by Eliot Martin
“Food rescue” seems to be a hot topic these days. Picking up wasted food from supermarkets and delivering it to low income communities has been extolled as a way to reduce waste and provide nourishment to those in need. This editorial explores why a more nuanced approach to food recovery is warranted to achieve the outcomes we want.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the aisles upon aisles of processed foods in a typical American supermarket. Go to one end of the store and you’ll likely find a bounty of produce, and on the other, a cornucopia of baked goods. The store is packed well beyond what can be sold in a timeframe that meets brand quality standards.
An abundant supply of whatever the consumer may want or need is now not only expected, but a marketing necessity in supermarkets. This culture of abundance is wasteful.
What happens to all the food that isn’t purchased within its shelf life? Who is paying for all the waste?
The simple answer to these questions is that, in many cases, the food is simply discarded. We all share the same burden of this waste, in the form of higher food costs passed onto consumers and in the form of greater ecological footprints tied to the food we consume—or in this case, the food we don’t consume. According to USDA estimates, 10% of the entire US food supply, or about $54 billion is wasted at the retail level alone.
In recent years, food justice and environmental advocates have shed new light on the waste accumulated by our industrialized food system, and have raised awareness about the potential nutritional value of the food being discarded. This has led to the proliferation of so-called “food rescue” efforts, to claim what would-be food waste as donations to address food security. We must stop to think, however, about whether these well-meaning initiatives to recover and redistribute discarded food really hit the mark.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) Food Pantry Network in Des Moines, Iowa. The non-profit organization does tremendous work to ensure residents of the Des Moines area are food secure. They deliver thousands of pounds of produce and other food items, with nutrition conscious intentions, to hundreds of families every week—all with just a handful of employees. Part of the food distributed is picked up or dropped off from local supermarkets with which DMARC has partnered. However, to avoid deterring donations and help eliminate food waste, the organization has adopted a policy of accepting all food donations and distributes food free of cost to those who opt to receive it. Similar policies are espoused by organizations from Feeding America to community level activist groups.
At first glance, it may seem like a win-win. But with a closer look, the policy warrants a much more critical evaluation. Although hundreds of pounds of nutritious produce are picked up from retailers and delivered to pantries weekly, the vast majority of food items recovered and distributed are highly processed junk foods, and sugar and fat laden baked goods.
When considering the countless man-hours and hundreds of food miles that go into even small-scale food recovery, the policy begins to sound less efficient. Another question is raised: Where is all this processed food is going?
Research from Iowa State University suggests that the population served by DMARC food pantries has a much higher prevalence of diabetes and heart disease than the general population. Research across the U.S. suggests that for most demographics, obesity rates are at least as high among individuals of lower socioeconomic status. The nutritional challenges facing food pantry beneficiaries are less about having enough calories, but having the right nutrients. DMARC’s work making it easier for low income families to have access to unhealthful foods by refusing to turn down those donations, in effect, may contribute to a public health epidemic of chronic disease morbidity.
It has been argued by food rescue proponents that policies to accept and distribute all food waste promotes choice among low income consumers, that beneficiaries are able to have more of the food they want and need at a lower cost. Taking insight from the field of behavioral economics, we must consider that circumstance influences the food decisions we make. By the same principles that food companies use in marketing, merely making junk food more accessible is likely to cause greater consumption than would otherwise be desired. Furthermore, any food provided by food pantries is likely to empower consumer choice because it effectively increases disposable income.
Maybe the real question we should be asking is: what is the true cost of all those shelves full of impeccable looking food? Perhaps we can decide instead that the more just, economical, and sustainable option is to rethink the amount of waste created in the first place. Solutions to food waste must be economical and incorporate nutritional needs to be sustainable. We should first find ways to reduce the presence of saturated fat, sugar, and salt laden foods on grocery store shelves. Perhaps “junk” food and foods with low nutritional density should remain junk when pulled from shelves. Instead of dumping these surplus products on food pantries to serve to at-risk populations, resources could better be used elsewhere. Perhaps these efforts could go into developing markets for wasted produce or towards behavior change interventions that increase consumption of nutrient dense foods and reduce risk of further burdens on public health.
Eliot Martin is an MS candidate in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program at the Tufts University Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He is passionate about exploring the intersection between behavioral decision making and its policy implications globally. Even outside of his work and studies, he finds that much of his life revolves around food and travel. Eliot can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eliot-martin-food-behavior/