On a recent Saturday, more than 100 people turned up to the Manship Theatre in downtown Baton Rouge to talk food. Specifically, sustainable, nutritious and readily available food.
Out of nearly four hours of discussions, one sentence blew me away. It came from Peter Lehner, of the National Resources Defense Council, who spoke as part of a TEDx Manhattan talk, “Changing the Way We Eat.”
Lehner addressed food waste and, after pointing out that 40 percent of the food grown in the United States is wasted — not consumed, composted or fed to critters — hit us with this: If we cut food waste in the U.S. by a third, we could feed all 50 million food insecure Americans.
Just a 33 percent reduction, and we could feed 50 million people.
The mind boggles.
He went on to talk about smart fridges that could alert us to what food we had that was about to go bad, and other speakers talked about amazing programs for sustainable and safe food supplies and other social issues like environmental racism and energy policy; even quantam physics came up a few times. But the whole time, I couldn’t shake that one fact about waste.
I know I’m guilty. A good deal on, say, fresh broccoli will most likely end in a stalk or two being thrown out, and that’s nothing but sheer laziness on my part.
Same with other fruits and vegetables, which seem to be the biggest culprit in the food waste mess, at least at my house. It’s sad, I know, and I’m not particularly proud of it. But I’m trying to change by finding better freezer recipes and creative uses for the produce that would normally go off.
Still. Reduce waste by just a third, and everyone is fed. It kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it? And the waste doesn’t stop at the stalk of broccoli. It continues into the labor, water and resources that went to grow, ship and sell that broccoli. Which brings us to another problem. If I bought my broccoli at a large grocery chain, I have a two-fold problem.
The first is I just wasted a lot more money than if it was locally grown. The second is that I had a shorter time to use it because it took the broccoli a while to get to Ascension Parish from California or wherever.
So what if I grew my own broccoli? The trip from my backyard to my kitchen is comically short, and the broccoli would be fresh and have a longer shelf life.
Mark Zweig, a science teacher at Glasgow Middle School in Baton Rouge, is teaching his students to grow their own vegetables in the school’s garden.
“The children are the ones we need to protect from the beginning,” he told the audience after the TEDx webcast. “They don’t know where food comes from.”
He talked about a recent search of his classroom that didn’t turn up any contraband but did turn up piles of junk food, including student-favorite Hot Fries snacks. Zweig instead imagines backpacks full of produce, all grown by the students themselves.
“We want to reach the kids, one at a time, to get them to eat healthier,” he said, and letting children get their hands dirty planting, growing and preparing the fruits of their labor is an excellent way to do that.
In my own home, I find my preschooler much more likely to eat a tomato or carrot she bought at the farmers market or, even better, helped to grow in our tiny garden, than one that comes from a large plastic bag — even if it does have a bunny on it.
I think she just flat out has more fun growing produce or buying it straight from a farmer, where she can more easily experience the myriad sights, smells and textures of food. That, in turn, makes it more fun to eat. And more eating means less waste.
Beth Colvin is The Advocate’s assistant Food editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.