Food Security in a Changing World


Let’s talk about food security. And by food security, I don’t mean the biosecurity side, which is what some government types mean when they talk about food security (meaning, how do we keep someone from introducing — intentionally or not — a biological agent into the food supply system and then contaminating it. Don’t worry, we have industrial farms and lagoons built into our agricultural system to do that!).

What I mean is making sure everyone has enough food.

The easiest place to start is food waste. Some 40% of the food grown in the US alone ends up in the dump.

Don’t worry: Certainly, not all of this is because of you and I, my lovelies. A lot of this waste occurs before the food ever reaches our grocery store, and even more of it happens at our grocery stores.

Why?

Because we (as Americans, this is certainly not true everywhere) have a cultural expectation to see full selections of produce, because even though all the produce is gorgeous, we really enjoy our (false) sense of choice. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has a great bit explaining, and satirizing, this (I feel so bad for the chard!).

What that means is that grocery department managers wind up over-ordering or over-producing in order to make sure they don’t run out (or even run low, for the most part) on anything. What it means also is that tens of thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food is thrown away pretty much continuously.

Maybe it was tossed because it was nearing its sell-by date, which is at best a barometer of food freshness. Maybe it was tossed because it wasn’t selling well and it still didn’t sell well when marked down. Maybe someone added an extra zero to the order form. Maybe a new shipment arrived and room had to be made, so the slightly older shipment was cleared out. Most of this food, including produce, is not only still edible — it’s still beautiful.

I know because I’ve rescued this food. I know because I’ve used this rescued food in cooking classes. I know because I’ve used this food as I’ve worked as a prep or a cook  or shared a meal in soup kitchens. I know because I’ve eaten it*.

The vast majority of that food ends up in landfills. I’m by no means suggesting that we start exporting all this food to other places (there are a lot of complex issues inherent in this); but we can re-think what it means to be a player in the global food supply — because we are. We should also think about the people in the US who are under-nourished (which has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with how healthful the food being consumed actually is for a body).

Last year, France banned grocery stores from throwing away any edible produce. We have yet to pass that type of law in the US, but the Food Rescue Alliance is working with a variety of food rescue organizations to share ideas, information, projects, and values to create a more sustainable food system in the US by redistributing food that grocers/farmers markets/food distribution companies/etc. would otherwise throw away.

Simply put, we have the power to change the food system in the US — and by doing so, also impact food systems around the world**. And this is something that we must do, especially in the face of droughts that are increasingly long and frequent. The way we can grow food is changing, rapidly, due to these droughts, soil degradation, and other factors.

Changing the food system in the US is something we should do because we know that other people — in the US and abroad are experiencing nutrition deficiency and starvation.

This looks like:advocating for food policy changes in terms of throwing food away. It looks like talking to our neighbors and local grocers about how tightly packed we expect our produce to be (and this might be a difficult conversation because of how food distribution minimums are set by major food distributors; be prepared to listen to the folks doing the ordering and to work with those who are sympathetic to your demands to either work creatively within or change the system that they’re confined by.). It looks like CSAs. It looks like voting with our dollar through dietary changes. It looks like doing more of our own gardening — including on porches and in planters, if that is an option for us. It looks like intercropping and supporting farmers who intercrop and companion plant. It looks like moving toward permaculture and also probably, like farming with “weeds,” which can be hugely beneficial in retaining soil nutrients and moisture.

It could look like a lot of things, depending on where we live, and the resources at our disposal, and the resources at the disposal of our communities.

But, things have to start changing.

America(ns) have this idea that it’s our responsibility to “feed the world.” When I lived in the Midwest, I heard this rhetoric time and again — from students at a land grant university, from farmers working “family” farms under the dictate of big ag names, from professors at the university where I worked. I started to hate the phrase, and not only because so much of the food we grow in America is actually turned into fuel.

I started to hate it because the part of that phrase that is true, is true at least in part, because of the ways in which we have destroyed food systems in other places.

And, while I was living in the Midwest, it seemed very few people were willing to interrogate that notion.

I suppose imagining that we’re feeding the world is another way to stroke the ego.

Because the truth is, we aren’t feeding the world using our current farming and food distribution system. If we were, maybe less food would be going to waste, at least if it weren’t for that pesky bugger, Capitalism.

But we throw food away rather than sell food that consumers, who have been conditioned to look for “perfect” food, will view as less than perfect. We throw away food because grocery stores are afraid of the impact if their shelves aren’t full. We throw away food because we bought it on impulse or with good intention but then never used it and now maybe it’s bad (how many times have you thrown away something just because it’d been chilling out for a while, regardless of whether it had gone bad?). We throw away food because we don’t know how to properly prepare it or because it reached it’s sell by or best by date in our refrigerators and we don’t realize how arbitrary those dates really are.

These should all be indicators of ways our food system is broken. These should all be indicators of how we can improve food security, not only in America, but in other parts of the world. These should all be indicators of opportunities for change.

Who wants to run a SWOT on the American agricultural and food distribution system?

*This could also include a whole other post-length commentary about dumpstering for food, but others have done that more justice than I could currently do.

**And we must consider those impacts, both in terms of what our exports mean to other countries, as well as our imports. We do not live in a vacuum, but we do live in a world that can’t sustain our current practices.

The featured image is rescued food.

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