From the many food insecurity issues created by the pandemic to the ongoing threat of food scarcity due to climate change, access to fresh produce is one of the biggest challenges we’ll face in coming years. Thankfully, Hungry Harvest is here to help.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the country (and the world) pretty hard. The economy has been hurt in a variety of ways, from jobs lost or indefinitely put on hold to some industries changing entirely in a desperate attempt to stay afloat in a world crisis that even now has no road map in sight. Through this trickle effect, housing was one of the largest targets directly affected, along with the greatest equalizer — food.
On average the United States wastes between 30 and 40 percent of its food supply every year, with the annual value being approximately $161 billion. In 2020 over 54 million Americans were food insecure, with 18 million of them being children. This is a massive increase from the previously recorded 37 million (and 11 million children) in 2019 — thanks, of course, to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having to fight with your landlord about your rent during a worldwide health crisis that is leaving no one untouched is bad enough; trying in the midst of it to ignore the fact that you have no idea where your next meal is going to come from just adds salt to the wound. Luckily there are some companies out there ready to help.
Hungry Harvest, which was founded in 2014 by Evan Lutz, is trying to help find a solution for that. Not only do they run a produce subscription box service helping deliver fruits and vegetables that may not have otherwise survived the grocery store, in the process they are actively trying to eliminate food insecurity and waste.
On average, about 45 percent of food is wasted. However, since 2014 Hungry Harvest has since about saved about 27 million pounds of food from landfills, while ensuring that over 1.7 million pounds of produce go to local people in need. But if we know this is an issue, why are we so comfortable with wasting food knowing that we have community members in need?
“I think on an institutional level, the fact there really is no incentive to not waste food is a good [reason],” said Bart Creasman, Hungry Harvest’s Senior Brand Manager in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A significant cause of food waste is purely cosmetic concerns — is the food attractive? Not only will some grocery stores refuse to stock fruits or vegetables that are not visually appealing, but some farmers will not even harvest produce that isn’t considered attractive.
“The beginning of our company was founded on ugly produce,” said Creasman. “That is certainly a big contributor. A farmer won’t even harvest items that they don’t think will sell. ”
It makes sense on a surface level. You’re walking through the berry section of your local big box grocery store and are provided with two options – fire engine red strawberries that are the perfect, almost cartoonishly proportionate shape, or strawberries that are fresh and taste the same, but are a little misshapen or discolored? Odds are you chose the first batch, and in turn the second batch at some point was pitched because it didn’t sell.
It’s a purely instictual choice, one your big box grocer is fully aware of — and they do not care.
“It’s like a little dance,” said Creasman. “They know what we want, and we know what we want. We certainly don’t want them to throw food out, [but] we kind of want to ignore that problem as consumers, and as grocery stores there is a very easy way to ignore that problem, by throwing it away. ”
Beyond the pandemic, our old friend climate change refuses to go away, like the party guest that can’t take a hint despite the fact that the lights are out. As climate change and its effects continue to haunt us, is the possibility of ever running out of food enough to get us to expedite how we waste food on average? Maybe… or maybe not.
“In a perfect world, Hungry Harvest would not need to exist, but we just take what would otherwise fall through the cracks,” said Creasman. “You hope that the threat of climate change, and even some of the very noticeable things we’re seeing this year, the past few years, will have that effect. Because food waste in landfills is way worse for the environment than general waste.”
A horrifying but nonetheless true fact is that a head of lettuce takes roughly about 25 years to decompose in a landfill. The reason food waste in a landfill is worse for the environment than most general waste is because, while food wasting away in your backyard will decompose, food waste in a landfill has other things piled on top of it, which help preserve it by causing it to take longer to break down. While it is under those layers, the food waste releases methane gas which is, to be blunt, way fucking worse than carbon dioxide.
Crop yields and the amount of product that they are actually able to harvest are another contributor to the conversation around food waste. A farmer can grow 50 pounds of potatoes, but if they are only able to harvest about 30 pounds of that product, that is a contribution.
“[Crop yields] are related to food waste because of how specifications dictate what is worth harvesting,” said Kevin Kresloff, Director of Procurement and Purchasing for Hungry Harvest. “Many growers, if not all growers, only collect the merchandise they know they have an outlet for, versus what they know they don’t. That amount of product that doesn’t have a customer would be considered when factoring in yield. ”
On the growth side of things, farmers and their distributors were heavily affected by the pandemic, especially if they had a primary focus on the food service industry. With every restaurant on the block closed, where was the food supposed to go?
“Lots of crops that are primarily used in food service settings were in need of homes,” said Kresloff. “Otherwise, things seemed to stay relatively consistent, due to larger purchasing habits from customers who were going to the store for one big shop so they didn’t have to go back anytime soon. Other factors being an increase for home delivery services and the Farm to Families government initiative that helped support the movement of product.”
Food that doesn’t make it to the consumer is considered a food loss, as opposed to willful food waste. Other factors in the occurrence of crop loss are general market fluctuations, and the weather. Regardless, in the end, sometimes it comes down to how growers are able to distribute.
“Growers typically have relationships with several types of buyers,” said Lisa K. Johnson, Adjunct Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University. “If they don’t, they would have been dramatically affected. For example, if a grower’s only clients were food service, they may have tanked. All food service that we can think of was dramatically affected. However, if they have retail clients, they may not have been able to supply enough. It’s a matter of a grower either having the bandwidth to have their own sales department or a huge variety of connections to have been able to survive this kind of pandemic.”
Despite the heavy clouds surrounding the discussion of food loss and waste, it isn’t entirely hopeless. There are steps that we can take on the community level to try to prevent as much waste as we can.
“Willingness to make use of what we have,” said Kresloff. “We need to educate ourselves on how to navigate small defects versus considering the entire product to be unusable. Use what you have. Be resourceful.”
Top Photo via Hungry Harvest/Facebook