SOLUTIONS: Food waste and food insecurity

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By Huck Fairman
Approximately 40 percent of food grown in the United States is never eaten. In Princeton,
40 percent of low-to-moderate income families have recently cut back on the size of their meals because they don’t have the money.
In addition, food waste that finds its way into landfills produces methane, a more powerful heat-trapping gas than CO2. So, even around our comfortable, affluent town and region, there are problems.
The latest Sustainable Princeton – Princeton Public Library presentation in a series of talks around great ideas focused on these interrelated challenges that the town, the county and the country face. NRG Energy continues to sponsor these talks; Small World Coffee provided free coffee while the Cherry Valley Coop Farm offered free samples of its produce.
Program Director Christine Symington and Executive Director Molly Jones introduced both the complex, inter-related subjects and also the three speakers. Christine noted that Sustainable Princeton has recently re-defined its mission: to inspire the community to regularly review it impacts on the environment in order to make it sustainable for all.
As we know, this country’s problem is not that we don’t produce enough food.
Instead, two problems we need to solve are: (1) Getting the food where it is needed, and to whom; (2) Dealing with the impacts of food production, transportation, and waste. New Jersey is looking at several solutions, including transforming waste into recyclable substances, and charging for landfill volume. The state is also considering steps other states have taken.
The evening’s first speaker, Dr. Xenia Morin of Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (and a former lecturer at Princeton University,) was the perfect person to address these issues as her interest has been the intersection of science and social science. Her research has taken her to look at not only food waste, but “the food-energy-water nexus” and more simply, horticulture and nutrition. She has also looked at the “public perception of genetically modified foods” and at mentoring “under-represented groups.”
She highly recommended to the evening’s audience Jonathan Bloom’s book,
“American Wasteland.” Just how much waste does the country produce daily?
Enough, she informed us, to fill up the Rose Bowl’s football stadium, capable of holding 90,000 cheering fans, every day.
How we produce food, and the energy and water it requires, is another issue that needs to be further studied. Currently, 10 units of energy are required to produce one unit of food. As the world’s population continues to grow from the 7 billion now to the estimated 10 billion by 2050,) this ratio will become unsustainable, or too expensive. Food production will have to change, and so will diets, for societal and individual health.
Other habits will also need to be modified, including purchasing less, altering the modes of power for manufacturing, and for producing livestock feed. Currently the modes and materials we use are too expensive, destructive of the environments, and as such won’t be able to keep up with demand and sustainability.
The next speaker was Princeton area resident Connie Mercer who 28 years ago started HomeFront, a multi-faceted organization that helps those in need in a number of ways. These include providing temporary shelter, food and clothing, affordable housing, educational opportunities, job training, and job placement.
Mercer alerts us to the fact that there are more local individuals and families in need than most of us realize. In fact, she reports that many of those who approach HomeFront for assistance did not anticipate their own need and are surprised to find themselves where they are. (The economic downturn in 2008-09 sharply raised the area’s numbers in need.) The extent of the problem is brought home by some of the statistics she mentioned: somewhere close to 450 kids under 3 years old need shelter sometime during the year. In addition, HomeFront serves more than 200,000 meals per year, and it gives out more than 1,000 food bags per day. Again, getting available food to where it is needed is a constant challenge. Many volunteers assist Homefront but the need outpaces the supply.
Ironically, she noted, lawyers, serving restaurants and producers, who have excess food, warn their clients away from sharing because of liability concerns. A legislative solution to this could free up much needed food.
Another theoretical solution that she mentioned, but has not solved, is a refrigerated truck to deliver collected food. But such trucks are expensive and need drivers, servicing, garaging, and fuel.
Another step to deal with these social needs could be Good Samaritan Legislation, but that has not yet made it out of the State House.
Many people, she reports, say they wish they could help, but don’t find the means and time to do so. Mercer is an example of the determination needed to find ways to provide food, shelter, and other needs.
The third speaker, Ross Wishnick, the Chairperson of Princeton Human Services Commission, started, with four other commission members, Send Hunger Packing Princeton (SHUPP,) in 2013. Their idea was that a few people could make a difference in the lives of local residents and neighbors. He pointed out that the Princeton schools now offer 450 free lunches (12 percent of the total,) to students, and that number could grow to 600.
They have expanded that idea to now offer food available Friday afternoons for consumption over the weekends.
Wishnick, like Connie Mercer, reminds us that there is always a need for food and other services, even in our affluent town, and there is, correspondingly, a need for volunteers as well as continuing food donations.
For those interested, contact Princeton Human Services Commission, at One Monument Hall ( 609 688 2055,) or contact Sustainable Princeton.