It’s Time We Rethink Food Rescue

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.

Palettes full of donated bakery items in the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) warehouse

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.

The Des Moines Area Religious Council’s (DMARC) Summer Free Produce Stand—Des Moines, Iowa

 

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 eliot.martin@tufts.edu or on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eliot-martin-food-behavior/

Advertisements

Do We Need More Business, or Better Business, to Feed a Growing Population?

by Rebecca Lucas and Emmy Moore

To create a world that can feed 9 billion people by 2030 while providing clean water access, ensuring equal access to education across gender, and supporting renewable and safe energy, do we need to establish new and profitable business models? Or do we simply need to adjust business as usual?

A giant social experiment took place in August. One thousand people from 129 countries. Ten days. Nine Danish folk high schools. All to formulate solutions to address the United Nation’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that had been condensed to seven major themes: food, energy, water, sustainable production and consumption, education and information and communications technology (ICT), urban sustainability, and health.  After a week, 199 pitches of innovative solutions had been created by groups of people who had only just met at the start of the experiment.

UNLEASH is a global innovation lab, created with the intention of bringing together “talents,” aged 20-35, from all over the world to innovate on the UN’s SDGs and develop new businesses, new ideas, and new ways to achieve these objectives. The long term goal is to continue this program every year until 2030, banking on the probability that at least a few new and creative solutions will successfully emerge. Six individuals from the Friedman School were selected to be part of this inaugural year; while at times it was clear we were guinea pigs with similar frustrations, we were also immersed in an entirely unique and novel experience.

The setting is Denmark: known for clean design, universal health care, paid parental leave, and above all, a high per capita income. This makes for an interesting contrast when working on problems that are facing the world as a whole, yet many that disproportionately impact developing countries.

The first few days all 1,000 of us gathered in dichotomous venues; post-industrial sites, like locomotive storage, and prospects of the future, like Copenhagen City Hall. We were showered with inspirational words from a variety of sectors within Denmark, meant to invigorate us with direction of technology and what is possible today that was not ten years ago. But many of us were left wondering what these futuristic notions had to do with the issues we were at UNLEASH to tackle today.

After two days of corralling 1,000 millennials around Copenhagen, we were divided into our SDG themes and shipped to folk high schools. The Danish Folk High School feels like an adult summer camp but is so much more: individuals who want to learn anything left out of standard school settings, including banjo playing or poetry, can attend throughout their life for different lengths of time. Ry Folkskole, where half of the food-theme group resided, was on a lake and focused on music, theatre, and canoeing. It had a principal who told us the mission was to remind its students that there is more to life than business—there is life. An interesting juxtaposition when we were there with the objective of intensively creating business proposals.

After a morning assembly of singing and three rounds of problem framing on the first day at the high schools, we were divided into our teams that would ultimately produce the final pitch, loosely based on 20 “insights” that had been distilled from each participant’s application.

This was where the social experiment almost felt absurd at times: thrown together with people we had just met, we were meant to come up with a business plan on a clearly defined, singular problem with an explainable and innovative solution in less than four days. This process of problem framing with elegant solutions did not fit neatly with the SDGs and broader issues many of us initially gathered at UNLEASH to grapple with.

Sustainable Development Goal number two: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. It is a grand goal and for many reasons it can seem unachievable. Yet here we were, meant to come up with some thing, some product, some idea that was pitch-able to investors. So, the question kept surfacing: is what we need to achieve zero hunger something that is pitch-able? Is what we need to feed nine billion people by 2030 something that can make a profit? Is focusing on the creation of new apps what will address inequity of food access currently? Is the future of sustainability as discussed in this context applicable to the rest of the world?

Perhaps what is needed to address global hunger and improve food security is a paradigm shift, a major change in the way we view development and how development actually lands on the ground, plants its roots, and continues to grow. This isn’t innovative and yet it may just be something that could work if pursued on this type of platform, with these 1,000 people involved who are excited and ready.

The only problem is; this isn’t necessarily a business proposition. We couldn’t exactly prototype a development model with Legos and pitch it to investors and experts present on our panel of judges. Is UNLEASH’s answer to the SDGs the creation of more start-ups? Or is the answer just doing what we do now, but doing it better? Can it be both? Maybe we can innovate by renovating our existing business models to incorporate the objectives and indicators of the SDGs while also creating new business.

The goal of UNLEASH was not to achieve a paradigm shift in ten days. It aimed to build connections and support future projects and collaboration. The event introduced people from 129 countries to each other and reminded us that we have a shared desire. To gather 1,000 people together who want to make this world a little bit better has much larger implications and reverberations than any business pitch could generate. The paradigm shift is coming.

You can read more about some of the solutions that won prizes here.

Emmy Moore is a second year MS candidate in the Agriculture, Food, & Environment program. Her academic interests include agriculture policy, water resource management, and systems modeling. She likes playing with her cat Pin and road trips. Before joining Friedman she ran a business in California making pickles and jams.

Rebecca Lucas is a second year Agriculture Food & Environment/Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning dual degree student and changes her mind monthly as to her primary focus while in graduate school. Right now it’s all about community engagement and farm to institution work. Hailing originally from the central coast of California, she is still trying to understand how life still functions when it snows and the difference between a “winter” coat and just a coat.

Does Sustainability Fit into the Dietary Guidelines?

by Buki Owoputi

Sustainability in the food system is not a new topic, yet the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is choosing to finally address the issue full force. Although the DGAC’s report is just a recommendation, the report may influence the new dietary guidelines that are set to come out later this year.

The purpose of the Dietary Guidelines is to “encourage Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet-one that focuses on foods and beverages that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health, and prevent disease.” The DGAC recommendations state that it is addressing sustainability to “have alignments and consistency in dietary guidance that promotes health and sustainability.” As the concern for environmental preservation grows, many countries (such as Australia) have addressed this issue by including sustainability in their dietary guidelines. The U.S. has finally decided to get on board and follow the pack.

So what exactly is sustainable diet? The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describes it as “…with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”

In other words, sustainable diets focus on preserving the environment and reduce the impact of food production on the planet. While this all sounds wonderful, the question becomes whether the purpose of the dietary guidelines should be to protect the environment or just strictly provide a healthy eating guideline for Americans.

In order to address sustainability, the DGAC has discussed plant-based diets higher in foods such as fruits, vegetables, plant proteins, and whole grains. This also includes decreasing meat consumption. The DGAC also discusses consuming seafood that is wild caught, however it addresses that both farm-raised and wild caught are needed to meet the consumer demand for seafood in the U.S. The DGAC states that it plans to determine if sustainable diets are affordable and accessible, as well as determining the economic impacts of a sustainable diet.

To no surprise, those in the meat industry oppose the committee’s recommendations. For example, Tiffany Ringer of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding writes, “I have read news reports about the recommendations made by the dietary guidelines and I am very concerned. Meat is a part of my family’s diet and always has been because my family knows that it helps our children grow and develop…It seems like this committee is out of touch with everyday Americans.”

However, the DGAC recommendations clearly state that no food group should be eliminated. The focus seems to be increasing fruits and vegetables in the diet.  So far, the feedback from the public has been mostly positive. Many people are happy that the U.S. may finally include sustainability into its recommendations for a healthy diet. For example, Joseph Hayes states, “I absolutely agree that we need to transition to a sustainable, plant based diet. The present standard American diet is unhealthy, extremely cruel to the animals, destructive to the environment, and a terrible waste of resources, especially water…I have been a vegan for 16 years and am in robust health. I love eating exclusively vegan and hope the Dietary guidelines remain strongly in favor of a plant based diet for good health and sustainability.”

There seems to be 2 different arguments that have arisen on the topic of sustainable diets, and it is important to dissect and address both issues separately. The first issue is whether the dietary guidelines should be made with the goal of preserving the environment. Should healthy eating and environmental health be linked together? Almost no one would argue that production of meats and other animal foods increases the carbon emissions and is worse for environmental pollution than producing plant-based foods. But should we be willing to make nutrition and health decisions based on the environment? Would you be willing to adopt a vegan diet to reduce pollution on the environment, even if it was not the best diet nutritionally, preferentially, or culturally appropriate for you? Is it selfish to choose your own wants and needs over those of the environment? While is it easy to say that we all want to do everything we can to limit the impact we have on the environment, is it worth it the sacrifice? Lucky for us, it may be possible to have the best of both worlds. Instead of choosing one extreme or the other, simply limiting animal products may provide a benefit for Americans.

This leads to the second issue that needs of whether adopting a sustainable diet will actually lead to healthier Americans. Many people are arguing that a sustainable diet is a healthier diet and would lead to a decrease in chronic diseases. For example, a study of vegan and vegetarian diets by Tantamango-Bartley et al. found that vegan and vegetarian diets seem to offer some protection against certain types of cancers. Depending on the way the guidelines are stated, this expected decrease in incidence of chronic diseases may not happen. People may choose to replace their meat consumption with foods such as refined grains or animal-based products such as cheese or milk (which are not only still bad for the environment, but may also be linked to obesity). It is difficult enough to get people to follow the existing guidelines, talk less of increasing their already low consumption of fruits and vegetables!

The average American consumes about 2,534 calories, which is more than the recommended 2,000. However, it is important to note this study found that even if people lowered their intake to 2,000 calories, and decreased their meat consumption, the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions still may not be significant. While a decrease in calorie intake and meat consumption might decrease risk of chronic disease and obesity, it might not help the environment in a significant way. These are all issues that should be researched in more depth before any formal guidelines are made.

The purpose of the dietary guidelines should not be to preserve the environment, only to provide recommendations for a healthy diet. The Dietary Guidelines were never created with the intent to decrease our carbon footprints. With that being said, adopting a sustainable diet could help decrease the prevalence of obesity and ultimately lower rates of chronic diseases. The focus should be on increasing fresh fruits and vegetables, although animal-products can be part of a healthy diet. Framing the new guidelines in a way that promotes healthy eating instead of preservation of the environment might help reduce push-back from those who oppose including sustainable diets in the dietary guidelines. Helping the environment would just be a plus to enjoying better health!

Buki Owoputi is a first year FPAN and MPH-Epi/Bio student. In her spare time she likes to invent new recipes and read random articles on Wikipedia.