Chaos, frenzy, upbeat, energetic, fun, diverse, collaborative, teamwork, volunteer-driven, cross-generational, educational, emotional, hands-on, tangible, spirited, and community.

Those are some of the words that come to mind as I reflect on the recent Feeding the 5000 event held in Portland (Maine) on October 7.

I’d throw in “delicious” too, because all of the hard work of the volunteer team in the days and weeks prior to the event led to one really tasty, and hearty, vegetable stew that day.  Think minestrone on steroids given all of the incredibly beautiful vegetables donated by farmers in the Portland region and beyond, combined with all of the skill with which chef Ron Adams brought everything together in the prep kitchen at Fork Food Lab.

But through it all, there was one common theme at the heart of Feeding the 5000 Portland; the idea that we waste far too much food in this country — estimates range from 30-40% in the U.S. and even more globally (up to 50% or more) — and that we need to do something about it, something tangible, educational, and inspirational.  Something to inspire behavior change.  A committed team of individuals in Maine decided to do just that.  Led by Hannah Semmler of Healthy Acadia, Sarah Lakeman of NRCM, and Jim Hanna of the Cumberland County Food Security Council, the team worked for several months handling all of the necessary planning issues in staging such an event in the heart of a city like Portland — budgeting, permitting, logistics, food sourcing, food preparation, volunteer management, stage control, communications, community engagement, and ultimately, serving and food distribution.  Blessed with a picture perfect New England fall day, all of that planning led to an event that went off without a hitch, and more than 1,500 nutrition-packed servings of our hearty vegetable stew were distributed to all manner of participants and passersby that afternoon in Monument Square.  Along with that healthy meal, all attendees were able to take advantage of several fun and educational events (such as taking a food waste reduction pledge, communicating their favorite food memory on camera in a Storybook booth, pedaling a bike to power a blender to prepare on-site smoothies, learning about various aspects of the food system at several educational booths, and partaking in a seemingly endless supply of gelato from a very generous Others! Coffee located right on Monument Square).

And against the backdrop of all of these events and engaging conversations, event-goers were able to learn from a steady stream of speakers and top chefs about the scope and scale of the food waste problem — both here in the U.S. and across the globe — and some of the things that they can do about it.  Armed with that knowledge, they can change their own behavior, and similarly impact others.  Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling effectively kicked things off along with two Kennebunk Middle School students (Kevin Finn and Alex Miale); those three individuals were fortunate to sample the ceremonial first serving of the event, and Kevin and Alex were also fortunate to be in the Mayor’s well-timed “selfie.”  Kristen Miale (executive director of Good Shepherd Food Bank) and I, along with Dominika Jarosz of Feedback Global, followed with remarks on the extent of wasted food and the challenges and opportunities in reducing it.  Kevin and Alex then shared some of their learnings around food waste, demonstrating the value (better said, the imperative) in getting the next generation involved in food waste and food security issues.  Several other speakers followed throughout the day, including Chris Beling of USEPA, David Herring of Wolfe’s Neck Farm, Kyle Foley of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Courtney Kennedy of Cooking Matters Maine, Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm, along with a number of impressive chefs from the region’s restaurants (such as David Levi, Toni Fiore, Mike Wiley & Andrew Taylor, and Ilma Lopez) performing some very impressive demos for the crowd (try breaking down a whole fish and making a fish chowder on an outdoor stage in a thirty-minute segment!).

Feeding the 5000 events are Feedback Global’s signature event to raise awareness about the scale of food waste across the globe and its implications for people and planet.  Dating back to the first such event in London in 2009, Feeding the 5000 feasts have been held in numerous cities around the globe (Paris, Dublin, Amsterdam, Brussels,  Sydney) including several in the U.S. (Washington DC, New York City, Oakland, Omaha, and Raleigh/Durham).   Following Portland this month, events were held in upstate New York and in Denver.  These events are tangible — volunteers glean perfectly good excess food from the surrounding farms, food that would otherwise go to waste, and organize the resources and labor needed to convert that food into a healthy meal for thousands.  Accompanied by music, cooking demonstrations, and educational talks, community members become distinctly aware of the myriad problems of global food waste while celebrating the great potential in excess food.  And they do so, as Feedback’s founder Tristram Stuart would say, in a delicious way.  The concept is simple, and in that simplicity is incredible power.  As Feedback notes, these events are intended to “catalyze the global movement against food waste,” creating awareness, inspiring creative solutions, and motivating individuals, business, and government to take steps to reduce food wastage.  The Portland team succeeded.

Putting excess food to good use — feeding people, feeding animals, creating products or energy, or even compost — has huge benefits, as anyone familiar with EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy is aware.  Operating at the top of the hierarchy, beyond source reduction, recovering excess food for people is as good as it gets — especially given the difficulty that many food insecure individuals have in obtaining high quality calories from fresh fruits and vegetables.  And Feeding the 5000 events effectively convey the power of such food recovery work.  In the process, another key theme stands out — the notion of community — and the power of collaboration as a group of caring, committed volunteers works to string together local resources on a shoestring budget to provide a communal feast for all.  In this case, the Feeding the 5000 Portland team gathered nearly 4,200 pounds of fresh, beautiful, healthy (and sometimes imperfectly-shaped!) produce from 17 farms, including several varieties of tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, corn, greens, yellow squash, acorn squash, butternut squash, zucchini, eggplant, garlic, peppers, broccoli, scapes, beets, and more.  All of the requirements for a hearty early fall vegetable stew — a meal bursting with nutrition.  After gleaning this bounty, a group of spirited volunteers spent hours dicing and preparing it to the sounds of 1970s music in a disco chop party, while chef Adams began putting it all together for efficient serving at the outdoor celebration.  In total, nearly 4,400 portions were served and distributed throughout the Portland region via this effort, both at Monument Square on the day of the event and to numerous food relief organizations separately.  Some of the produce was given to individuals directly at the event.  Nothing was wasted.

Beyond all of the food servings, numerous individuals took the pledge to reduce food waste in their own lives, many beneficial relationships were formed at the event, the overall level of awareness of the food waste problem was clearly raised, and undoubtedly many individuals left with meaningful takeaways that will prompt behavior change — all of the ingredients toward starting a movement.  And while the importance of valuing food came through in several segments, perhaps nowhere was it more effectively covered than through a storybook reflection from an individual detailing his upbringing in the War years.  His family had a Victory Garden, where they grew “every vegetable you can imagine” and supplemented it with apples, fruits, and grapes.  Every day in his youth he had to spend one hour tending to the garden — weeding, planting, digging, etc.  His mother preserved their food by freezing it or canning, so that they could enjoy their fruits and vegetables year-round.  In fact, on the rare occasion that he ate processed food, he felt it was a treat — because he almost never got it.  The memory of the fabulous food of his upbringing, and the work that was required to produce and preserve it, sticks with him today.

Those are values that we need to replicate today, and events like Feeding the 5000 Portland can help us pass them down to the next generation.  They are key to transitioning away from the culture of abundance around food that has developed in the last 50-60 years, and back to the mindset that prevailed during the War years — a culture of responsibility around food.  Our ability to feed a global population of nearly ten billion by 2050 in a sustainable manner depends on it.