profit margins, this could be a leg up over the competition. There is no good reason that so much food should go to waste. We need to embrace “Ugly” food, and in turn feed the world.
This twitter campaign is celebrates “ugly” produce! Look it up and post your own pictures celebrating imperfect fruits and veggies!
Where there is waste, there are opportunities to make and save money. Food waste is no exception.
Research done by ReFED, an organization that uses economic analysis to determine the viability of various solutions to food waste, indicates that there is around $10 billion of economic value to be gained from reducing food waste, as well as $1.9 billion in business profit potential. Many of these solutions are common sense, easily implemented fixes to our current food system. A few of the 28 methods ReFED recommends result in enormous financial benefits. These include:
- Standardized Date Labeling (Currently being discussed in Congress!)
- Consumer Education Campaigns
- Packaging Adjustment to Reduce Residual Waste
- Donation maximization Regulations and Liability Education
- Improved Cold Chain Management
- Produce Specifications (Accepting off-grade “ugly” produce)
Businesses and consumers serve to gain immensely from implementing broad changes to our food system. On the production side, reducing food waste would mean that money is not being used to produce and ship food that will not be sold or will go bad before reaching the market. For consumers, implementing changes ensure that their grocery budgets are not being wasted on food that passes passing an arbitrary “sell by” date or comes in sizes too large to be eaten in a reasonable amount of time before expiration.
Simply put, food waste has an environmental and social impact that is both inefficient and costly. It is not only necessary, but also most likely profitable for corporations and households to use a combination of the many solutions put forward by ReFED to reduce their food waste. For social-entrepreneurs interested in this issue, developing solutions may be an excellent opportunity to capitalize on this economic niche.
Corporations pursue efficiency relentlessly, seeking out ways to use technology and production techniques to cut costs and improve their operations. Households do too. From turning off the lights when leaving a room to controlling the thermostat, everyone is concerned about saving some money here and there by reducing waste. Why shouldn’t this thriftiness apply to food as well? There is certainly an enormous amount of money to be saved.
For more on the business aspect of food waste, check here.