28. “Wasted Food”

(I’m finally back in harness, in case anyone was wondering.  First there were the Passover/ Spring Break holidays which included both our own travel and then hosting the welcome invasion of out-of-town family;  and since then I’ve been Getting My Garden In.  That’s almost done, so now I can resume blogging.)

Actually, there are some bits of good news to report on the topic of not wasting food.  Jordan Figueiredo, an activist on this issue, reports progress on the salvaging of cosmetically imperfect/ “ugly” produce.  One brand called Misfits is now marketing ugly produce in 300 US stores involving three supermarket chains.  Also, Walmart and Whole foods have both begun pilot programs to sell odd-looking fruits and vegetables at certain of their stores.  And chefs are becoming aware that they can use “ugly” items too.

This is all still very small-scale and tentative — but any journey starts with the first step.  It is very welcome to see these first steps taken;  scaling them up is the next thing that needs to happen.

On the other hand, Kate Cox and H. Claire Brown of the New Food Economy wrote a review (on May 15) of a new study on the content of food that Americans throw away.  The study was done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future and is available online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  It aimed to investigate not the amount of food that US citizens collectively waste but the nutritional content of that wasted food.  What they found was sobering.

It turns out that it is not just the 1,217 calories per US person per day that gets tossed, but that these are not comprised primarily of junk food calories but of valuable nutrients.  Each 1,217 calorie unit of loss includes:  33 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber (19%) of daily needs), 1.7 micrograms of Vitamin D, 286 milligrams of calcium (29% of daily needs), 880 milligrams of potassium, 48% of iron RDA, 43% of vitamin C RDA… and so on.  In other words, the researchers discovered that what’s thrown away is indeed nutritious stuff, which could, if salvaged and eaten, contribute to greatly improved nutrition for the US population.  And we could use it, both because too many millions of us are food insecure and also because even the food-secure among us chronically fall short in our intake of many vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The study’s authors point out that preventing even a portion of this food from being wasted could boost the nutrition of all Americans from where we are to completely adequate.  They point to several tactics — revised and standardized sell-by dates, educating consumers, and giving tax breaks to grocery stores that donate leftovers to food banks instead of landfills — as low-cost ways of significantly decreasing the loss of good food that we actually need.  And the researchers also suggest that part of the education we need might be started by shifting away from talking about “food waste” (which we unconsciously take to mean talk about “waste”) and beginning instead to talk about “wasted food” — which would emphasize in our minds that this is food we’re discussing.

I think they have a point.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

27. Hunger, Poverty, and Food Justice: First Thoughts

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his work showing that famine deaths in India had been primarily due not to lack of available food but to hungry people not having enough money to afford to buy what food was available.

He could have cited as another example the Irish Potato Famine, when over a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated while English absentee landlords who owned Irish farmland were exporting Irish-grown wheat that the Irish poor could not afford to buy.

On a different note, American Farmland Trust reports on the growing number of aging farmers who have no one to pass their farms on to, while a growing number of young would-be farmers cannot afford to buy farmland — at the same time that weekly newspaper Wisconsin State Farmer reports on a trend in which non-farming millionaires buy farmland as an investment (WSF, 1/6/17, p. 9B).  They hire people to work it, but these are employees who are required to produce a profit over stewarding the land or growing what feeds people (and will not become independent farmers themselves).

Similarly, nations like China and Saudi Arabia that cannot feed their people on their own land are increasingly buying up agricultural land in places like Africa.  African governments are happy to accept payment for this — but local Africans whose ancestors have farmed these lands from time immemorial (often without formal title because their tenancy stretches back prior to such notions) lose their lands and thus their ability to feed themselves and their families, and inequity increases while hunger is merely shifted, not solved.

Meanwhile, food pantries in the U.S. are needed because minimum wage jobs plus SNAP/ “food stamps” together do not enable people to buy enough food for their families.  The need for free and reduced-cost school lunches is part of the same picture.

Even the factory-farming of chickens and pigs for “cheap” meat and eggs is deeply  abusive.  For the typical set-up is that a big corporation owns the animals and contracts with a farmer to raise them.  But the farmers do not get paid unless they do exactly as the corporation specifies, no matter how inhumane or unsanitary that may be, yet they are paid so little even when they comply that they can barely scrape by and have no extra money left over to, for example, control manure safely, while if anything goes wrong it is the farmers and not the corporations that take the financial hit.

In short, there’s an abundance of evidence that hunger and misuse of agricultural assets is very often not at all a matter of inadequate food supply or agricultural capacity, but rather a direct result of poverty and oppression.  So any discussion of solving the hunger problem needs to include consideration of economic equity.   A well-fed world would be one in which the farmers who work the land and raise the animals are the people who own those assets, and in which they are able to make a living because everyone is able to pay enough for food to make farming economically viable.  But this is decidedly not the system we have now.

For this ideal to come about, a lot of changes would have to happen.

One area to look for changes would be the US Farm Bill, which is passed by Congress twice a decade (the next one is in 2018) and which shapes government food policy for the subsequent five years.  For some time now, it has mostly benefited industrial agriculture, with subsidies that support mega-farms at the expense of small family-size ones, chemical use as opposed to IPM and organic practices, commodity crops including high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol as opposed to vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds (which are all amazingly called “specialty crops”) that people would eat directly.

A different area for action would be increasing the wage scale for low-level workers so that anyone willing and able to work could afford to buy adequate food — even at prices that would pay farmers enough to support their families decently through farming.

Land reform also has to be part of the picture, for while it may be profitable for governments and corporations and millionaires to buy large tracts of land to grow crops for trade, this dispossesses people who had been feeding their families on those lands’ production, thus increasing hunger and injustice simultaneously.

Changing all these things will require enormous political effort, and is unlikely to come either easily or quickly.  But if hunger is to be ended, such changes in the status quo will have to be implemented.  The sooner we get started, the better.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

Introduction

A first blog post is necessarily introductory, of both subject and self.

My subject springs from much reading and engagement in the areas of:  gardening;  agriculture;  environmental issues;  nutrition;  plant-based diets;  and social justice.  This combination of interests and experiences gives me critical insights into both the problems that cause hunger and malnutrition on our planet, and also into areas of slack in the system from which real solutions could be developed.

The problem is that malnutrition exists (despite current agricultural production of enough calories to feed everyone) while the human population is still growing.  Economic factors are surely part of this problem, and improving economic equity and empowering (or re-empowering) the poor to grow and be able to buy good food is pretty well understood to be needed.  But there is also concern that even if this were achieved, it would be inadequate to feed us all as human numbers grow even larger and as more less-poor people desire a richer diet.

For there are limits to what plants can produce.  All the good agricultural land is now in use.  Overuse of marginal land is causing desertification that exacerbates the problem.  Use of water for irrigation and livestock is already at such unsustainable levels that aquifers and surface water are being drawn down worldwide (from the US high plains and California to India and the Aral Sea) to a degree that further compromises our ability to grow food into the future.  Climate chaos throws an additional sabot into the works.  Further, one of the biggest causes of both food shortage and greenhouse gasses is raising livestock, yet as people climb out of poverty the demand for animal food rises beyond any kind of sustainability.

Is big problem.

But there are also solutions, and they lie in correcting current misuse and underuse of what we have.  Waste is a huge area to address.  Devoting over 90% of US corn acreage to biofuels, animal feed, and  high fructose corn syrup is another.  Suburban lawns and urban rooftops and vacant lots represent space where enormous amounts of food could be grown.  And people can eat amazingly well using very little animal food (or even none!).  So even as we work towards zero population growth and economic equity, there are things we can do to greatly increase the amount of available food.  And while we can’t end hunger solely by resolving any one of these factors, working on all of them together could do the trick.

I plan in this blog to report on efforts and initiatives already known of or being tried to address each of these areas of slack in the system.  I will discuss what people can do individually and what will require concerted citizen action to make changes at the policy level.  I hope to cross-pollinate ideas so that people interested in one aspect of the problem of world hunger, or working on one of the solutions, can be enabled to learn and act more widely, and in better coordination with others.  It’s because of this cross-pollination of ideas that I call myself “the gentle bee.”

As far as who I am, my first tiny garden was planted in the mid-1970s when I was in my twenties.  I’ve lived in urban “bedroom communities” and have gardened in back yards, front yards, and community gardens.  I’ve been a Community Supported Agriculture subscriber and farmers’ market patron.  I learned about human nutrition during my pregnancy and then taught it for 27 years as a Bradley Method childbirth educator.  My daughter was already interested in vegetarianism when I met my vegan husband;  he and I got a vegetarian group started (Milwaukee Area Resources for Vegetarianism) and I’ve written its monthly newsletter since 1994. I wrote a food/nutrition/cookbook, Food Pyramid Feast, published in 2000. I myself drifted slowly into eating a plant-based diet, and have been ov0-lacto-vegetarian for about 15 years.  My interest in and knowledge about food and growing it is thus long and varied — and ongoing.

Finally, a plea for indulgence:  my first exposure to computers in 1975 pretty thoroughly defined the term “user UNfriendly” and traumatized me for life.  So this is my very first venture into the blogosphere, and I have a lot to learn.  I can only hope that my content will be interesting and useful enough for readers to stick with me while I figure out how to do this.

Thanking you in advance for your patience, and hoping to reward it, I am

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley