AT THE EARLIEST POSSIBLE AGE my brothers and I were inducted into the Clean Plate Club. My compassionate mother would admonish us to remember the starving children in Biafra. My stern father would tell us about his narrow escape into the Carpathian Mountains in the harsh Yugoslavian winter of 1944, where he and his mother nearly starved. Th eir indoctrination was relentless. If you dished food onto your plate, no two ways about it, you were expected to eat all of it. More than just a habit, their message was one of ethical duty.
Ugh. Duty is rarely a motivator, especially when talking about food. “Duty + food” is too much like the dirty word diet. Food should be fuel for fun, fantasy, friends, family—or at least that’s how it’s sold to us. How else can we explain why we trash so much of it? What would it take for us to shift our habits, so that we can develop systems for managing food waste in the same way we have for other valuable resources like water and recyclables?
At the 2014 Environment Virginia conference, held in April in Lexington, Janet Ranganathan of the World Resources Institute laid out a basic approach: Without even having to produce more food, we could feed three billion more mouths by 2050 if we simply cut our food waste in half.
This eye-opening idea is not only ethically reasonable, it also is achievable—particularly if we design systems to reduce food waste at all points from farm to fork. Where to start? In the fields, of course. Our region is already a national leader by virtue of hosting the nation’s queen bee of gleaning: the Society of Saint Andrew (SoSA), a faith-based nonprofit that just this year alone collected a whopping 12.1 million pounds (or 36.3 million servings) of good food. Headquartered outside of Lynchburg in Big Island, SoSA gleans large quantities directly from farmers who refuse to see their “seconds” rot in the fields. It also rescues entire tractor-trailer loads of good food that otherwise would be dumped in landfills by packers and warehouses for any number of reasons, such as a traffic accident or rejection on delivery for technical reasons.
In Virginia, food waste now takes center stage on the Commonwealth’s Day of Gleaning in late August. Whether they are picking hundreds of pounds of late-season peaches or literal tons of early-season apples from Virginia orchards, throngs of volunteers glean imperfect fruit and produce that is still nutritious and delicious for feeding our hungry.
Beyond this simple day of recognition, however, gleaning can become even more intentional. Over the past five years, we’ve seen bursts of student crop mobs, citizen volunteers, and nonprofit gleaning efforts, from Harrisonburg to Staunton to Lynchburg to Charlottesville. In Fluvanna’s community garden, for instance, gleaning is now a core part of their ethic: 1,000 pounds of produce have been donated to a local food pantry every year for the past four years.
Nationally, the food-waste statistics are quite staggering. Imagine you’ve prepared a delicious, hot dinner for 10 guests. Yummm. Next, grab four of those plates and smash them onto the floor. This is the amount of food trashed, every single day—estimated by the World Resources Institute to be a whopping 41 percent.
So how much money would that be for a family of four each year? $1,600. In fact, every single day America produces enough food waste to fill the 92,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium, according to Food Recovery Network. Lest you protest, we’re not talking moldy or inedible food. We’re talking good, solid food that can feed you and me and the 852 million hungry people in the world.
At the community level, there is still room for more programs. In California, for example, Marin Organic pioneered an extraordinary weekly program in which they send volunteers to local farms to glean organic foods for school lunchrooms. Going well beyond produce, they were able to collect meats, eggs, yogurt, and even ice cream—maybe mislabeled batches, but still fresh and delicious enough to delight and nourish school youth. It’s not hard to imagine how a similar eff ort could be supported in our robust foodie-and-farm region.
This is an important endeavor—to continue to spread the word about reducing our food waste. May the gleaning force be with us!