Hunger, food supply and food waste

June 23rd, 2020

The paradox of hunger and food waste 

According to the nonprofit Feeding America, more than 37 million people struggle with hunger in the United States, including more than 11 million children. This is one reason it was so troubling this spring to see news reports of food being destroyed as the COVID-19 virus hit our country. As the pandemic continues to play out and affect the economy, even more people will face food insecurity. 

So why did farmers and ranchers have to throw out otherwise good food and meat while millions go hungry? Why was it so hard to get food where it was most needed? 

In the United States, most of us go to the grocery store or eat at a restaurant without much thought about the specifics of our food supply chain. We don’t really question where it originated or how it got delivered. However, as social distancing measures went into effect and we started to store up on necessary groceries and supplies, shelves emptied quickly. Food bank customers also faced long lines and limited choices. Our supply chain began to fall apart. 

Author Michael Pollan, an expert on food issues, explained the breakdown in a May 12 article titled “The Sickness in Our Food Supply” published in The New York Review of Books. Pollan explains that what we might call the “pile it high and sell it cheap” supermarket model failed us as the pandemic started. Laws passed in the 1980s during President Reagan’s administration allowed for a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the food industry. This made the industry more concentrated while also making it more specialized, “. . . with a tiny number of large corporations dominating each link in the supply chain.” 

“Today the U.S. actually has two separate food chains, each supplying roughly half of the market. The retail food chain links one set of farmers to grocery stores, and a second chain links a different set of farmers to institutional purchasers of food, such as restaurants, schools, and corporate offices,” Pollan explains. When COVID-19 hit, demand in grocery stores skyrocketed while institutional demand dwindled. In response, this second supply chain collapsed because it was unable to pivot quickly enough to reroute food from institutions to grocery stores. 

Limited food staples 

If you had problems this spring acquiring foods that are normally in abundance, you were not alone. In a National Geographic article from May 19, Sarah Gibbens examined why beef, milk, eggs, potatoes and leafy greens were so hard to get to consumers, even if they weren’t necessarily in short supply. 

Restaurants are key buyers of meat, and the long shutdown caused major losses for the beef and pork industries. While demand for beef at grocery stores spiked sharply, the demand wasn’t enough to offset the loss of restaurant orders for higher quality cuts of meat. Because different beef producers cater to different markets, they couldn’t redirect those sales quickly. Meat producers eventually had to slaughter animals as overall demand dropped sharply. To make matters worse, meatpacking plants were hit hard by COVID-19 as thousands of workers tested positive for the virus, disrupting the supply chain even more. 

For dairy producers, the problem was largely an issue of packaging. Decreased demand from schools and restaurants meant millions of gallons of milk had to be dumped every day. Packaging centers that have supplies for school milk cartons don’t necessarily have grocery store jugs in stock. For eggs, about 30% are sold in liquid form. As demand from institutions dropped, producers had to destroy liquified eggs. In an effort to cut losses, at least one large corporation euthanized 61,000 chickens because they could not switch quickly enough from liquid to whole-egg sales. 

Drop in institutional demand for potatoes, on the other hand, caused a glut. Farmers gave away potatoes for free or plowed their fields under. For leafy greens and other fresh produce, demand dropped at both the restaurant and retail level, likely because consumers were buying items that had a longer shelf life. These farmers also had to destroy crops. Ironically, small-scale farms fared better because they had more flexibility to meet demand for small orders and home deliveries of fresh produce. 

The miracle of food 

In the creation story in Genesis, it’s made clear that God delights in all of creation, including the food we eat, declaring it all good. Genesis 1:29 reads, “Then God said, ‘I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food.’” It’s clear that God cares as much about our physical health as our spiritual health. For God, the two are forever intertwined. 

In a June 2010 interview with podcaster Krista Tippett, professor and author Ellen Davis reminds us that we are charged with “skilled mastery” of food and animals, not “dominion.” As such, “We are the one creature that is conscious that everybody has to eat,” says Davis. She continues that we are waking up “from a long period of obliviousness about what we eat” as well as the “lack of awareness that eating has anything to do with our life with God.” Jesus expanded our notion of bread when he said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48). Christ is our sole source of sustenance. We’re also told that miracles, such as the time Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes or the inexhaustible supply of oil and flour found in 1 Kings, do not happen without our participation. Sharing food is the catalyst for each miracle. In his article “The Parables of Jesus,” professor and author John Dominic Crossan put it this way: “No wonder we prefer to emphasize a miraculous multiplication that we want but cannot obtain rather than a just distribution that we can obtain but do not want.”


Food waste in the United States 

According to SWEEP, which stands for Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol, many of the nation’s 2,000 landfills will reach maximum capacity by 2035. How can we delay this unnerving reality? One part of the answer lies in our refrigerators and our pantries. Food is the largest single source of waste in the United States, making up 20% of what goes into municipal landfills, surpassing plastic and paper. 

Once we become attuned to food waste, it becomes more and more obvious how often we throw away uneaten or expired food. With this in mind, it’s important to be cognizant of all the resources that went into growing, processing, and transporting a food item that we eventually let go to waste. 

So what can you do to change your habits and make a positive difference? Start with taking inventory of your refrigerator and pantry before going shopping and consider planning out meals for the week. This will help you ensure that you only purchase what you need. Do some research on proper food storage conditions to help extend the shelf life of your products. Rearrange your refrigerator to make room for an “eat me first” section so that perishable food doesn’t get lost in the back of your fridge. 

If you still can’t finish your plate at dinner or if your food has expired, composting is the best alternative over the trash. Your city may have a composting initiative that you can take part in. Again, knowledge is power, so be mindful of your habits.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus