Through the Lens of Poverty

The following commentary ran on the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity site this Monday. It’s a bit longer than most posts, but hopefully it’s worth your time.

An increasing number of Americans face poverty and, as a result, hunger. Meanwhile, we waste close to half of all food produced domestically.

It’s an American paradox. How can waste and hunger coexist? Two words: poor distribution.

From farm to fork, America squanders 40 percent of its food. Every day, Americans waste enough food to fill the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl. So much of the food that isn’t consumed is perfectly edible, yet we lack the will and the means to collect and distribute it to those in need. That must change.

Food insecurity is the highest it has been since the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began tracking in 1995. In all, 15 percent of American households were “food insecure,” meaning they did not have the resources to obtain adequate nutrition and lead a healthy lifestyle.

Given the number of hungry Americans – and the environmental impact of waste, which is another story altogether – it’s high time we harness the food we now squander. While we struggle to feed everyone today, it won’t get any easier as national and global populations continue to grow.

Utilizing a decent chunk of what we now waste wouldn’t be terribly difficult. We would just need to redistribute edible but unsellable foods. In other words, harvest all of our crops, encourage donations from food manufacturers and wholesalers, and, where necessary, collect unsold food from supermarkets, restaurants, and industrial kitchens. This would go a long way to feeding the low-income Americans who face food insecurity.

Several diligent, non-profit food recovery groups already perform these tasks. In agricultural settings, this usually takes the form of gleaning, where volunteers descend on a farm to pick what would otherwise be plowed under. Major farm food recovery operations, the Society of St. Andrew being the largest, also receive donations by the pallet or truckload on a fairly regular basis. More retail-based solutions occur in urban settings through food recovery groups like City Harvest and D.C. Central Kitchen, which rescue millions of pounds of edible food each year.

A few other steps will help reduce waste.

First, we can adopt a more systematic approach to recovering and redistributing the excess. In particular, agricultural excess could have a major impact. That’s why the USDA should promote food recovery and encourage its constituents to donate. That would mean reminding growers that donation is the best option for extra crops or products they don’t plan to sell.

To keep it simple, the USDA could return to having a federal gleaning coordinator – as was the case under the Clinton-era Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman – a position which didn’t exist before and hasn’t since.

Second, we should establish incentives for farmers to harvest all that they grow. Whether by carrot or by stick, this encouragement needs to happen. Unfortunately, all too often, the price of a good means that it’s not economically viable to harvest entire fields. And, with hand-picked crops, our choosiness sometimes means that produce that is the wrong shape, size, or color stays in the field or tree.

Third, we must begin streamlining tax deductions for food donations and make them open to all donors. This would boost the charitable giving that helps an estimated 21 million Americans to feed their families. Under the current tax code, unincorporated farms aren’t eligible to take such deductions. For growers and retailers able to take these deductions, doing so is anything but easy. As a result, many farms and stores don’t receive any financial benefit when they donate valuable, nourishing goods to those who need them most.

To be clear, many farmers and supermarkets are currently donating food. Yet more could participate.

That’s why the fourth step would be a national database of available recipients and collecting agencies. While most supermarkets donate some items, they’re usually not the foods most needed to provide healthy meals for those in need. Coordination through a database could ensure food donations are better targeted.

Fifth, while stores donate baked goods freely, they’re often hesitant to give perishable foods like proteins and produce. That’s why we must remind potential donors that the 1996 Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects them from liability when they donate food in good faith, and that donating food is an opportunity to garner positive publicity.

If we as a nation make a commitment to reducing waste and putting our food to better use, the potential rewards are considerable. Based on the numbers, cutting a quarter of our food waste could provide sustenance for all who need it.

In practice, that probably wouldn’t eliminate the need for other hunger relief tools like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and the National School Lunch Program. But trimming our food waste surely wouldn’t hurt. It would go a long way toward diminishing American hunger.

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