Food Recovery, Prevention, and Light-Bulb Moments

IMG_20180123_105303682Late last month I was pleased to participate in Feeding America’s Food Rescue Summit 2018 in Washington, DC – the third iteration of an event that is evolving nicely in terms of breadth of discussion topics as well as overall participation.

This year’s Summit had strong representation from multiple areas of the food system – food banks and food recovery specialists, NGOs active in food system issues, food producers, food retailers, Universities, and government.

As one might expect, the focus was on food recovery in a changing landscape.  Feeding America understands that the traditional model of food recovery – heavy on processed food items which are easily stored but lacking in nutrition – is no longer a viable long-term model.  For one, technology continues to help organizations manage their operations to reduce repeated sources of excess food (the “easy” recovery sources of the past), and it helps create additional secondary markets for it.  Perhaps more importantly, the obesity crisis clearly demonstrates the need for food banks to obtain high-quality calories for the food insecure population – fresh produce, meat, and dairy items.  We simply must provide healthy food options consistently for the 40 million-plus individuals who are going without them.  The perishable nature of these items naturally requires efficient logistics to get excess food items to needy consumers in time for them to be consumed.  It also requires education efforts to help the food insecure population utilize them.

The entire process, of course, begins with strong relationships, and Feeding America is doing a fine job of engaging organizations with excess food resources (or the ability to recover such resources) to create durable partnerships.  Making this process somewhat easier is growing recognition of the scale of the global food waste problem.  Stakeholders at all levels of the food system are beginning to understand that the loss and waste of more than one billion tons of food across the globe annually – especially when more than 800 million are hungry and hundreds of millions more are suffering from micronutrient deficiencies — is not only nonsensical, but unsustainable.  The social, environmental, and financial costs of such wastage are simply too great.

The Summit brought together numerous organizations and thought leaders for cross-sectoral discussion on how to optimize the use of our substantial excess food resources, with a strong focus on innovation to benefit food recovery.  Sessions included discussion of:

  • Learnings from the food waste movement and applicability for food rescue
  • Identifying opportunities for change through collaboration and innovation
  • Awareness and education efforts on the front-lines of feeding people
  • The state of the regulatory landscape and successes at the state and local levels
  • Opportunities and challenges in increasing access to healthy food items
  • Research gaps in need of attention
  • Opportunities to increase impactful partnerships
  • The state of food regulations, and possible inhibitors to food donation
  • Advancements in technology that enable access to new sources of food for rescue
  • Raising awareness and creating advocacy for food rescue
  • Overcoming transportation challenges in food recovery

I was able to bring a perspective from multiple aspects of the food system, and especially enjoyed focusing on innovation for food prevention – discussing the unique capabilities of LeanPath’s integrated hardware and software solutions in a panel along with representatives from Spoiler Alert, Food Forward, Feeding America, and 412 Food Rescue.  Part of my focus at this event was to show the importance of prevention (aka source reduction), which is the highest (and most impactful) level of the Food Recovery hierarchy.  The reason is obvious – by preventing food waste in the first place – we have maximum positive impact on the environment by avoiding the consumption of all of the scarce resources (fuel, labor, pesticides, water, soils) that would otherwise go into that food.  And we avoid the associated greenhouse gas emissions in the process, which is especially significant given the staggering fact that if we ranked food waste as a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind the U.S. and China. Further, by avoiding the production of wasted food, we can reallocate financial savings and human capital to other areas such as social problems.

And as the hierarchy suggests, after prevention we should focus on recovery efforts to optimize food resources, starting with feeding people and/or animals before moving to industrial uses and composting.

My sense is that far too often well-meaning individuals think in terms of “either-or” when it comes to prevention and recovery rather than “both-and.”  One of my goals at the event was to discuss the benefit of putting prevention and recovery together in holistic programs designed to optimize excess food resources.  Fortunately, that point was also made for me in a very notable moment during the session entitled “The Big Opportunity: Additional Access to Agricultural Products.”

In this session, experts from three sectors – animal proteins, dairy, and produce – discussed the challenges and opportunities in increasing access to these highly desired (and highly perishable!) food items.  The three examples illustrated a deep-rooted problem in our highly automated food supply chain – a vast amount of systemic overproduction.

In this session, a representative from the dairy sector discussed the ongoing challenges of finding outlets for the vast supply of milk on the market today.  Increased farm efficiency has led to high levels of milk production (think automatic milkers) while at the same time demand for milk has declined given a plethora of alternatives.   As a result, milk supplies are very often being dumped despite the fact that milk and dairy products are highly desired by our very large food insecure population.  It’s a very disturbing situation.  Second, a representative from the produce sector discussed his organization’s donation efforts when dealing with excess potato supplies.  Third, a representative from the poultry sector discussed a unique situation in which a severe storm shut down processing operations at an East Coast plant for three days, resulting in larger chickens which were too big for normal packaging – and hence a donation opportunity that had to be managed in a very tight time window.

On the plus side, these examples depicted well-intentioned efforts on the part of three organizations seeking to do good by optimizing the use of these excess food resources.  On the other hand, the clear “elephant in the room” (especially in the case of milk) involved the issue of overproduction – and our highly automated cycle of producing large amounts of food only to discard them.

One of the attendees was visibly moved by the conversation, particularly the dumping of so much milk, and questioned why we weren’t all talking about prevention.  It was a very courageous move in a conference room full of highly motivated recovery experts, and I commend her for it.

The situation was eerily similar to an experience that I had while giving a talk on valuing our food resources in New York a few years ago.  During that presentation, I covered the cycle of overproduction and waste in the retail sector, supporting my points with pictures of wasted food (whole loaves of artisan bread, mounds of fresh fruit and vegetables, and an entire bin full of pristine rotisserie chickens which had obviously been discarded after exceeding a designated “freshness” time limit.  I vividly recall opening that container and being hit with the incredible smell from all of those chickens – which reminded me of Thanksgiving Day – and I was stunned by the fact that dozens of pristine chickens had been so cavalierly discarded with no effort to use them elsewhere, or to donate them.

That picture clearly struck a nerve with one of the attendees – who (like the woman at the Feeding America Summit) was deeply moved by the disposal of such a valuable food resource.  Visibly upset, he approached me after my talk and noted that he was a vegan with a deep concern for the lives of animals, and he could not bear to think that those animals had been raised from start to finish in challenging conditions for the sole purpose of feeding people, and yet were casually tossed into a trash can as if they had zero value.  I couldn’t disagree, that picture still bothers me, too.

That experience, along with the similarly powerful moment at the Feeding America Summit, join many other “light-bulb” moments that I’ve had over the last ten years of working on food waste and food security issues.  I’ve covered several of them on this blog.

Such moments only serve to further motivate me to continue this highly important work.  Food is simply too valuable to waste.  Too many global citizens are in need of what we so casually discard, and too many scarce resources are consumed in overproduction cycles that need disruption.

We should all pay attention to those light-bulb moments which lead us to question food system inefficiencies, particularly when they touch our heartstrings.

It’s a good bet you’ll hear about my next one right here on this blog.


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