The United States is a wealthy country. It is home to some of the richest families in the world and is a major food exporter to countries with fewer resources. Yet, according to feedingamerica.org, 13 percent of US households were food-insecure last year, while at the same time, 40 percent of the food produced in this country never finds its way to families’ tables and approximately 6 billion pounds of fresh produce is left to rot in farmers’ fields each year.
An incredible amount of food is wasted. How did this happen? Some point to strong consumer preference for pristine fruits and vegetables. As a result, misshapen or slightly imperfect produce sits unpicked in fields and orchards, or is tossed into landfills, where it emits methane into the atmosphere. Much of this abandoned food is perfectly edible and could go a long way toward alleviating hunger in many communities.
One organization in northern Vermont is determined to put this once-wasted food to use by distributing it to those who need it the most. Salvation Farms was established in 2004
For LA Compost, responsible food use and consumption doesn’t end with farm-to-table practices. The Los Angeles-based non-profit organization supports maintaining the total loop within the story of food, which largely includes compost.
“Healthy soil translates into healthy food, and healthy food leads to healthy people. Composting is just as valuable as any of the other processes,” says Michael Martinez, the Executive Director of LA Compost.
In early 2013, Martinez and other founding members started LA Compost as a food waste diversion service, transporting organic waste from four different cities to composting centers by bike.
When 1 in 7 people are going hungry in a country that throws out half the food it produces, there isn’t a supply problem; there’s a distribution problem. This was part of the hypothesis tested in a 2011 study conducted by former University of Colorado students Caleb Phillips and Becky Higbee. By looking at data collected through a local food rescue organization, the study found that large volumes of food were going to waste in northern Colorado because there wasn’t a well-coordinated effort capable of catching that food before it became completely unusable. The research team showed that, with funding and adequate labor, organized food rescue and redistribution efforts were not only possible at small and large scales, they could also capture enough potentially wasted food in Boulder and Broomfield Counties to feed everyone in that area.
On the wings of this information, Phillips and Higbee joined with friends Nora Lecesse, Helen Katich, and Hana Dansky to form Boulder Food Rescue. The project began with the same systems-minded approach as the study. The BFR crew met with local grocery store officials, whose stores were trashing unsold food, and asked why they wouldn’t choose to donate it instead. Some blamed the rules of local food banks, which prohibited donations of produce outside of its original packaging. Many more grocery managers lamented that food gone past a supermarket’s saleable standards is too perishable to survive the extended journey from store to food bank to plate. As the study had already shown, timing was key.
Food is food because it’s meant to be eaten. But all too often, what’s intended for the table ends up in the dumpster. To address the issue, a growing movement of developers is creating easy-to-operate tech tools to help people produce volumes of food with less surplus and rescue food that would typically go to waste.
Growing up in the corn and soy fields of rural Indiana, Andy Schwartz has seen first-hand what large-scale farming can do to soil quality. But it wasn’t until he managed farms of his own and made his own compost that Schwartz realized the role large-scale composting could play in keeping the quality of soil high and protecting the environment.
“When I made enough compost for myself and the food waste kept coming in I realized that I had to come up with a plan,” he says. “The plan was and is to keep valuable organic materials out of the landfill and use them to create a healthy growing medium for plants. Heirloom tomatoes and peppers from my garden are a much better outcome for food waste than producing methane gases and harmful leachates in a landfill.”
Determined to “feed the food that feeds you,” Schwartz studied successful composting projects around the country and launched Grow.Eat.Repeat, a compost pick-up company in Savannah, Georgia. With more than 300 restaurants, 100 hotels, and 50-plus schools in the city, Schwartz had no trouble identifying his primary market.