by Elijah Zemsky
Food waste in our country has devastating and lasting effects on the environment and our communities. The food supply chain pumps unneeded food into homes and businesses, then completely mismanages the waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 40 million tons of food are produced in America every year, and 40% of that — 16 million tons — will be dumped into landfills. As a result, there is more food in our landfills than any other type of waste. That means American homes, businesses, hospitals, and schools throw away more food than they do clothing, cans, plastic, or packaging.
Meanwhile, neighborhoods and families across the country cannot access the food they need. In the Lehigh Valley, about one in ten residents, and one in three children, rely on food banks and food pantries. When wheat is grown on a farm, made into bread, transported to a grocery store, and purchased — and then thrown in the trash, all it does is damage the environment. Additionally, because food is thrown in with all the other waste in a landfill, it decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen), and that chemical reaction produces large amounts of methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that causes more immediate damage to the climate than carbon dioxide. It is vital for our planet and people to develop solutions to food waste.
In February of last year, the National Resource Defense Council published a report titled “Tackling Food Waste in Cities” that outlines what cities and citizens should do to reduce food waste. In addition, the FDA, EPA, and USDA have recently created a Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. Both the report and the federal agencies encourage local governments to engage with citizens and businesses. The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy tells us the primary goal should be to reduce the food surplus in the first place. It would be dangerous to try to eliminate all sources of extra food, so it is also important to develop plans for food rescue.
To begin, the local government should make a clear commitment to reducing food waste by a defined amount, by a defined date. Next, the city should push for changes in food service operations at schools, restaurants, and hospitals. These facilities should adopt regular food waste audits and food rescue plans. A waste audit involves picking a date to measure all the waste generated by a facility and often includes discovering which specific items are thrown away. This allows a facility to order less of that item. Cafeterias, restaurants, offices, and households inevitably purchase some food items they can not use, so the staff should also create a food rescue plan, such as donating the surplus to food banks; the city should help all businesses and households to do the same. Schools should help students and families learn about food waste and local efforts.
Many groups in the Lehigh Valley help individuals and businesses address food waste. Not only do they serve as inspiration for potential strategies, but they could implement immediate, wide-scale solutions through partnership with the city. One of the largest such organizations in our community is the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), sponsor of the Second Harvest Food Bank, which has an extensive food distribution network, serving over 60,000 people each month. There is also the Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council , devoted to organizing the funds, partnerships, and connections required to address issues such as food waste. The nonprofit Lehigh Valley Community Foundation has done significant work by organizing grants for food pantries, food banks, and soup kitchens. Further government endorsement and support of these organizations could produce significant benefits for both Lehigh Valley residents and the environment at large.
Any business or household will inevitably generate some amount of food waste. Therefore, it’s vital that loss-reduction efforts account for food that is being thrown out. As a last resort, businesses and families should have access to composting services, which can be sources of profit and environmental protection. By turning food waste into usable soil and fertilizer, compost centers eliminate the harmful methane emissions produced by food in landfills. On a local level, several municipalities already offer yard waste collection. Lehigh Valley Sustainability Network’s website lists the waste management services offered in each municipality. Though many lack food waste collection, Lehigh Valley citizens can find alternate food waste, recycling, and yard waste options. In the absence of government options, some private organizations such as the Easton Compost Program accept food waste and process it into compost — anyone can join and bring food scraps to the drop-off location at the Easton Public Market. By creating initiatives like Easton’s compost program, municipalities can reduce food waste in their communities.
The NRDC report points to the cost-effectiveness of helping businesses address food waste. If a business orders less food each month, they will spend less money. And, reducing food waste will reduce labor and disposal costs. Research by The World Resources Institute shows that 99% of businesses gained a positive return on investment after adjusting food purchasing, processing, and disposal practices to reduce waste — in fact, the median ROI was an incredible 1400%. Many small, independent businesses are passionate about their community and environment and willing to make changes, but require help to get started. According to the NRDC, local government can significantly improve social, economic, and environmental sustainability by providing necessary guidance.
Now more than ever, humanity demands change; amidst a global pandemic, social justice crises, and the threat of global warming, people have realized we need reform. Businesses nationwide have been forced to close, and families facing food insecurity have been devastated. However, communities have responded with resilience, compassion, and activism. Shelters, community centers, schools, and neighbors have selflessly provided favors, programs, donations, and aid to those who need it. We have a golden opportunity to harness this attitude of change, to change our current system of waste and neglect and develop sustainable practices. We have the community and the leadership to make that happen, and we can’t wait any longer.
Eli is a sophomore at Moravian Academy. “I’ve been passionate about
environmental sustainability for several years, and began to focus on
food waste after reading Amanda Little’s The Fate of Food. I’m
currently researching and building a hydroponics system, and
hope to learn a lot about sustainable farming with this project!”
Editor’s Note: This essay is an updated version of what Eli presented at the Speak Out in September 2020, part of Touchstone’s Festival Unbound .