Reducing food waste: part of the food insecurity solution - Salish Current
October 8, 2023
Reducing food waste: part of the food insecurity solution
Aria Nguyen

Food recovery from farms, restaurants and stores is among solutions communities are applying to the problem of food insecurity. Local nonprofits are also growing crops to distribute; Skagit Gleaners Executive Director Morgan Curry lends a hand with the harvest. (Skagit Gleaners courtesy photo)

October 8, 2023
Reducing food waste: part of the food insecurity solution
Aria Nguyen

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Around one out of five households in Whatcom and Skagit counties report they are not sure whether they’ll be able to access adequate healthy food.

Alongside that level of food insecurity — which is higher among households with children — counties including Whatcom in a recent study reported over 12% edible food waste in residential landfills. The waste includes vegetables, fruits, meats, fats and oils.

With 19% of Whatcom households and 24% of Skagit households reporting high food insecurity, community members and local organizations are working on new, sustainable solutions to mitigate waste and prevent hunger.

Consumerism as a cause

Food insecurity is a multifaceted issue with more than one cause, such as class, income, affordable housing and more.

Brandi Hutton is the coordinator for the Toward Zero Waste Program, a program of Sustainable Connections, a local nonprofit working to strengthen food systems and address climate change.

With food waste and food insecurity, Hutton states the two are “absolutely tied.”

She attributed capitalism as one of the biggest contributors to food waste.

“We live in a community or a society of abundance,” Hutton said. “I think that we’ve been trained to never want to run out of food … the idea of abundance, when you go into the grocery store, it encourages you to sort of buy more than you need.”

As much of 30–40% of the food supply in the United States goes to waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There is enough food to feed people, but the problem lies in distribution and adequate access, Hutton said.

“I think that it’s really a matter of sharing in the wealth,” Hutton said. “Sometimes I’ll talk to a restaurant owner who expresses his concern about giving away their product versus selling it. And I always express, that you know, the clientele that can afford to come to your restaurant is not the same clientele that is a recipient of the Food Recovery Program.”

The program is managed by Toward Zero Waste and helps to distribute leftover edible food donated by restaurants and businesses. Hutton said the program can receive from 12,000 to 17,000 pounds of prepared, perishable and temperature-sensitive foods to donate to residents struggling with food security per month.

Overproduction, the concern for running out of food and the stress of making money result in waste which then prevents edible food from making it to where it is needed the most.

A symptom of broader issues

While food waste is linked to food insecurity, it is also driven by outside economic factors.

Ali Jensen, a program specialist for Whatcom County Health and Community Services, said she thinks food insecurity is a symptom of broader poverty issues.

“In Whatcom County, we’re really fortunate to have a lot of resources,” Jensen said. We have a lot of farmers’ markets, we have a lot of food retailers, but some people can’t access that for economic reasons. So, we have to address the underlying economic reasons behind that before we can say we’ve solved some food insecurity.”

Jensen also attributed high housing prices, inflation and the lack of wage increases to the issue of food insecurity.

“Their food bill is going up and their housing bill is going up and so they have to make a choice of where they spend their money, their finite resource of money,” she said. “Those are some of the underlying issues.”

Shining light on potential solutions

Adyson Hughes, as a Bellingham City Council intern, drew attention to Whatcom County’s waste and potential solutions in the report “Food Waste: Closing Down the Road from Grown to Gone.”

Before graduating from Western Washington University in the spring, Hughes and her group mates worked on the project for their capstone course. The students focused on creating a hypothetical community garden for seniors so they could “have better access to society and just better mental health in general.”

“Some of the side benefits of that program that we planned were that they were growing food,” Hughes said. “So, we started researching nutrition, and what nutrition looked like in the state of Washington for residents.”

During an interview with council member Kristina Michele Martens, Hughes noted the problems of food insecurity — and along with it, the topic of food waste.

“You kind of have to address food waste [because] we’re wasting more food than we have people to eat it. It’s, it’s crazy,” Hughes said.

One solution that Hughes presented to the council is a six-week course developed at the University of Rhode Island that aims to educate community members on the food system to minimize the amount of food waste that gets produced. Each week focuses on a different aspect, such as the challenges of food waste and food insecurity or the science of composting.

Hutton said she would be in favor of a similar program.

“However education about food waste is put out there and to our community, I think is going to be beneficial and positive,” she said.

For future solutions, Hutton said she would like to see more grant funding for various nonprofits and food banks, along with more funding to cover food recovery as paid work.

“A lot of times these systems are built to rely on volunteers, and volunteers are awesome, but volunteers come and go. If you want a consistent program that you can build on and you can rely on. It needs to be important enough to outright fund it,” Hutton said.

Working solutions

Until these potential solutions gain traction, people in the community are continuing efforts to lower waste and give back to those who lack adequate resource access.

Nonprofit Skagit Gleaners was formed in 1988 by a group of families who did not want to see food go to waste.

Organizations including Skagit Gleaners, which operates a daily market for members, recover food that would otherwise end up in landfills. (Skagit Gleaners courtesy photo)

Gleaning, an established practice in Judeo-Christian and other traditions, “is an act of harvest harvesting,” according to Morgan Curry, executive director of Skagit Gleaners. Instead of surplus crops that a farmer wasn’t able to harvest going to waste, “the farmer would open up … a part of his or her fields and let families come in and glean that food.” 

Over the years Skagit Gleaners has developed into a larger operation that focuses on food waste and food recovery. Today the organization rescues items from grocery stores or restaurants, grows its own food and purchases food to supplement its gleaning efforts from farms owned or managed by people of color to supply its community market.

They also run the Gratitude Galleria, which redistributes clothing and household items to people in the community.

Curry says that individuals, to support and participate in the gleaning program, must pay a membership fee that allows them to shop in The Market and Gratitude Galleria. The lowest member costs an average of $39 a month, which allows people to visit the market three times a week.

Curry said that families often get 30–40 pounds of groceries in each shop, which if they take full advantage of that, can be between 90–120 pounds of groceries a week.

“And I don’t even want to know what the cost of groceries would be if you went to a grocery store and got 90 pounds of groceries a week,” she said.

Sustainable Connections and Skagit Gleaners are just two organizations that collect and redistribute resources to people who are food insecure — much of this food from restaurants and businesses.

Start at home

The first steps to limit food waste and food insecurity start at home, said Emily Hovis.

Hovis, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences within the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, said there are many things people at home can do to reduce food waste — a fact which goes unappreciated.

“That’s really where we need to focus our efforts,” she said. “But it’s really challenging to reach people in their homes because a lot of our behavior around food and our food choices are cultural. They’re ingrained in how we grew up.”

Hovis mentioned that in the residential sector, 60% of food waste goes into landfills instead of being donated or composted. To fight this, she listed how people can be smarter consumers to fight waste and food insecurity.

“If you don’t buy so much, then you’re not going to waste so much and so simple things like meal planning, checking your pantry or your refrigerator before you shop — are really simple behavioral modifications that individuals could make that won’t only reduce food waste, but will also reduce money spent on food,” Hovis said. “Same thing with repurposing leftovers … a lot of that has to do with figuring out how you can be creative.”

Though there are many possible solutions — both individually and with the help of organizations — Curry says to remember this is not a solo fight.

“It seriously does take a village to address this. It requires cross-sector collaboration. It’s not an individualized problem. it’s a community problem,” Curry said. “It takes the government and takes NGOs, it takes corporate leaders to really change the way that our food system works, and we just have to keep working at it.”

— Reported by Aria Nguyen

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