Monday, March 21, 2016

Food Foolish #6: A Year Later

What a difference a year makes.

It was about this time in 2015 that we began assembling material for Food Foolish.  Food waste was an important topic then, but nothing like it’s become in the last twelve months.

I now follow about 70 food-related Twitter feeds, from the Michael Pollans and Mark Bittmans of the world to groups focused on campus kitchens, ugly produce, food banks, and climate action.  Together, they present a picture of improved understanding and rapid acceleration around solving the issues of food waste and climate change.

Some of the 70 or so feeds I follow to keep track of food waste and related climate issues.

Of course, I also subscribe to the blog posts of my co-author, John Mandyck, who publishes regularly on topics related to sustainability.  Here he summarizes the hopeful findings in the new ReFED document, “A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste By 20%.”  A summary page from the report suggests a very promising scenario:

If you could invest $18 and get back $100, wouldn't you do it?  Now multiply that by a billion. . .

Local Travels
Few people travel the world like John, but I mine my own little corner of the globe for hopeful signs of improvement around the issues of food waste and climate change. 

For example, I was able to visit with Catherine D’Amato, CEO of The Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB).  She was gracious in allowing me to take a few pictures as we walked their facility in South Boston.

This is not your grandparent's charity.  GBFB is a complex, $87 million business (a mix of government funding, contributions and some $50 million in food donations) that distributes almost 60 million pounds of nutritious food to 190 cities and towns--enough food to serve a half million people annually.   GBFB has 100 employees and 25,000 volunteers.
(A shameless plug:) It's hard to find an efficient cold chain without the involvement of Carrier equipment.  These are three of twelve docks used by GBFB to receive and distribute food.
There are some well known, first-class food retailers and service providers here.  GBFB was supported by 315 food donors in FY2015.
And here's my host, Catherine D'Amato, GBFB's CEO.  Her grandparents were immigrant farmers and her parents in the restaurant business, so she understood the sources of her food from the start.  A native of California, Catherine studied theology and later added a business degree--which turns out to be a phenomenal combination for an executive running one of the largest food banks in the country.  (A little fundraising, a little inventory control, a little preaching. . . !)  This is the third food bank facility Catherine has built: 117,000 square feet, 4,000 pallet positions dry, and several thousand more refrigerated. 
This is the reclamation area of GBFB where damaged, returned, and unsaleable products are recaptured for use.  This kind of "mystery food" (the sauerkraut, maraschino cherries, and sardines that tend to spring from local cupboards on collection day) was about 90% of what food banks handled thirty years ago.  In FY2016, it represents about only about three million pounds of the total 57 million that GBFB will distribute.
This is GBFB's first refrigerated area, maintaining a cool 55F.  
This is the second refrigerated area, holding at 36F.  The third, next door, is 0F.  There has been a steady shift in the food bank industry to the sourcing and distribution of nutritious foods, like produce, dairy and meats, that require cool, cold and frozen storage.  In the case of GBFB, a remarkable 25% of its annual distribution is now comprised of fresh produce.  It's a sign that today's food banks must have a far more robust "cold chain" capacity than ones operating just a few years ago.
This provides a pretty good sense of the scale of GBFB.  More important than size, though, is the commitment to food safety and nutrition: 83% of GBFB inventory is now of nutrient quality, and it gets better every year.  The days--as we say in Food Foolish--of simply delivering calories for calories' sake are over.  In a country where people can be malnourished and obese simultaneously, the need for food banks to focus on delivering nutritious calories is paramount.
My thanks to Catherine for the tour, and kudos for the work being done at GBFB to reduce food waste and feed the hungry.  (P.S.--Here's the "Donate" button.  $.91 of every dollar goes directly to hunger-relief efforts.)

Over to Brandeis
A few days after my visit to GBFB, I met with an impressive group of undergrads, grads, professors and staff at Brandeis University.  Brandeis is young by local standards (Harvard's junior by about 300 years) but has rapidly become one of the academic gems of New England and an institution with global reach. (Disclaimer: My wife and I are the proud parents of one of its grads.)

Under the leadership of Mary Fischer, Manager of Sustainability Programs, the University community has been tasked with making recommendations on how to improve campus-wide sustainability.  Many of the students at our luncheon meeting were attracted initially to Brandeis because of its reputation for championing issues of social justice (check the "Princeton Review" below), and clearly have brought that passion to their work on sustainability, hunger, and food waste issues.

Nice institutional resume.
This was one of my favorite discussions of the year; folks at Brandeis are genuinely committed to making a difference, both on campus and in the world beyond.  We talked waste, scratch-cooking, composting, bad habits, good habits, food trays, education, heaping plates of sandwiches, and signage.  We kvetched a little about cafeteria food (who doesn't?) while eating a delicious, locally sourced meal.  (Well, partly; local sourcing in New England in March is often limited to ice and granite.)  We discussed students themselves struggling sometimes to make ends meet.  We heard about a food film festival to draw attention to the issues.  A couple of students who attended had even launched a rooftop garden at Brandeis last year--a brilliant way to connect people to what they eat.  

I plan to return to Brandeis later this spring to take some pictures of the garden--and to find out how the sustainability efforts are going.  My thanks again to Mary Fischer and Gayle Sudit for the invitation, and to everyone who attended for a most thoughtful discussion.

Thinking Globally

While we're on the topic of hunger, waste and social justice, the Rockefeller Foundation (whose support was responsible for the Green Revolution) plans to invest $130 million dollars in helping farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, some of the poorest on earth, get their harvest to market. “Specifically working in Tanzania, Nigeria, and Kenya—on fruits, vegetables, and staple crops like maize, cassava, and rice—the program, called YieldWise, aims to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030, or at least to help in that goal.”

The National Geographic continues to do yeoman’s work in highlighting the issue of food waste.  A recent article focused on the issue of ugly fruits and vegetables and what we might do to waste less food based purely on its cosmetics.  

Along with some good ideas on how to reduce food waste, NatGeo includes this interactive chart (in the online article) which shows how much upside exists in coordinated efforts to reduce waste across the entire cold chain.

Mixed in with these kinds of hopeful local and global activities is some of the more sobering reading I’ve been doing around the issues of climate change.  

For example, in Food Foolish we spend a chapter discussing the global competition for land.  The two great payoffs to reducing food waste are that more people eat, and less new land needs to be taken for food production.  It is on this second issue that humankind, now firmly in the Anthropocene Age, has reached a tipping point.  A new study tells us that, between land use changes and waste management, the terrestrial biosphere is now a net source of greenhouse gas.  From 2001 to 2010, the cumulative warming capacity of biogenic methane (e.g.--livestock, rice paddies) and nitrous oxide emissions is about twice that of the cooling effect resulting from the global land carbon dioxide uptake.  In other words, thanks to food production and waste, human activity now overwhelms the Earth’s ability to cool itself by a factor of about two. 

If you live in Miami Beach, Norfolk, or Charleston you may already sense this, but the seas are rising faster now than they have in 28 centuries.  The author of a new study says, “It’s not the tide. It’s not the wind. It’s us. That’s true for most of the coastal floods we now experience.” 

In Food Foolish we show direct connections between food waste and climate change, food waste and water, national security, money, land use, and healthy urbanization.  What we do about food waste clearly matters--and more everyday.

On a brighter note, last week Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named Red, about to star in "The Angry Birds Movie," as an honorary U.N. ambassador to encourage young people to go "green."  Red and I have a relationship that stretches back several years; he sits in the midst of my research library and glares at me every time I stop working and get up to stretch.  If he's half as effective with encouraging kids to tackle climate change, it's a win for everyone. 

Finally, if you’re looking for a basic primer on some of these critical food and climate issues, the New York Times put together a terrific piece, “Short Answers to Hard Questions on Climate Change.”

Please follow John (@johnmandyck) and me (@ericbs) on Twitter.  Food Foolish is on Amazon.  And there's a good review of the book--thank you, Eco-Business!--here.