Bridging the Gap Between Food Insecurity and Food Waste

By: Kathryn Cai

Part of the reason why I love the summertime is that I’m so happy and carefree. I can bask in sunshine all day long and play outside surrounded by growing things. However, it would be silly to overlook the contribution that food brings to my happy, healthy mentality. In the summer, my consumption of fresh fruit and produce gets alarmingly large. I am fortunate to have food security and have access to high quality food.

The Food Security Assessment of the USDA (measuring food security in developing countries for the coming decade) estimates that approximately 882 million people are classified as “food insecure,” a designation that refers to an inability to access food that would fulfill adequate nutritional value. “Food security” encompasses “the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods” as well as “an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The study predicts that the current level of food insecurity will only decrease by an aggregate 1% over the course of the decade, and that the situation in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly dire.

However, food insecurity is hardly an issue confined to the developing world. Prosperity in the United States itself is far from evenly distributed, and over 50 million people in the U.S. are food insecure. In the Smith School’s own backyard, the District of Columbia experiences food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than the national average, with most recent average values of 11.1% of households food insecure in D.C. versus 9.7% nationally.

As the global food crisis deepens, consumers and businesses in the past few years have increasingly recognized the importance of attempting to reduce food waste. Composting has become mainstream and available to restaurants and larger food providers, while organizations like Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest) are able to collect leftover uneaten food from restaurants and redistribute it in their kitchens.

While these efforts are undoubtedly vital in reducing waste and contributing to a more sustainable approach to managing food, I continue to be troubled by the implications of the mentality that creates so much unwanted food in the first place. After all, composting large amounts of food that could have been consumed in the first place by people who need it requires both the time and energy to restart the cycle and convert those nutrients back into a usable product. Recycling, as ever, should not take the place of reduction in the first place: buy and use what is needed, and produce less waste in general.

That being said, composting the inevitable waste that will be produced, however little, is certainly far more sustainable that dumping it in the trash, and contributing to food kitchens is a way to put leftover food to good use. While a fundamental paradigm shift is needed to alter the way we view consumption, we should also recognize the efforts of those taking action now and working to build a more sustainable and conscientious system within our present framework.

Kathryn Cai (UG ’11) is a Summer Intern at the Center of Social Value Creation at the Robert H. Smith School of Business of the University of Maryland, and works in special projects and social media strategy.

The posts on this page are contributed by students from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in conjunction with the newly launched Center for Social Value Creation. The center's mission is to develop leaders with a deep sense of individual responsibility and the knowledge to use business as a vehicle for social change. These posts are a way to continue the dialogue outside of the classroom and share the viewpoints of Smith students on the challenges and opportunities of triple bottom line thinking.

2 responses

  1. While I agree that over consumption is rampant in society, it seems a bit naive to blame it on production. Consumption drives production, it is our best indicator of future demand. And granted, there is generally some dislocation between supply and demand, this is a side effect of the size of our economy. My message would be to consumers: share you opinions, buy locally, reduce consumption.

  2. It always bugs me when I see the response to the question of “what do you do to reduce food waste?” as strictly “compost”. There is so much more that can be done as pointed out here. My family of 6 has $171 (roughly, that’s what we get in food stamps, but we usually don’t have much more than that, if any, to spend in food) for our food budget each month. If you do the math, that works out to $6.33 per person per week to feed someone. We can’t afford to let food go to waste, even if it does go to compost (and we do have both a traditional compost pile and a vermicomposting bin to deal with food scraps and other compostable materials). I blogged about this a few months ago actually:

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