With the amount of food produced in our country, every day could be Thanksgiving. For this November feast we cook more than 45 million turkeys, about 1.9 billion pounds of sweet potatoes and 21 million pounds of cranberries. But Thanksgiving is no longer the only day we heap food onto our plates.
We've created an arsenal of weapons to prevent food from spoiling between field and market: pasteurization and preservation facilities, climate controlled storage units and more. This cornucopia of abundance has fostered a culture of bad habits - and institutions - that waste staggering levels of food.
Americans waste enough food to fill Madison Square Garden every day: over 100 billion pounds per year, with nearly a third of that ending up in landfills, contributing to toxic greenhouse gas. And over 20 percent of all the fresh food grown in this country is left in fields to rot or be plowed over because it is considered cosmetically imperfect and unmarketable. That's enough food to feed the 36 million Americans who were food insecure in 2009.
Developing countries also have phenomenal levels of waste, but for the opposite reason. In sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 265 million people are hungry, more than a quarter of the food is lost as a result of severe weather, disease and pests, or poor harvesting and lack of access to storage facilities.
That's a lot of waste. Food activist Tristram Stuart, wrote in the Worldwatch Institute's upcoming publication, 'State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet,' that the 'neglect of post-harvest losses is one of the anomalies of world agriculture.' The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggested over 30 years ago that not only do we have a 'moral obligation to avoid waste' but that reducing these losses would require fewer resources and apply less pressure to the environment than increasing production.
In a world where almost a billion people go hungry every day, it's time to figure out how to put our waste to work. The good news is that innovative organizations here and abroad are working to overcome hunger.
While traveling across sub-Saharan Africa, I was fortunate to visit over 150 farmers, NGOs and government agency projects in more than 25 countries successfully feeding their communities.
Cowpea harvests, or black-eyed peas, an important protein staple in western Africa, often don't make it out of the field due to short growing periods and pest damage. But that's changing, thanks to Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS), hermetically sealed bags that prevent oxygen and pests from contaminating the cowpeas. The PICS project, already in action in Niger, hopes to reach 28,000 more villages in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad and Togo by 2011.
In Sudan, Practical Action - a nonprofit that improves access to basic services - provides a simple solution to beat the heat: homemade clay refrigerators called zeer pots. In a simple mold made out of mud, clay, water and sand, produce can last up to 20 days.
In the United States, Food Gatherers, a Michigan nonprofit, provides more than 8,000 meals a day to people in need. Groups like this one salvage sustenance from coffee shops, events, restaurants and supermarkets and distribute it to shelters, soup kitchens, senior centers and other locations.
Organizations such as Ag Against Hunger in California and the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network in Virginia organize volunteers to visit farms after harvest to pick up perfectly good produce left behind. Local growers and shippers can also send their surplus directly to the organizations, which is then distributed to food banks and other agencies. Ag Against Hunger receives approximately 1.2 million pounds of produce per month during the growing season.
Our waste problems here and in Africa may seem different, but are two sides of the same coin. Solutions exist. Maybe we should make this year not just about giving thanks for abundance, but making the best possible use of what we already have.