My Turn: Contemplating the nation’s consumption on World Food Day
By George LeBardThe Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations celebrates World Food Day each year on Oct. 16. This year’s theme is “Agriculture and intercultural dialogue.” On a more relevant and local level, I’d like to recognize it by writing about our attitude towards food. We’ve an abundant and wide variety of foods to choose from. Walk into any supermarket and you’ll find anything you need from junk food to health food. Some of us are very aware of our body’s health and the link to good nutrition. Others are not so particular and rationalize that if the store sells it, it must be good for you. As a culture we seem to be drifting away from home-cooked meals toward diets that are zapped in a microwave and eaten on the run. And the result, in part, is a national obesity epidemic threatening the life expectancy of the next generation. Yet, despite our eat-on-the-run habit, we’re very picky about our food. We skip over fruits and vegetables with slight blemishes, settling only for the perfect-looking apple or tomato. And once a product has reached its “best if used by” date, even though it may still be nutritionally viable, we toss it in the garbage. This last year Project MANA rescued over 100,000 lbs. of food bound for the Dumpster and doled it out at our three weekly food distributions. This food (primarily baked goods and dairy products) had reached its “best if used by” date, so the stores could no longer sell it. Yet milk, for example, is good for seven days after the stamped date, so it’s perfectly fine to drink.The markets are required to dispose of more food than we could ever possibly use or store. When you combine this with what local restaurants and hotels throw away on a daily basis, it becomes staggering to contemplate the amount of food we waste, not just locally but as a nation.I recently read excerpts from a report by Timothy Jones, a University of Arizona archaeologist. For the last eight years Jones has spearheaded a government-financed study documenting how more than 40 percent of food grown in the United States is lost or thrown away – at a cost of at least $100 billion annually to the economy, not to mention the effects of over-taxing the soil and environment. He reports that at least half of the food discarded isn’t spoiled and could be safely consumed. Fourteen percent of household garbage involved perfectly good food that was in its original packaging and not out of date. About 34 percent of discarded edible food was dry-packaged goods, and 19 percent canned goods that keep a long time. At the food industry level, waste results from factors such as mismanagement, ordering too much, misplacing perishables in large warehouses, and inadequate refrigeration. As Americans we believe that food is cheap and plentiful and tend to take it for granted. But the aftermath of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina brought to the forefront our vulnerability when it comes to Mother Nature and revealed what has always been just below the surface in Any City, USA: the large number of people who are struggling to make it day to day. I heard comments like “this can’t be happening in America. We look more like a third world country.” The effects of Hurricane Katrina raised gas prices, and it’s just a matter of time before that translates into higher food costs. Oil and gas are used to transport the food to market, to make diesel for tractors and harvesters. They also form the base from which fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are made. It allows us to buy oranges and strawberries from New Zealand in winter. It’s what moved us away from what many consider the most natural diet of all, eating only what the local living environment provides. Most of us will be able to absorb the higher cost, while others will have to stretch an already shrinking budget even farther to get adequate nutrition. For some it will be a choice between food and buying a tank of gas to get to work. Survivalist will now stock their cellars with cases of bulk vacuumed packed food in preparation for a perceived breakdown in the distribution of food. The thought of food not being on the store shelves can be a scary. We’ve all seen, or ourselves made, “runs” on Raley’s when a winter storm prevented delivery trucks from coming through. Later when food is back on the shelves and starvation has been averted, we settle back into complacency and stock up on goodies we may have briefly been deprived of.When I was a kid I was always told at the dinner table, “Take what you want, but eat what you take. You can always go back for more.” Wasting food was not acceptable for my family nor for many others of the same generation.Sometime over the years we lost touch with food – where it comes from, its value, and what it means to waste it. World Food Day is a good opportunity to think about what food means to us as Americans. George LeBard is the executive director of Project MANA, a hunger relief organization that meets the food needs of the homeless, the elderly, the homebound, families in need, children and single parents in Truckee and the North and West shores of Lake Tahoe.
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