Food Waste: A Food Justice Opportunity?

Ayana Crawford | 07.28.2016

Photo by Audrey Brown.

Nothing is really going to happen at the consumer level. Whether I buy an imperfect bell pepper or not, that’s not really going to create social change. The changes we’re talking about are on an industrial level.
-Marcy Coburn

On July 20th, Food First’s Ahna Kruzic moderated our monthly panel event at La Peña Cultural Center with guest panelists Marcy Coburn, Brianna McGuire, and Evan Hazelett. The topic was food waste and the implications of consumer-targeted food reform. What opportunities does food waste bring to the table? Does food waste address food justice? If so, how?

The event’s panelists come from a mix of start-up and nonprofit perspectives:

Marcy Coburn is the executive director of Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), a nonprofit that works to develop farming and community through farmers markets and educational programs. Marcy has been working to advance sustainable farming and the farm-to-table movement for over 20 years.

Brianna McGuire is the CEO and co-founder of Foodfully, an app that helps prevent food waste in the home by notifying users when their food is about to go bad and suggesting recipes based on past food purchases. Brianna, a researcher at the University of California, Davis has also done important plant pathology research investigating how to increase the precision of fungicide application.

Evan Hazelett is the outreach coordinator for Imperfect Produce, a new organization that is attempting to lessen food waste by repurposing the “ugly” produce that would otherwise be thrown out because it does not meet grocery store standards. Because Imperfect Produce works solely with ugly produce, they are able to keep their prices at an affordable level while addressing one of the major sources of food waste in America.

The discussion began with a few telling statistics about the problem of food waste and how, why, and by whom is food wasted:

  • In the United States, 40% of food ends up in a landfill
  • The proportion of food wasted swells to 50% for produce specifically
  • The bulk of this waste is occurring at the beginning and end of the supply chain, i.e. while the food is being produced and after it’s been purchased

Brianna focused heavily on consumer food waste, which makes up about 25% of all food waste. When discussing why this food is thrown out, she pointed to a lack of strong culinary culture. The people wasting the most food, argued Brianna, are often young, make over $30,00 a year, and do not have much experience in the kitchen or sufficient time to cook, which translates into a lot of food sitting in the fridge and then getting tossed out without being eaten.

Evan spoke to “ugly” produce as another cause of waste in America. Grocery stores strictly regulate what their produce looks like. As a result, 1 in 5 produce items get thrown out because they don’t meet appearance standards.    

Marcy pointed to the system as a whole. She discussed how sell-by and expiration dates are often set somewhat arbitrarily and that industrialized farms can profit off of food waste because it means consumers have to buy more food more often.

After each panelist spoke, an attendee in the audience questioned the panel by quoting Hank Herrera, Food First board member:

“We can’t wait for Whole Foods or University of California; they aren’t going to do the right thing.”

The attendee asked the panelists their opinion on the role of grassroots organizing for systems-based change, a poignant question considering at least two of the panelists are working on Food Waste with Whole Foods and the University of California. All three panelists agreed that industry was the end-all problem. Evan and Marcy articulated that it’s important to work at the consumer level for the time being, but the way we will make lasting change is through fighting for food justice and through addressing the system as a whole.

The best thing to do is to reduce the surplus in the first place…. In the meantime… while we’re working on systems change, we should say, there’s a lot of waste, can we do anything with it?”
-Evan Hazelett

While repurposing food waste and reducing food waste at the consumer level is important and can, as Evan points out, be a short-term fix, the broader problem is the capitalist system of overproduction and resulting injustices. If people can’t afford food, then they can’t afford food — whether that food is fresh from a Safeway aisle or resold at a reduced price. At the end of the day, changing consumer habits won’t fix the problem of food waste — but a political transformation can. Poverty-stricken Americans don’t need bruised bananas. They and the rest of the United States need a sustainable and just food system that will feed us for a lifetime, not just a meal.