Treating Hunger with Surplus Food Is a Tactic, Not a Solution

empty fork

Since participating in and blogging about The San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge for 7 days in September, I’m more acutely aware of hunger – both its prevalence and its unpleasantness.

People have always been hungry in America, but as more people are thrown out of work, hunger is increasing. A record number of people are applying for food stamps. More than 35 million people in America now receive food stamps. That’s 1 in 9 Americans.

There are many people who make just slightly more than the very low figure that would qualify them for food stamps. To give you an idea of how much money that is, it’s just short of $23,000 a year for a family of 3 in San Francisco, one of the country’s most expensive cities. Stop the Hunger has real time worldwide hunger statistics that will blow your mind.

When referring to the people who suffer from hunger, I prefer to say “hungry people” rather than the often used term, “the hungry” because “the hungry” puts hungry people in a separate category from everyone else, making them “other”, when in reality hunger could happen to anyone living paycheck to paycheck. It’s likely people in your neighborhood and children who go to school with your children are hungry.

All these hungry people, yet every day edible food is thrown away in restaurants, stadiums, schools, hospitals, corporate cafeterias, grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

Not only does that food shamefully go to waste, but as it rots in landfills it contributes to global warming. Rotting organic matter that is not composted but instead exposed to the anaerobic conditions of a landfill releases methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2.

I don’t think diverting almost-discarded food to hungry people is a very good solution to hunger. I think the root causes of hunger (poverty, bad government policy and corporate mismanagement) need to be addressed.

Nor do I think diversion is a good solution for reducing food waste, which should be prevented through better planning and buying. But since we don’t live in my perfect world, I do believe it’s important to get the food into the mouths of hungry people. Thankfully, there are some very good programs doing just that.

One of the more interesting ones came to my attention through our friends at MNN. Rock and Wrap it up! was launched by Syd Mandelbaum, whose parents nearly starved in concentration camps.

By all accounts, he’s a man who knows how to get things done.

Mandelbaum often picked up food after rock shows at Jones Beach in New York, and took it to a local soup kitchen whose board he served on. One night in 1993, a backstage manager gave him the idea of asking bands to put stipulations in their contracts requiring all food to be donated to hungry people.

He started contacting bands and asking them to put riders in their contracts. He quickly signed up The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Bruce Hornsby, Phish, Michael Bolton and Nine Inch Nails.

Rock and Wrap It Up! launched nationally in 1994 and had 15 cities covered almost immediately. Now Rock and Wrap it up covers almost 80% of the cities in the US and has a database of over 43,000 shelters and soup kitchens. There’s a school program, and a sports program called Sports Wrap, and now the program is going international.

There are similar programs all over the country.

In San Francisco, Food Runners picks up surplus food from restaurants, special events, and farmers’ markets. Portland, Oregon has the Urban Gleaners. There’s the Food Donation Connection, which has recently partnered with the National Restaurant Association, and many more across the country.

If your workplace often has leftover food from meetings or events, or if you work in the restaurant or grocery industry, you can look into having good food diverted to hungry people.

In the past, I have tried to do that and been told that it’s impossible due to liability worries, but liability shouldn’t be a problem. I researched this and learned that 50 states and the District of Columbia have “Good Samaritan Laws” protecting companies, non-profits and individuals from litigation associated with food donated in good faith by limiting liability to acts of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. So waste not, want not. But if you do, donate it.

Image: theilr

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.