Wasted food is a growing problem in the United States. Did you know that 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted each year? The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2014 alone, more than 38 million tons of food waste were generated. This food is then sent to municipal landfills. In fact, 21 percent of the waste in landfills is food, and only 5.1 percent of food waste is diverted for composting. All this waste emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and contributes to climate change. Food waste, however, is not just an environmental concern. It’s also a social one.
While we are wasting 40 percent of our food supply, one in eight Americans does not know where their next meal will come from. In 2016, more than 41 million people, including 13 million children and five million seniors, in the United States lived in households that were food-insecure. Research has even linked food insecurity to a range of socio-demographic characteristics and economic factors. Specifically, food insecurity tends to be more prevalent among households with children, households headed by black non-Hispanics (22.5 percent) and Hispanics (18.5 percent) and low-income households. In addition, there has been a growing body of research on the negative consequences of food insecurity, especially in the health and development of young children. For instance, not having enough healthy food has been associated with a higher risk of chronic illnesses like asthma and anemia and behavioral problems like aggression. These concerns early in life have even been linked to poorer school performance and subsequent health disparities and poverty. All of this shouldn’t be happening; we need to do something!
Instead of feeding landfills, we should be feeding people in our communities. We need to manage food sustainably and prevent and divert wasted food. Feeding those who lack consistent access to adequate food ought to be one of our priorities. Fortunately, higher education has been at the forefront of some of the most innovative ideas for combatting food insecurity. Across the United States, dining services teams, local organizations and college students are working side by side to keep food from going to waste and turning it into meals for those who are struggling with food insecurity. At the College, Dining Services has instituted a pre-consumer waste-reduction program called LeanPath. This program has successfully saved many pounds of food from being wasted, as it helps staff estimate the amount of food they will need. The food that is left untouched is given to the Williams Recovery of All Perishable Surplus (WRAPS) program. Student volunteers pick up leftover food three nights a week from the Driscoll, Whitmans’ and Mission dining halls, chill the food for 24 hours and then package meals in Paresky. Depending on how much food is left, volunteers can end up packaging about 10 to 90 meals per volunteer shift. Volunteers then deliver the meals to North Adams community members. This includes an affordable housing unit (Mohawk Forest), a community-focused non-profit (YMCA) and the ROOTS Teen Center. Recently, the Campus Kitchen Project, a leading national nonprofit empowering students to fight hunger and food waste, has also provided support to WRAPS. In the last academic year, student groups working with the Campus Kitchen Project have recovered more than 1.3 million pounds of waste food and have served nearly 350,000 meals nationwide. This is a great start! But more work needs to be done to fully address food waste and food insecurity.
Specifically, there is very little being done on the pre-consumer side. Yes, food is being composted (at least when food is not taken outside of dining halls), but our goal ought to be to reduce the amount of food that is being thrown out. Every day, we absentmindedly take more food than we need and then throw this food out when we do not eat it. If you look inside one of the compost or trash bins in the dining halls, you will see that there is so much food that could have been saved and then packaged for those who do not have access to food.
We all are so wrapped up in our day-to-day lives and focused in our little Purple Bubble that we forget about how many people in the world are food insecure. We forget that many who are even just a town away down the road do not have the ability to provide their families with nutritious meals. Most importantly, we forget the importance of food and the serious implications food insecurity may have on people. We, as Williams College, need to tackle food waste at the institutional level and food insecurity in the communities that surround us. But if we want to play a greater role in solving the national food crisis, existing programs on campus have to be expanded, and more people need to start getting involved. Right now, we are doing a good job, but is it enough? Ask yourself this question: Is there anything you can do to help fight against food insecurity?
Jessica Muñoz ’19 is from Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a psychology major with concentrations in environmental studies and justice and law.