Food for Thought

In the United States we grow almost twice as much food as we need. However, the USDA published a report in 2012 declaring that more than 50 million Americans face food insecurity. What does that mean exactly? The USDA defines food insecurity as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” According to the report, 80% of ‘low’ food security households surveyed responded that food they were able to purchase was insufficient to meet their needs. That doesn’t even consider those households with ‘very low’ food security. Where is the other half of our produced food, if it is not going to the hungry and food insecure? The sad truth is that most of it is wasted—left unharvested, culled for cosmetic reasons, discarded because it didn’t stay fresh enough on a cross-country truck journey, or thrown out in our own garbage because we bought too much or didn’t eat our leftovers.

Does a bigger apple taste better than a smaller one? Is a curvy cucumber less edible than a straight one? Are peaches with a few bumps less nutritious than those without? The answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘NO’. However, the USDA has enacted numerous grading standards for fruits and vegetables with little to no basis in nutrition or health. This has helped drive demand from retailers for bigger and more perfect-looking produce. Retailers claim it is in response to customer demand and preference, but many people who attend farmers markets would probably attest to the fact that the non-uniform fruits and vegetables taste just as good—and usually better! Supporting local farmers markets is a good first step in talking with your dollars by buying produce with no discrimination based on optical qualities that don’t affect quality nutrition. And the next time you go to Shaw’s, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s, tell the produce manager you don’t care what shape, size, or particular percentage of red your apples, oranges, and eggplants are.

So why isn’t the ‘wasted’ food being redistributed to people who need it? There are some great food recovery organizations, such as Feeding America, Second Harvest, and Boston’s own Lovin’ Spoonfuls, that recover hundreds of millions of pounds of food every year. This is still just a fraction of the total waste. Farmers can’t afford to pay workers (who are mostly paid by the piece) to pick produce that doesn’t meet USDA grades, even if it is perfectly edible, and most food recovery groups don’t have refrigerated container trucks at their disposal to pick it up from farms, even if it was already picked. The current system of subsidies for corn, soybeans, and other crops – primarily for ethanol and animal feed – do not help feed hungry Americans or make it cheaper for people to buy healthier fruits and vegetables. Wouldn’t it make more sense to redirect those subsidies – even a fraction would do – towards facilitating food recovery? It could pay farmers to harvest all of their crops, providing additional revenue, and deliver the portion ‘unfit’ for market to food banks and other food recovery groups. According to the Congressional Budget Office, crop subsidies are expected to cost us $95 billion a year for the next 10 years. How much food waste could we reduce each year with just 1% of that? 5%? How many hungry Americans could we feed by recovering perfectly edible fruits and vegetables instead of making animal feed and ethanol artificially cheaper? Food for thought…

The Sustainability Certificate program at MIT Sloan that I am pursuing in addition to an MBA has a strong base in system dynamics and operations that can be applied to improving the food system and recovery. The MIT Food and Agriculture Club is also dedicated to raising awareness and educating members of the community about food – where it comes from, how it is produced, and what effects the system has on people and the environment. Over the past few years we have seen positive change starting to gain momentum and events like Food Day are crucial to spreading the word and getting people involved. Bring your friends and see you there!

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