Every day, about one pound of food is wasted for every person in the United States alone. Over 133 billion pounds, which is about 30-40% of the food supply, goes to waste every year. Food is the single largest category of materials emitting methane from municipal landfills.
The U.S. had a high rate of food waste even before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as supply chains struggled to shift when COVID-19 forced many restaurants to close, and panic buying cleared off store shelves, food waste became an even more apparent problem.
News coverage capturing graphic incidents of food waste at the top of the food distribution chain, like animal euthanasia and milk dumping at farms, drew explicit attention to the food waste issues in the harvesting, processing and distribution systems that manage and transport all of our food.
While it’s clear many of the processes surrounding our food need to be reevaluated, especially during waves of societal shutdowns, food waste is still something mostly exacerbated by consumers. If anything, the shutdown of restaurants points to an issue with how people consume food. Beginning in March, spending at restaurants and hotels declined by more than 60% due to COVID-19, and grocery spending increased by 70% and continued to increase by 10% through April, May and June of 2020, pointing to the fact that many households relied more on prepared food from restaurants than cooking every meal themselves. But what happened to the food caught in the middle?
Adapting to a broken supply chain
When restaurants had to close, producers and their distributors lost an entire market where they sold food. Some of that food could be shifted into grocery stores, but not all of it. To try to help farmers and households, the USDA organized the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and Farmers to Families food box program as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to purchase food from farmers and distributors and send out those agricultural products to people in need through food banks and other community-based organizations and nonprofits.
The aim of Farmers to Families was to partner with national, regional and local food distributors to buy products like fresh produce, dairy and meat from American producers and farmers.
To do this, the USDA has entrenched new supply lines, contracting with mostly big distributors and somewhat smaller producers. Most of the contracted suppliers were flourishing in the grocery boom of the quarantine and filling the USDA contracts with mediocre food, drawing critical news reports, including from The Counter in September, which said the companies are receiving “handsome payouts for lackluster food boxes.” The Counter reported the USDA was contacting to reimburse companies $100 for each single-family box of food. “The boxes contained a combination of fruit, vegetables, dairy, and protein,” The Counter reported.
The seemingly mismanaged program started in May and has been continually renewed, most recently on Jan. 4. Six businesses contracted with the Farmers to Families program to do this in Washington state.
As of Jan. 11, the USDA has been invoiced for 132.8 million food boxes and deemed this to be more than $6.3 billion of food products. The math there means each box of food is worth two cents.
The Food to Families supply chain reaches nonprofit organizations and people in need. One report to the International Network of Street Papers is from the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, explaining how they distribute the food boxes to local community members and food banks.
“The Farmers to Families box program was designed to give some economic relief to those business owners who all of a sudden had no place to sell their food,” MAHN Executive Director Paula Schafer said. “The idea was to circumvent the market they normally sell to altogether and box their product in a way it could be used by households. Then we were challenged to establish a distribution network to get those new boxes being put together by food vendors to people who needed the food assistance.”
MAHN works as an umbrella organization in Montgomery County to help organize and coordinate 43 different food pantry and food bank organizations serving the community, especially as they lost many of the volunteers because of being in the at-risk age group for the contraction of COVID-19 (as did many other food assistance organizations around the U.S.).
MAHN coordinated the large-scale emergency donations from donors like Hatfield and Chobani that were used as supplementary donations while they weren’t getting donations from grocery stores or individuals in the community. MAHN also coordinated a two-part Farmers to Families distribution. The first leg of the distribution project included five large-scale events that facilitated direct-to-community Farmers to Families food box distributions occurring between May and June. During this time, MAHN gave out 25,500 boxes totaling 378,750 pounds and a $706,965 value. For the second leg of the project, MAHN worked with Lansdale Warehouse to do direct-to-food pantry distribution of Farmers to Families boxes for eight weeks. During this time, they donated 22,424 boxes totaling 272,296 pounds and $393,328.
Schafer said the Farmers to Families boxes were “an opportunity for people to get food without having to go to a food pantry because, all of a sudden, people who were unfamiliar with how food pantries operate or how to even access a food pantry were in need of food assistance, and so we were trying to circumvent all of those obstacles that kept them from getting food.”
Food recovery before and after
The Seattle Community Fridge has filled in where many people locally have been left out. Historically, we may have assumed that food assistance was done by food banks and the food pantries they supply.
Community Fridge organizers are revealing that we can and need to do more. They post to the group’s Facebook and Instagram pages about the fridge locations. The fridges are positioned just like Little Free Libraries and Pantries in public spaces.
Their social pages also prominently link to a user-friendly site people can click to find one of their fridges; donate a fridge, money or food; print fliers; sign up for their newsletter; read about their hygiene and safety policies or volunteer.
Another recovery/rescue model is shown by We Don’t Waste, a Denver nonprofit that has expanded its programs in the pandemic. Its communications and advocacy manager, Allie Hoffman, discussed the motivation for the start of the nonprofit in 2009. “The need is huge for food, and the need is also really huge for food recovery because there’s a lot of really good food in the U.S. and globally, but especially in the U.S., that ends up in the landfill,” Hoffman said.
We Don’t Waste received donations through the Farmers to Families program, like dairy and meat, and was able to reengineer their process to distribute the boxes to their community partners.
They now operate with four large refrigerated trucks and an 11,000 square foot distribution center with walk-in coolers, and soon walk-in freezers as well.
“We like to say it’s not a warehouse because we don’t want to warehouse food, but we’re able to take large bulk items you can’t necessarily flood the community with — because it’s something like 13 palates of black pepper — so we’re able to portion it out and get it out to the community as it’s needed,” Hoffman said.
We Don’t Waste focuses mainly on large-scale producers, distributors and venues, whereas another organization, The Stewpot in Dallas, has a large food recovery program working primarily with restaurants and more local businesses. The Stewpot’s food recovery program is part of a larger project for social good, as they offer services like mental health counseling, relocation help, ID and housing assistance, mail services and many different classes and workshops, in addition to running their own street paper, STREETZine.
Rob Guild, manager of food recovery for The Stewpot, constantly reiterates that there’s no donation too small. He uses the “stone soup” metaphor when looking for donations: “I grew up with this story called stone soup. I’m going to bring these rocks and then you pour water over them and then all the city people are like ‘hey, what you got there?’ ‘Oh, it’s stone soup, but you know it’s better if you have some salt and pepper.’ ‘Oh well, hang on, I’ve got some salt and pepper,’ and that person brings some salt and pepper … and then one other person says ‘Oh well, I’ve got this…,’ and then the next thing you know the whole community is gathered and they’ve built this cauldron of soup. They all eat it because they all participated, and that’s the idea we’re trying to foster.”
These organizations help to recover food waste after production and/or distribution and continue to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, most of the food assistance programs and organizations across the country have had to shift their approach to both taking in food and getting it out to their communities.
Throughout the pandemic, only 19% of American households reported no change in their eating habits, suggesting many U.S. households experienced some kind of effect on their access to food. While the United States Department of Agriculture hasn’t gathered its yearly data for 2020 yet, many experts predict from the rise in unemployment and increased use of food assistance programs that many more households have struggled to maintain food security during the pandemic.
The Stewpot recovers food from restaurants and local businesses to feed people cafeteria-style, but also to distribute to the community. Guild said that before COVID-19, The Stewpot held one food distribution week per month that people could sign up for online and then come pick up food. Now they hold three weeks of food distribution per month and serve between 130 and 150 people per week, compared to about 100 per week before COVID-19. The Stewpot also expanded its food servicing to make and donate meals to the 500 homeless people per night who were being sheltered in the Dallas Convention Center.
However, it has had to adapt its strategies for serving the community in order to stay safe. Its food distribution weeks are now drive-throughs, and there have been significant modifications to its cafeteria approach. It now uses single-use trays, cups and cutlery rather than reusable ones, has cut the number of chairs at tables and spaces out the line to meet distancing guidelines.
Similarly, We Don’t Waste has adapted by doing no-contact deliveries both in getting food to the organization and in getting food out to its community partners. We Don’t Waste has also increased the number of its mobile markets from two to eight during COVID-19 and transformed them from a farmers-market style to a drive-through, contactless mode.
These organizations focus on recovering and relocating food that has already been produced and/or distributed, but the COVID-19 pandemic also challenged the food producers themselves.
Learning what works
There is hope that a pandemic pointing out our severe failures in food distribution may encourage people to find solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how food assistance organizations like food pantries and food banks have interacted with their communities. Schafer from MAHN said three of the 43 pantries in its network have the capacity to do online food ordering, which they were able to really rely on and even expand the client base they served during the pandemic.
Guild praised the extra safety precautions necessary for protection, but he also likes the idea of keeping it around post-COVID as just another layer of safety for his staff and those they serve.
He also said that more of an awareness about what people can do with their food rather than throw it away came from people not wanting to dump whole kitchens worth of food. People saw the inherent value of donating food that hadn’t even been prepared yet. In reaching out to The Stewpot, restaurant and store owners were able to learn that not only could they donate unprepared and excess food, but they could donate prepared food too.
“It put our foot in the door of a lot of places, conversations we never would have had, restaurants that never would have contacted us, thinking ‘throwing this stuff away is the cost of business’ but it doesn’t have to be,” Guild said.
Learning about each other
Schafer praises those in the MAHN network. “Food pantry operators are resilient and they can roll with the punches, and they never stop rising to the challenge to make sure people were getting the food they needed. It was really pretty amazing.”
Perhaps the best thing we can learn from this is more compassion and understanding for others, especially those less fortunate. Guild and many others have noticed COVID-19 has brought more of an awareness of food insecurity, as it has been an equalizing force, showing people how easy it is to find yourself in a place where you need help. While COVID-19 hasn’t affected people in all the same ways, it has shown that it doesn’t take much to become that person you looked down on for being in the line at the food pantry or losing their home or their job.
“It’s not just people who are ‘lazy’ or people who ‘just want a handout.’ Some of these people are sick. Some of these people are hurt. And it’s our job to help people who need help; there’s more than just being a decent human being. If I was hurt, I would want somebody to help me. They’ve got nowhere else to go — they’ve got nowhere else to be, and maybe they can’t do anymore — this is as good as it gets,” Guild said.
Guild knows sometimes it’s hard not to judge people that don’t appear like they need help, but COVID-19 changed everyone’s situation across the board. Guild said one thing he’s noticed is a relaxation of the stigmas around people needing help.
“It’s easy to look at a homeless person and see the homeless and forget the person — that’s incredibly common,” Guild said, but now, the pandemic has made it not so easy to distinguish between people that need help. “It’s really easy to hide behind that excuse of ‘well, they’re all just homeless people and are going to keep being homeless people anyway,’” Guild said.
There is more to homelessness than “just some dude on the street.”
Reported in partnership with INSP.ngo
Read more of the Feb. 3-9, 2021 issue.