My wife and I and some friends spent last weekend in Las Vegas, which I always find an interesting place. As a city that never sleeps with thousands (millions?) of lights everywhere, I often wonder what the combined electricity use of the city is. I find particularly fascinating the juxtaposition of the city’s opulence to the dozens of street people lining the city streets with signs asking for help – some clearly with mental challenges, some homeless, many hungry, and a few, I suppose, just trying to make a quick buck. I am especially partial to the musicians, playing everything from drums to guitars to flutes, who at least “earn” my handout. As we enjoyed the weekend together with our friends, our most pressing question was, what’s for dinner? What nice restaurant were we going to choose to eat at that night (or morning or midday)?
But for many, the choice of eating is not one of where, but what. Hunger kills more people in the world than aids, malaria and tuberculosis put together. The new term for the hungry is “food insecure,” and is defined as those people who are unsure where their next meal is going to come from. In America – the richest nation in the world – 50 million people are classified as food insecure. That’s one person in six, or almost 17 percent of us. And of that 50 million, 3 million are seniors, and 17 million are children. The United States ranks dead last among the IMF’s “Advanced Economy Countries” on food insecurity. How can this be?
When I think of people being hungry, I think of one of my favorite movies, Slumdog Millionaire,[i] which is set in India. Here is a great scene from the movie that illustrates the conditions in which millions of the people of India live each day:
To get an idea of how bad the food crisis is in America, I turned to some documentaries. A Place at the Table[ii] and Hunger in America[iii] are full of statistics about hunger. Here are just a few of them:
- The state of Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity. It also has the highest rate of obesity. That sounds contradictory until you realize the price of fruits and vegetables has risen 40 percent since 1980, while the price of processed foods has decreased by about 40 percent during that same period. Three dollars will buy you 3,767 calories of processed food, but only 312 calories of fruits and vegetables.
- Crazily, 84 percent of government farm subsidiaries goes to crops and grains used for clothes (cotton) and processed foods (wheat, corn, rice and soy), but less than one percent goes to subsidize fruits and vegetables.
- But, you say, we have government programs that take care of our hungry – the Federal Food Assistance Program (i.e. food stamps). But to qualify for that assistance, a household income must be less than $24,000 per year, and if you make one more dollar than that, the assistance is taken away completely. Even with food stamps, the average allowance is $3 per person per day. Sadly, one in every child born in America today will be using the Federal Food Assistance Program sometime during their childhood.
- To help those children, the Child Nutrition Program provides funds to school lunch programs (sometimes breakfast, too), but school lunch budgets average only $2.68 per child per meal. When you subtract administrative costs, there is less than one dollar left for the actual meal. Not surprisingly, then, the typical school lunch has too much fat, too much sugar, and too much salt, which leads to childhood obesity. Only 25 percent of our nation’s youth ages 19 through 25 are fit enough to serve in our armed services.
- The funding of the Child Nutrition Program is reviewed every five years. At the last renewal, Congress granted an increase in funding of $4 billion. That might sound like a lot, but on a per meal basis, that translates into a whopping six cent increase. How did Congress pay for this increase? Half of it was funded by subtracting food stamp benefits.
- When you compare that $4 billion increase to the bank bailout (TARP) of $700 billion, or the Bush tax cuts to the top two percent of the richest Americans that totaled $1.3 trillion over ten years, it appears to me that our priorities are not quite right (or maybe it’s just a question of who has the best lobbyists).
- We often think poor Americans are just lazy, living off welfare, but 85 percent of families that are food insecure have at least one working adult in the family.
- Forty percent of food produced in America is wasted. That’s right, 40 percent of all the food we produce is thrown out, yet people go hungry.
That last statistic especially caught my attention. Fifty million Americans are food insecure yet we throw away 40 percent of our food? It just doesn’t make sense. But it’s true. So I looked a little deeper and found another documentary entitled Just Eat It,[iv] which follows a couple who pledge to eat nothing but discarded food for six months. Here is the trailer:
This documentary points out some of the aspects of our unique relationship to food. As consumers, we won’t buy anything that is imperfect. We check for cracked eggs; we reject bruised bananas; we pass on irregularly shaped fruit and vegetables. In fact, 20 to 70 percent of the fruit grown never makes it to market, depending on the type of fruit. Yet wasting food is not particularly frowned upon any more. We shun litterers and those who don’t recycle, but say nothing to those who waste food. There is waste all along the distribution chain from farm to households, but a study done in New York found that 15 to 25 percent of all wasted food comes directly from households. And 97 percent of wasted food ends up in a landfill.
According to the documentary, 60 percent of consumers throw away food because of the date on the label. But those dates are “best used by” dates, not expiration dates. In other words, they are for quality, not safety. In fact, the only product the government requires a date on it for safety reasons is infant formula. All other dates are put on by the manufacturer or distributor in an effort to ensure quality. Accordingly, I am perfectly okay eating foods past their recommended date unless the can is bulging, the food smells rotten, or there is green, white or black stuff growing on it.
Part of the problem is the size of portions. At restaurants, due to the size of most meals, we are given the choice of wasting food or overeating. We often do both. At home, we are no better. Julia Child’s cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, was first published in 1931. Most of the recipes in today’s edition are the same as the original, except the amount of servings per recipe has been cut, often in half.
Wasting food hurts us in ways we don’t normally think about. For example, the amount of energy needed to produce just the food we waste equals four percent of our total energy consumption. The water used every year to grow just the food we throw away could supply the household water needs of 500 million people! That’s more than one and a half times the entire population of the United States! In fact, the water necessary to produce a single hamburger is the equivalent of taking a 90 minute shower. And we are contributing to climate change by throwing away so much food. Most of the wasted food that ends up in the local landfill decomposes into methane gas, which is 20 times more toxic to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
During the six months of their experiment, the couple in the documentary found the challenge was not finding food to eat, but to not waste it again. They ended up with so much food they gave much of it away to friends and family. Even so, the husband gained over ten pounds during the six month period. At the end of the experiment, the couple had paid a total of less than $200, but had collected more than $20,000 worth of food.
The problem then, is not lack of food, but getting the food into the hands of those who need it. So what can you and I do relieve the suffering of the hungry, while at the same time slowing down the waste of so much food? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be aware, and help others be aware, of the problem.
- Donate food and money to, and volunteer your time at, the local food bank.
- Teach your children that food responsibility is at least as important as recycling and not littering.
- Let people who are food insecure know they are valuable.
- Advocate for the hungry with federal, state and local governments.
- Compost food you would otherwise throw out.
- Don’t throw food out just because it is near or slightly beyond the date on the label.
- Be aware of your family’s and neighbors’ food needs and share your abundance with those in need.
- Use your freezer more.
- Shop smart. Plan your meals ahead of time, starting by looking at what you have on hand and supplement that with a trip to the store rather than shopping for what you want to eat and then trying to supplement that with what you have on hand. Use a shopping list and stick to it. Buy only what you need. I love Costco and Sam’s Club, but buying in bulk often just leads to waste. If you can’t help buying, for example, a twelve pack of yogurt because it is such a good deal, but you know you won’t eat them all before they spoil, give some of them to a shelter or a food bank.
- Buy funny-shaped produce; a crooked carrot tastes just as good as a perfectly straight one.
- Add a bin to your refrigerator marked “eat me first.”
- Take a doggie bag from restaurants and actually eat the leftovers.
- Buy locally grown products; on average, they will have a longer shelf life.
- Buy overripe fruit at the supermarket and use them in smoothies or baked goods such as banana nut bread.
- Designate one meal a week as a use-it-up meal.
- When eating out, consider splitting a meal. With portion sizes what they are today, often a single dish is more than enough for two people.
- Adopt a first-in, first-out, refrigerator and pantry. Rotate your food so you are sure to eat first the earliest items you bring home.
You can find many more ideas through a simple search of the internet. I am grateful to live in a country that has such a rich abundance of food and other necessities. But with such wealth comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Let’s be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
[i] Slumdog Millionaire
- Production Company: Warner Bros, Celador Films, Film4
- Directors: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
- Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy (based on the book by Vikas Swarup)
- Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Saurabh Shukla
- Release date: December 25, 2008
[ii] A Place at the Table
- Production Company: Motto Pictures, Participant Media
- Directors: Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
- Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tom Colocchio
- Release date: March 1, 2013
[iii] Hunger in America
- Production Company: Skydive Films, Indiewood Pictures
- Director: Zac Adams
- Screenwriter: Zac Adams
- Starring: James Denton
- Release date: May 7, 2014
[iv] Just Eat It
- Production Company: Peg Leg Films, Knowledge Network
- Director: Grant Baldwin
- Screenwriters: Jenny Rustemeyer, Grant Baldwin
- Starring: Grant Baldwin, Jenny Rustemeyer and Dna Gunders
- Release date: March 4, 2015