Florida Market, in downtown Washington, D.C., is going through somewhat of a renaissance. Technically, it is not a market but an industrial area filled with large warehouses covered in graffiti, cordoned off by worn metal fences with heavy chains and tired looking greenery. It is one of the city’s last wholesale food markets catering to Washington’s diverse ethnic gastronomic needs. The warehouses bear Ethiopian, Korean and Arabic signs.
In its midst sits Union Market. It is a single warehouse turned chic artisanal marketplace that is home to dozens of new food concepts and pop-up stores selling organic produce, grass-fed beef, chemical free soaps and chef-grade kitchen knives. Here, anyone can aspire to cook like a chef or eat like a food critic.
Florida Market with its food stalls and hipster clientele is emblematic of America’s love-hate relationship with food: anytime, ideally cheap, high quality and organic. All types of produce must be readily available regardless of season, lovingly displayed and free of any cosmetic imperfections. For today’s yoga-obsessed millennial generation food must be an experience. Urban, young and hip with plenty of disposable cash, today’s population wants its food to have a story, and it better be a happy one.
Few would venture into Florida Market’s many back-alleys through which food is moved to cater to the market’s eateries, and as many as half of Washington’s small restaurants. Consumers are just as blissfully unaware of America’s underbelly food system.
“In the U.S. about 40 percent of all the food never gets eaten and that’s everything from food lost on the farm all the way to the potatoes left on your breakfast platter,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist and food waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has also looked into global food waste, and in a 2013 report comes to the conclusion that about one-third of all the food produced around the globe goes to waste, equivalent to 1.3 billion tons of food, every year.
“When you contrast that with the fact that there are 800 million people around the world who are food insecure that’s quite a moral tragedy,” Gunders says. A 2014 Washington Post study estimates that nearly 20 percent of Washington’s residents live at or fall below the official poverty line. Forty-eight million Americans are considered to be food insecure.
In the U.S. alone, 150 trillion calories are lost and wasted across the value chain—rotting in fields and landfills. It is the food that retailers have discarded because consumers have rejected it (5.4 billion pounds), or they are the leftovers that are forgotten in the back corners of the modern households’ double-wide refrigerators. An average size restaurant in Washington will produce approximately 50,000 pounds of food waste in any given year, according to the Green Restaurant Association. And as Gunders reports in a 2012 issue paper for the NRDC, an average American family of four wastes between $1,365 and $2,275 of food per year.
Tallied up, wasted food could contribute to helping end world hunger quickly, simply, and perhaps even permanently. Well, at least in theory. "If the food wasted in North America and Europe alone were to be collected, it would be enough to feed the world’s hungry people three times over," according to a 2011 McKinsey Institute study.
But what is behind this gargantuan global food waste problem? Like many complex issues, there are many reasons, and all stakeholders in the food system play a role. Roger Gordon, Founder of Food Cowboy, wearing his signature-style cowboy hat, spends a lot of time at Florida Market. Gordon believes that industrial food waste is at its core a logistics challenge.
“Cowboys are of the land—they care about food and people. Food Cowboy is essentially an air traffic control system for orphaned food. We realized there was a missing technology gap,” Gordon explains, as he strides through the market’s alleys opening and inspecting trash bins. Food Cowboy is a simple idea and aims to utilize technology to reroute food about to be thrown out to food banks and smaller restaurants that are willing to take it. Gordon agrees his efforts are a small drop in the bucket, or in this case a dumpster full of organic tomatoes, uncovering bins full of discarded produce. But technology does surely have a role to play.
The reality is that despite the boom in local markets, farm to fork initiatives and trendy food stalls such as in the Florida Market, American food production and distribution remain a heavily industrialized business. A great majority of food still travels hundreds, if not thousands of miles, from large-scale farms to reach grocery chains and super stores where most Americans purchase their food, often in uber-large quantities.
“Food goes to waste because it is expensive to move and maintain. It goes to waste because it is expensive to transport and to keep cold," Gordon says. "If you don’t have an immediate buyer for it, the most business responsible thing to do is to throw it away."
There are also the economics behind the logistics business that contribute to food waste. Because supermarket chains possess the bargaining power in the retailer-farmer relationship, particularly vis-a-vis smaller farms, buyers are able to postpone payments until the food is accepted as wholesome and marketable. Were a truck to arrive with a delivery, and the barcode on the food containers were to be off or a box slightly ripped, store managers will not give truckers the permission to unload the order even though the food may be perfectly fine.
“In that sense a farmer shoulders 100 percent of the risk, in addition to the cost of growing the produce up to the point where the retailer has accepted the loads. So the farmer does not get paid until the food is accepted at the delivery point,” says Gordon.
Truck drivers and farmers have a standing agreement that stipulates that drivers get rid of the food as quickly as possible if the food has been rejected for cosmetic reasons, late arrivals or minor temperature fluctuations in the truck refrigerators,” Gordon says. He must know. His brother has been a truck driver for some 25 years and served as the inspiration for Gordon to start Food Cowboy.
“The farmer usually gives the trucker standing instructions. If you can’t sell it, eat it—it’s yours. And the trucker says, 'Well, I am a hundred miles away from home and I have got a hundred cases of tomatoes. What am I going to do with it?' There is a dumpster at the end of every loading dock and it's full of fresh produce.”
Consumers continue to proliferate the culture of waste. They are exposed to advertising that reinforces the idea of the perfect fruit and impeccable vegetable happily traveling from farms across America to the shelves of the local grocery stores. There, thousands of pounds of produce without any imperfections are beautifully displayed. Consumers carefully seek out the perfect piece that finally does enter their shopping bags.
“Not every apple grows perfectly red or is perfectly shaped on the tree and yet once you get to your local grocery store that is what you see. We have a reservoir of perfectly nutritious and maybe slightly ugly fruits and vegetables that are not being used but still taste good, sometimes even better,” says Gunders.
And then there are expiration labels, a major source of confusion to consumers and a significant proliferator of food waste on the household level. The Food Marketing Institute estimates that nine out of ten Americans needlessly throw away food because they believe that expiration labels indicate whether food is safe for consumption.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is mandated to ensure the safety of consumers, does not actually regulate the usage of expiration labels. It has relegated labels to state governments, of which only 20 have instituted some form of labeling requirements. According to the FDA, “product dating is not generally required by federal regulations. However, if a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and a day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). [Product dating]…is not a safety date. After the date passes, while it may not be of best quality, refrigerated products should still be safe if handled properly.”
There is one exemption. Infant formula is the only product in the US that is regulated by the FDA. Gunders explains, “It’s kind of more like the Wild West. You have the manufacturers who are coming up with those dates. They are trying to give you their best guess of when the product is at its best quality so I believe that reforming expiration dates is one of the lowest hanging fruits around the food waste question.”
So why are retailers and restaurants not simply donating surplus food and taking advantage of technology solutions such as the one developed by Gordon? Here misunderstanding and fear of litigation meet. “There is a misconception around liability risk in donating food so it happens all the time that you will ask a business how much they donate and they will see that they don’t because they are worried about getting sued, and that’s simply not the case.” Gunders refers to the Good Samaritan Act, passed during the Clinton Administration, and one of the few meaningful laws enacted to address food waste. The act stipulates that as long as food was donated with good intent, the donor is protected from any liability.
Yet, there is great urgency in addressing the global food waste crisis according to Gunders: “In the U.S., 80 percent of all water consumption, over half the land area, 10 percent of our energy use, all go to agriculture. And yet half of that is not being eaten, and that’s a huge waste of resources. If food waste were a country, it would rank third in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Food rotting in landfills produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas, and food is the number one product in American landfills today.”
And here science and church agree. Pope Francis, with the candor that has endeared him to believers and non-believers alike, has also weighed in: “The culture of waste has made us insensitive even to the waste and disposal of food, which is even more despicable when all over the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Throwing away food is like stealing from the poor and the hungry.”