What do these issues have in common: hunger, food insecurity, public health and sustainability? The answer may surprise you.

Food waste.

As discussions take place about the haves and have-nots, income disparity and minimum wage, hunger and nutrition are right in the mix. While wages and living conditions may evoke disparate opinions, hunger is one we can’t argue against — it’s a moral issue.

Food waste at the intersection of a myriad of issues was a trend recently identified by Food Foresight, a trends intelligence system for the agri-food chain.

If food waste is defined simply as losses that can be eliminated at little or no cost, it’s hard to argue against it.

But eliminating food waste often involves hard costs related to harvesting, transporting and getting food to those who need it. What’s more, food waste occurs throughout the supply chain — at the field and all the way to a refrigerator or plate. As our supply chain is complex, so must be our solutions.

The National Resources Defense Council put food waste center stage in 2012 with the publication of a report that found around 40% of the food in the U.S. each year is uneaten, worth an estimated $165 billion to $180 billion.

Almost all of this food ends up in landfills, contributing 16% of the U.S. methane emissions. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released this year identified three food groups that accounted for the most losses: dairy, 19%; vegetables, 19% (due to perishability and losses at home); and grains, 14%.

In the U.S., our fruit and vegetable waste is also driven by overplanting, market prices, strict quality or appearance specifications, logistics, and what is rarely discussed: an under-developed infrastructure for product that is edible but not meeting market standards.

Increased scrutiny may shine a light on the not-well-addressed issue of on-farm waste, when growers can only harvest product that meets strict buyer requirements or redeems packing and other marginal costs.

While some growers may defend their waste/surplus practices because it is diverted to animal feed, the Food Safety Modernization Act proposals, if not rewritten, could regulate and limit the using of food waste as animal feed.

Data from Florida indicates that 180 million pounds annually of cull from produce go to cattle feed each year.

At the same time, food waste and food insecurity coexist. In the U.S., of the 49 million people living in food-insecure households, nearly 16% are children, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Attention has been focused on making sure these households have not only the calories they need, but healthy, nutritious food with emphasis on fresh produce. Imagine if produce currently left in the field or discarded as “overruns” could be redirected efficiently to those in need.

Food grown but not consumed also uses precious resources.

For example, according to a 2009 University of California-Davis study of romaine hearts growing in the central coast area of California, it takes 15 acre-inches of water — 407,000 gallons — plus more than 1,000 pounds of fertilizer and 30 man hours per acre. In a time of scarce resources, it’s requisite that we maximize the output of all our investments.

Amidst these converging issues, there are some innovative solutions.

In Florida, a consortium of growers called Farmers Feeding Florida delivered 59 million pounds of produce to refrigerated warehouses nationwide. Transportation is through the Florida Association of Food Banks or growers’ own equipment.

Another program, Farm Share, distributes an additional 21 million pounds to the hungry. In Salinas, Calif., Ag Against Hunger works with more than 50 growers to provide surplus produce to its food bank partners, and also features a gleaning program.

To some extent, the produce industry has ceded collection of surplus product at the fields and coolers to ad hoc and nonprofit groups.

Yet, the knowledge and experience in logistics and distribution reside within the industry — we are experts at moving product efficiently and effectively. Combined with the fact that produce is highly sought, this reality affords the produce industry with a real opportunity.

Growers and shippers should think about whether and how they can lend their expertise, distribution networks and on- and off-farm skill sets to play a part in the solution to food waste.

By doing so, the industry stands to improve its own efficiency, and — as the issue picks up steam among consumers — help position the industry in a positive light.

I am working on this issue with a small group from across the supply chain, including direct-to-consumer relief agencies.

If you are interested in joining me, please e-mail me.

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif., Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry.


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