The following story first appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald in March, 2014.
Jean-Francois Millet unveiled his most famous painting, “The Gleaners,” in 1857. The work depicts wooden carts, overfull with freshly-harvested wheat, rattling off to market as poor rural women bundle leftover, unsalable stalks to take home and feed their families. The women are gleaners, practicing the old and current art of finding nourishment in what others discard.
Millet, 150 years ago, showed the bellyache dichotomy of modern life: There's plenty of food to eat, so much that it's tossed away, all while people go hungry.
If Millet were to reconstruct “The Gleaners” today, and in the United States, he might paint a different picture.
Perhaps his “Gleaners” would grab the uncooked broccoli left browning in a neighbor's fridge, or that untouched portion of lo mien from a co-worker's Chinese buffet run.
Farming is still wasteful as it was in Millet's day, but updated data shows consumers share blame for wasting billions of dollars of food.
Eaters, restaurants and grocery stores waste about 133 billion pounds of food each year, according to the latest number crunch by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A third of that waste happens at the retail level, like when a grocery store tosses bruised apples in the dumpster.
But two-thirds of that loss is on us, the consumer.
The economists who collected and analyzed the data admitted that a segment of that food was not safe to eat, and recognized very real limits as to how much of that loss could be prevented or recovered.
But when they break down loss by calories, the amount of people who could be fed by even a fraction of the waste is palpable. Every day in the United States, we send 1,200 calories per person to the landfill.
Why is this happening? Let's quote the World Bank, which released its most recent Food Price Watch last week, also pointing to worldwide food loss: “Wherever food is culturally regarded as a cheap and abundant item, it is more likely to become 'grossly undervalued' and readily thrown away.“
Luckily, while food waste is an international problem, the solution is very close to home.
The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia works with area grocery stores to recover goods destined for the garbage and reroute the food towards hungry bellies. But despite the scope and visibility of the operation, food bank president John Becker said there's still gleaning partnerships to be built with Athens-area food retailers.
The University of Georgia's Campus Kitchen project and Action Inc.'s Full Plate program help divert thousands of pounds of food from campus trash cans to hungry Athenians through Meals on Wheels, Our Daily Bread and other services. Campus Kitchen, as one example, prepared nearly 13,000 meals from food otherwise destined for the landfill.
Restaurants are another food waste producer that's not folded into recovery efforts. While the food safety concerns of getting unused restaurant food to hungry Athenians are many, some still see restaurants as untapped hunger-fighting compatriots. Nonprofit hub Community Connection is cooking up a partnership with Campus Kitchen and the Atlanta chapter of Food Not Bombs, a very grassroots hunger activist group, to channel unserved food from restaurants to a needy public.
Daily Groceries on Prince Avenue sets culled produce aside for its staff, and offers blemished goods at no charge to some of the cooperative's lower-income volunteers.
In addition to currently up-and-running efforts, UGA geography professor and anti-hunger advocate Nik Heynen said there’s room to create new local food systems where the end point of food isn’t the trash.
“Trying to think through gleaning systems would be a smart way to go,” he said. Churches, food banks and Meals on Wheels all skirt the imbalance of abundant food and rampant hunger, but overall, “there’s a lack of efficiency and capacity,” he said.
One pie-in-the-sky waste and hunger fighting mechanism that Heynen thought held some potential was a county-run food recovery system serving as a hub through which unused food could flow from wasting party to hungry belly.
The USDA and EPA want us to look at our shopping habits as ways to curb food follies. Some of their ideas include: plan a smart menu before heading the grocery store, and shop your own refrigerator first before grabbing the shopping bags; be creative, make croutons out of stale bread; manage portion size when ordering at restaurants; and use waste-conscious judgment at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Best-by dates, too, aren't the Gospel we think them to be, according to USDA reports. If it's time to toss something out of the fridge, consider whether or not the food bank could use it. We could re-jigger food production from top to bottom — bringing a little less to market more efficiently and taking only what we need home — but that’s not likely from the corporate or consumer end.
“People that can afford to eat tend to overeat,” Heynen said.
Becker said new connections are needed to keep fighting hunger with leftover food. He said the food bank was invited to recover leftovers from an upcoming football event hosted by Coach Mark Richt. But he didn't think athletic 20-year-olds would leave much to glean.
While most of us don't have contact with food production, Becker says there are still opportunities to think like Millet's “Gleaners” did. Becker said they're still working to improve the food bank’s 4-year-old effort to partner with local farms to bring produce unsold at market to the food bank.
“What would be turned over into the soil or composted could be served,” he said. “That's the biggest area nationally for opportunity.“