World food day poster 2017 - LeanPathAs October draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on one of the most important days of the month, and really the year:  October 16thWorld Food Day.

World Food Day is celebrated annually in mid-October to mark the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 1945.  As FAO notes, World Food Day was established in 1979 to focus on raising awareness on issues of hunger, nutrition, and global food security.  It is celebrated by more than 150 countries around the world, and it is an opportunity to show commitment to achieving Zero Hunger (the second of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals behind No Poverty) by 2030.  Significantly, Pope Francis joined the World Food Day ceremonies in Rome this year, calling for a return to the commitment that spawned FAO and greater responsibility at all levels to guarantee the necessary and equitable distribution of the fruits of the Earth.  He further noted that “the relationship between hunger and migration can only be tackled if we go to the root of the problem” and address two main obstacles – conflict and climate change.

So World Food Day is a big deal – it matters to all of us – and it should.  It’s a day that stands for goals that we can all get behind – goals that can yield an inclusive, peaceful world rather than a divided, strife-filled one.

Each year dating back to 1981, FAO chooses an annual theme for World Food Day.  Examples of those themes include Food Comes First, Women in Agriculture, Small Farmers, Food and the Environment, Food and Nutrition, Trees for Life, Water for Life, Biodiversity for Food Security, World Food Security – The Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy, and The Right to Food.

It’s notable that these and other annual themes all reflect critical aspects of today’s food system, which is arguably the most important, interconnected global system that we have.  It is a big, complex system with many challenges, and it is in need of systemic solutions.  Solving those challenges not only goes to food security, but security in general, for at a minimum the absence of adequate food, clean water, and a clean and safe environment leads to conflict.

This year’s World Food Day theme is entitled Change the future of migration – invest in food security and rural development.  It is especially relevant because after years of decline, FAO notes that global hunger figures are once again on the rise (from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016).  This of course is due to the high level of conflict around the world, which prevents people from attaining life’s basic essentials and leads to the mass migrations that we are seeing.

What strikes me is this:  Despite the fact that 1) we live in a world with so much human potential and technological capacity, and 2) we already produce enough food to feed the planet, we still have over 800 million hungry across the globe, we have over 40 million hungry in the U.S., we have billions suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, and we have skyrocketing obesity numbers stemming from poor nutrition.

These numbers are simply unacceptable, and one key factor that underpins all of them is the amount of food that we waste.

Some estimates put the annual amount of global food loss and waste at up to 50% of food production – more than one billion tons.  And in the U.S., it is estimated that we waste 30-40% of our food.

Such levels of waste can be referred to in many ways – irresponsible, immoral, unethical, and unsustainable to name a few, but above all, nonsensical.

The recent ReFED report notes that of 63 million tons of food wasted annually in the U.S., roughly 10 million tons occurs on farms – in part due to cosmetic imperfections as well as various market conditions.  The vast majority occurs at the consumer level –with consumers and consumer-facing businesses accounting for more than 80% of all food waste.

Achieving the necessary sizeable reduction in food waste in the U.S. (and in other developed countries) will require collaboration across all sectors of the food system.  It will require a focus on broad culture change around how we value our food, along with concerted education efforts on the scope and scale of food waste to reinforce behavior change.  And it will require a shift in our collective mindset to prioritize source reduction, changing wasteful production systems (which accept high levels of waste and rely upon cheap disposal) in order to prevent the waste of food (and all associated) resources from occurring in the first place.  But mostly It will require committed individuals seeking to drive the needed change.

One such group of committed individuals is the Maine Gleaning Network, organized by Hannah Semler of Healthy Acadia, which held the first annual Maine Gleaning Week in the ten-day period leading up to World Food Day.  Along with Good Shepherd Food Bank, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension program, and the Food Recovery Coalition, the group collaborated with 30 farms and several supporting organizations to capture excess crops from Maine’s fields for distribution to relief organizations while engaging local communities in “coordinated acts of resourceful and equitable food system building.”

In sum, the group engaged more than 150 volunteers and gleaned 18,000 lbs. of food over the ten-day period — including 23 varieties of produce – resulting in tens of thousands of healthy servings for needy individuals as well as thousands of dollars in tax deductions for participating farmers.

And while FAO in Rome celebrated World Food Day on its global stage, we celebrated the work of these committed individuals here, covering both local and global issues in an energizing program in Portland, ME (significantly, right on location where we held Maine’s first Feeding the 5000 event one year earlier).  Kristen Miale of Good Shepherd Food Bank discussed hunger and relief efforts in Maine, while I discussed global food waste amid the larger frame of World Food Day.  Hannah Semler pulled things together by encouraging audience members to share their stories about food, and gleaning, which led to some powerful moments.  One woman described how she takes her young son with her while gleaning, expressing her belief that it is important to make it easy for young adults to understand issues of food security, and to build community by making food recovery normal.  Another individual referenced his jobs at food stores, and expressed how he simply couldn’t fathom how there could be so much waste.  Again, the nonsensical coexistence of hunger and excessive food waste came through.

Along with a series of informational displays on food recovery, a number of food dishes created from excess food were served — further demonstrating the value of our food resources.  We concluded with a screening of the new film Wasted! – which explores the scale of the global food waste problem and the many issues that underpin it.

In sum, we celebrated the importance of World Food Day, and we celebrated the commitment and collaboration demonstrated by the Maine Gleaning Network to change the food system and put excess food to optimal use.

That commitment is essential to drive positive change with urgency, because a food system in which we produce a vast quantity of items knowing that we will discard 30-50% at the end of the day, expend more resources to haul the excess items away, and harm the environment and health of citizens in the process isn’t a sensible system, and it’s certainly not a sustainable one.