Table Scraps in one Country are Another Country's Meal

From IHT by Andrew Martin.

Grocery bills are rising through the roof. Food banks are running short of donations. And food shortages are causing sporadic riots in poor countries through the world.

Americans waste an astounding amount of food — an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption, according to a government study — and it happens at the supermarket, in restaurants and cafeterias and in your very own kitchen. It works out to about a pound of food every day for every American.

A more recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream.

And consider this: the rotting food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a major source of greenhouse gases.

The problem isn't unique to the United States.

In England, a recent study revealed that Britons toss away a third of the food they purchase, including more than four million whole apples, 1.2 million sausages and 2.8 million tomatoes. In Sweden, families with small children threw out about a quarter of the food they bought, a recent study there found.

And most distressing, perhaps, is that in some parts of Africa a quarter or more of the crops go bad before they can be eaten. A study presented last week to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development found that the high losses in developing nations "are mainly due to a lack of technology and infrastructure" as well as insect infestations, microbial growth, damage and high temperatures and humidity.

For decades, wasting food has fallen into the category of things that everyone knows is a bad idea but that few do anything about, sort of like speeding and reapplying sunscreen.

"The path of least resistance is just to chuck it," said Jonathan Bloom, who started a blog last year called that tracks the issue.

Of course, eliminating food waste won't solve the problems of world hunger and greenhouse-gas pollution. But it could make a dent in this country and wouldn't require a huge amount of effort or money. The Department of Agriculture estimated that recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed four million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people.

In many major cities, including New York, food rescue organizations do nearly all the work for cafeterias and restaurants that are willing to participate. The food generally needs to be covered and in some cases placed in a freezer. Food rescue groups pick it up. One of them, City Harvest, collects excess food each day from about 170 establishments in New York.

"We're not talking about table scraps," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, explaining the types of wasted food that is edible. "We're talking about a pan of lasagna that was never served."

For food that isn't edible, a growing number of states and cities are offering programs to donate it to livestock farmers or to compost it. In Massachusetts, for instance, the state worked with the grocery industry to create a program to set aside for composting food that can't be used by food banks.

There are also efforts to cut down on the amount of food that people pile on their plates. A handful of restaurant chains including TGI Friday's are offering smaller portions. And a growing number of college cafeterias have eliminated trays, meaning students have to carry their food to a table rather than loading up a tray.

During the Clinton administration, the secretary of agriculture at the time, Dan Glickman, created a program to encourage food recovery and gleaning, which means collecting leftover crops from farm fields. He assigned a member of his staff, Berg, to oversee the program, and Berg spent the next several years encouraging farmers, schools, hospitals and companies to donate extra crops and food to feeding charities.

Related: The Globalization of Hunger.


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