Food waste ‘next litter campaign?’ (Editorial)

(Sept. 29, 2015) As harvest progresses through the Mid-Atlantic, the contrasting (but closely linked) issues of food waste and hunger persist throughout the nation and world.
In the United States last year, USDA data shows 133 billion pounds of food was wasted — almost a third of the nation’s food supply — while 48 million Americans lived in food insecure households, according to the non-profit organization Feeding America.
Earlier this month, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and officials at the Environmental Protection Agency launched the first ever national target for reducing food waste, aiming for a 50 percent drop by 2030.
Vilsack called the issue of cutting food waste “the next litter campaign,” referring to the campaigns of decades ago to keep people from leaving trash on the ground.
“Reducing food waste at all levels in the food chain — farm, factory, store and home — is certainly one of those issues with economic and emotional appeal,” said Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the trade group Food Marketing Institute.
Economically, through all the steps of the food chain, the benefits from less waste are clear.
Emotionally, it doesn’t take us long to think of someone who struggles with keeping food on the plate and Depression-era stories from farmer and non-farmer alike still resonate today.
Locally, farmers have stepped up to the plate in a big way.
Last year in Maryland, 70 farms donated more than 4.6 million pounds of food to the Farm to Food Bank program.
This year, poundage is down, according to Amy Cawley, Eastern Shore coordinator for the program, due in large part to a drop in watermelon donations as farmers have been better able to sell the heavy fruit this year than last.
But farmers are still calling with food to donate, Cawley said, and every bin, crate and box makes a difference.
In New Jersey, the Farmers Against Hunger program collected more than 1 million pounds of food that wouldn’t see a grocery store or market from 53 farms.
At the store and home levels, technology is offering some help.
With the cell phone scan of an items’s bar code, grocery chains can offer shoppers increasing real-time discounts as perishable food nears it’s sell-by date. The ability is there, adoption and consumer use need to follow.
Earlier this year, USDA launched its FoodKeeper mobile app which helps consumers tell if food in their refrigerator is still good to eat.
It will take systemic changes to considerably close the gap on either end of the food spectrum.
Having a target like that of the federal agencies is a help.
Like the anti-littering campaigns referenced by Vilsack, each of us making a habit of wasting less food will make more of a difference.