Innovation Earth: Can the Massachusetts Food Waste Ban End Hunger?
By Jennifer Grayson
October 1, 2014
When I first started writing this column, I envisioned covering breakthroughs that could enable us to live sustainably on a world inhabited by 7 billion people and rapidly counting. The population predictions then were pointing toward perhaps 10 billion people by century’s end, and that seemed an unfathomable throng of humanity; but a recent study in the journal Science has throttled whatever sense we had of exponential expansion — predicting with 80 percent likelihood that as many as 12.3 billion people will live on earth by the year 2100.
A deep breath, then the logical next question: How will we feed all those people? (And in a climate-altered, resource-depleted world, no less?)
Interestingly, the most talked-about solutions are technological ones. There are the highly controversial, à la genetically modified food. Other solutions sound snazzy, yet at present seem respectively outlandish or unappealing: 3D-printed hamburgers, for instance, or bug-based protein bars.
Either way, the message is this: We can engineer our way out of starvation. Yet, we are overlooking a more obvious truth: Every year in the U.S., we throw away 40 percent of the perfectly good food that already exists.
This waste not only costs us $165 billion a year and 25 percent of our freshwater supply (largely used to produce our food), but is a serious contributor to climate change (rotting food in landfills emits methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period).
So it is long overdue that Massachusetts’ commercial food waste ban, the most aggressive program of its kind in the U.S., goes into effect today. It will require institutions that produce more than 1 ton of food waste a week — typically, supermarkets, hospitals and universities, as well as sporting facilities and the like — to stop sending that waste to landfills and instead divert it to more purposeful (and less greenhouse gas–producing) uses.
There are some 17,000 of these institutions in Massachusetts. Where will all the unwanted food go? Again, there are snazzy, high-tech options. Much of it will be sent to commercial-scale composting facilities to be turned into valuable nutrients for farming, or the burgeoning anaerobic digestion industry, which converts food waste into fuel for homes or even electricity.
But in a country where 49.1 million people live in households classified as “food insecure,” it’s crucial that we not overlook utilizing some of that food for what it was originally intended for: feeding hungry people.
To that end, I spoke via phone last week with Lauren Palumbo, chief operating officer for Boston-based food rescue Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which already works with more than 50 businesses in the area to redistribute unwanted food to 40-plus nonprofits serving everything from homeless shelters to safe houses (“anyone who doesn’t have access to fresh, healthy food,” she says).
Palumbo and her organization have been working to ensure that food donation is prioritized in the rollout of the food waste ban. She describes the ideal approach to food waste as a reverse pyramid, with waste reduction efforts and donations for human consumption at the top, followed by donations for livestock consumption. Composting and anaerobic digestion, invaluable for dealing with whatever is left, are at the pyramid’s bottom.
There’s nothing in the legislation to mandate this kind of hierarchy — the law only states that waste not be sent to the landfill — but for supermarkets and even farmers markets that regularly toss perfectly edible produce, baked goods, and just expired (though perfectly safe to eat) perishable products like meat and cheese, donation seems a no-brainer: The stores set aside the goods and Lovin’ Spoonful’s drivers — certified in food handling and trained to spot what’s reusable — pick up the food and drive it via refrigerated truck directly to the mouths that need it.
“We’re hoping that businesses see the value in donating and don’t just pull up a compost bin and then stick whole apples in it,” Palumbo says. “If they can use some of that food first to benefit the community they’re working in, that would be a much better option.”
Karen Franczyk, green mission coordinator for Whole Foods’ North Atlantic region, points out that businesses can save money too, since whatever is donated minimizes the cost of what needs to be hauled off to a composting facility, for instance.
“That’s not why we do it, Franczyk says. The chain has long made food donation a priority. “But it is definitely a reason I would give to someone who was reluctant. And Good Samaritan laws protect businesses from liability concerns.”
But it’s Palumbo’s parting words that proffer more power, especially when you consider how a simple shift could impact millions. “We produce enough food in this country to feed almost 400 million people, yet there are about 319 million people in the country and we have 49 million people who are classified as food insecure. The numbers just don’t add up. The food is going to waste at one site, and you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people lining up for food at another. All we really do is ferry food from point A to point B. It’s about connecting the dots.”