Getting Real About Food Waste
It’s the 72-billion-pound elephant in the room. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to talk about hunger without talking about food waste. Approximately 72 billion pounds of food is wasted each year, including 20 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables that go unharvested. If this number makes your jaw drop, you may want to sit down because it doesn’t even include the amount of food that consumers waste at home. This perfectly good food—from every point in the food production cycle—ends up in landfills and incinerators instead of in the mouths of the more than 1 in 11 Minnesotans, including 1 in 8 children, who experience hunger.
“One of our jobs at Second Harvest Heartland is to work with manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and farmers to gather this good food before it goes to a landfill,” said Bob Branham, director of produce strategy and food sourcing. “We do this through a variety of programs and services.”
How did we get here? Why does so much food go to waste?
Waste happens at nearly every point in the food production process. Buyers backing out of orders, environmental factors and over-forecasting can lead to hardworking farmers having excess food without a home. Variances in the way food is harvested or packaged can cause some perfectly edible food to be labeled “off-spec”— meaning the food doesn’t meet the stringent specifications set by the buyer.
Produce with minor cosmetic blemishes may be turned away by grocery stores and other retailers trying to meet their customers preference for beautiful food. (Brown bananas, slightly bruised apples and misshapen carrots and potatoes may not look particularly attractive, but they are perfectly safe and even delicious to eat.)
Moreover, abundant supplies mean that even perfect foods must be removed to make room for today’s deliveries. These are just a few of the many reasons edible food may not be used.
Second Harvest Heartland offers a variety of programs and services to reduce food waste.
Our Agricultural Surplus Program accepts food donations directly from Minnesota farmers, commercial growers and processors that would otherwise go un-harvested or unsold. When brought to our distribution center, this donated food is visually inspected to ensure that although it might be imperfect, it is still safe and edible. In the rare case that a food item cannot be salvaged, it still doesn’t go to waste.
“Our distribution center strives to be a zero-waste facility,” said Branham. “If food donated to our facility isn’t suitable for human consumption, we work with a local farmer who turns the produce into animal feed. As a last resort, we will send our produce to a local composter. Nothing is wasted.”
Our Retail Food Rescue Program partners with retail grocers to “rescue” food being diverted from grocery store shelves. Every day, the professional Retail Food Rescue fleet and trained food shelf partners collect thousands of pounds of produce, dairy, deli, meat, bakery and grocery items. This donated product is quickly distributed to food shelves, soup kitchens and shelters.
The Prepared Food Rescue program uses an online platform called MealConnect. The platform makes it easy to match donations from caterers, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and school kitchens to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other organizations that serve meals to our neighbors experiencing hunger. Donations are either collected by the agency partner or by a trained volunteer.
The Bottom Line
There is more than enough good food available right here in the Heartland to feed our neighbors experiencing hunger. One of the food items we focus on capturing mid-summer through the fall is nutrient-rich fresh produce—something that is highly desired but out of reach for many food shelf clients because of cost or access.
Through Second Harvest Heartland’s Produce Initiative and with the help of agency partners throughout Minnesota, we’re finding ways to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste and use it to feed more people.
Learn more about who and how we help.