Food Insecurity in the USA — Perception or Reality?

What We Can Do About It

Image courtesy of Republica

Did you know that 40 percent of the food we produce in this country is wasted? It either rots on the vine, in our refrigerators or on the grocery store shelves. Yes, there are food banks and other important charitable foundations that try to get this extra food to the hungry, but they are only able to get a minute amount on the plates of the less-fortunate. The rest, sadly, ends up in a landfill somewhere.

Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that, not only, is most of this food is not making its way to the hungry, but it has a rather significant environmental impact. Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that we Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste. This waste accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.

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According to government statistics, an estimated 12.3 percent of American households were food insecure at least sometime during the year in 2016, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. That is basically unchanged from 12.7 percent in 2015. The prevalence of diminished food security also essentially unchanged, at 4.9 percent in 2016 and 5.0 percent in 2015.

Having grown up in a blue-collar home with two parents that worked the local mills, I understand the importance and, at times, the struggle to get a wholesome meal on the table every day. As a matter of fact, once I was old enough to work in the food service industry, I wanted to learn all I could about the best ways to feed people. Not only has feeding people made me a living, but it is also how I show love to those I care about. I couldn’t ever imagine going through a struggle to get food on my family dinner table.

Image courtesy of TanteLoe

Of course, I see the waste every day. Unfortunately, food waste is a daily occurrence in professional kitchens. As a chef, I do what I can to cross-utilize everything that comes through the back door of both my work and home kitchens. If I can stretch my ingredients to make more than one meal then I do so. For example, respecting the ingredients by using the entire chicken or all the beef scraps. As a professional, I must make use of all the ends and bits that would normally be thrown out. It makes me feel good not to waste, but it also makes my bosses happy that I am saving them a little money.

It makes me feel good not to waste food…

Not only have I seen food waste in restaurants but, having done my fair-share of catering and mass-feedings as a personal chef consultant, I see the consumer waste more than ever. They pile the plates sky-high, eat half the food and toss the rest in the trash; heartbreaking. Having just completed a week of holiday festivities, the amount of food that ends up in the garbage is appalling.

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Yes, there’s waste and a lot of it. But what can we do about it? We live in a country where “more is better” and have become accustomed to cheap, eye-appealing food available year round. As consumers, only eating what we need and going back for seconds if necessary instead of heaping our plates up with fears that we may not get enough is a great way to avoid waste. Buying whole ingredients, like chicken, and eating it for a couple meals and creating a nice stock with the scraps would be a respectful way to achieve less waste.

…creating a nice stock with the scraps would be a respectful way to achieve less waste.

Over the years we have demanded that our fruits and vegetables look perfectly round, shiny and without wrinkles. Think about all the irregular produce that is left in the field to rot because it may have had blemishes or a few dents. A great example would be bananas. Its estimated that 1.4 million bananas are wasted every day around the world. Hundreds of thousands of them are wasted in this country. Most of this is because they may have a few too many black spots on them. Also, the farmers that grow these things throw out the ones that are either too big or too small based on strict quality standards.

Image courtesy of ShireShy

On the other hand, there is much charity regarding the food that would end up in the dumpster. Some grocery stores send their close-to-outdated items to local food banks and soup kitchens, people bring bags of food to can drives at their local churches and homeless shelters and volunteers go out of their way to feed the less-fortunate, especially around the holidays.

There are as many people trying to help those suffering from food insecurity than there are amounts of food ending up in land-fills. If this is the case, then why is that 40 percent not making it on the plates of the hungry people in this country? In my opinion, there needs to be proper systems put into place. These systems should be more about making changes for the good and less about someone making money at others expense.

…let’s also think about ways we can cross-utilize our waste.

I would like to suggest that we start a movement. There are many ways we can do this. Besides just buying less food at the grocery store and, perhaps, making more trips more often, let’s also think about ways we can cross-utilize our waste. My new blog discusses this and is a great place to share your ideas on how you use and preserve extra or wasted food. It is a work-in-progress so check it out and, hopefully, my ideas will help.

Let us think about all the ways we can use up something that we may typically throw in the bin. The bananas that I just mentioned, they can be turned into smoothies, banana bread or ice cream. Just peel them, toss them in a zip-top bag, freeze them and Google Search yourself a recipe. That whole chicken I wrote about a few sentences ago? Roast it and serve it for dinner, then pull off the scraps and simmer the carcass into a flavorful stock. Lob in some mirepoix and your pulled chicken, and you have yourself a delicious hearty soup! Have some old cheese laying around? Melt it into a cheese dip! What about those wrinkly tomatoes? Chop them up and cook them in a pan full of tomato sauce, a few olives and some fresh basil then serve it with pasta. Have a loaf of day old bread staring you in the face? Before it goes moldy, cube it up, toss it in a little olive oil and your choice of dried Italian herbs, lightly brown them in the oven and you have the best croutons available. The only thing that keeps us from using up leftovers is our imagination. If there are scraps, there is a very good chance that there is a secondary use for them. Did our grandmothers throw anything out? Not if they could turn it into a bubbling stew!

Image courtesy of kalhh

So, tell your grocer that you don’t care how pretty the produce is, as long as it’s fresh and tasty. Seek out the less-than-stellar looking items and just enjoy their flavors. Let’s buy larger and less processed cuts of meats to use for more than one meal. Maybe make a soup or two and toss it in the freezer for those nights you don’t feel like cooking. Scratch-made soup and garden salad with homemade croutons! Now that’s great waste utilization!

I guess my point of all this is that this whole food-insecurity thing can be fixed if we just point our attention to action rather than only discussion. The media discusses the food insecurity in this country yet seemingly forgets that the consumer is somewhat to blame. They should be focusing on how we can both eliminate waste AND feed the food insecure. If they have the power to show off poor American statistics, imagine if they focused that energy on making a difference and spreading the word on reducing and dispersing even a fraction of the 40 percent waste in this country.

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Having been in the food service industry as long as I have, I have seen the waste, I have fed the hungry and the working poor, and I know there is a viable way we can work together to help make a difference. My humble and heartfelt suggestions are these:

1. Lower the amount of food that is produced in this country. Even if we lower our food production by a mere 10 percent, it would mean fewer resources used and a better impact on our environment.

2. With the remaining 30 percent, we should appoint some sort of “Food Waste Tsar” to create places to send the extra items from each place to a specific location where those in need can meet regularly to supplement their daily food intake. Of course, people would have to prequalify for this need to ensure that the ones that need it are the ones that receive it. This could alleviate at least 20 percent of the remaining waste and go to the tables of those with the aforementioned food insecurity.

3. With this new food resource, education could be put in place to teach people how to make use of this food in healthy and wholesome ways. What good does it do to have access to this great resource and not know how to use it? Who knows, this may help with some of the assorted health issues that are associated with poverty!

Make some noise to your local government and your neighborhood grocer and let’s put forward a movement to lower the enormous amount of waste in this country.

What good does it do to have access to this great resource and not know how to use it?

Let’s not forget, we have the power to, not only, lessen the waste in this country ourselves, but also help feed the less fortunate by demanding that things change.