Thoughts for Food #26

Are we wasting the bounty we produce?

WastingbountyThe harvest season is now in full swing in Wisconsin’s Central Sands. Potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, carrots, cucumbers and beets are rolling up the harvester chains and into trucks for the short journey to Wisconsin’s processing and distribution centers and then onward to consumers across the US and beyond.  Another record season seems within reach in 2013 thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of the farmers—and with some help from generous early season rains!  Potatoes are approaching a 50 tons/acre average in the state with some Central Sands growers surpassing 60 tons (that’s more than 10,000 ten pound bags per acre).  This level of productivity has held overall production close to that achieved a decade ago when 28% more acres were grown.  Sweet corn and green bean production have both increased to fill the acres no longer planted to potatoes and early season reports of record yields of these crops are certain to raise the state average well above the 8 and 4.3 tons/acre, respectively, reported only last year.  The significant shift from potatoes to sweet corn and green beans has brought with it a welcome drop in water demand from today’s crop landscapes with sweet corn needing only half the water of potatoes and green beans only a third.  The farmers of the Sands are thus continuing the trends of the past decade by growing more food with less demand on the region’s precious groundwater resources.

These statistics are in stark contrast with the numbers of people from across the globe who go hungry because they lack sufficient food.  We are familiar with the global picture, where human populations are expected to increase from 7 billion in 2010 to 9 billion in the next 30 years (US National Census Bureau, June 2011) with little hope of increasing food production to meet the anticipated demand.  The situation is also bleak in the US, however, where Feeding America food assistance programs serve over 37 million Americans each year, including 14 million children (feedingamerica.org). Even in Wisconsin, Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin  is now serving 83% more people than they were in 2006, 43% of them children (secondharvestmadison.org).

Why then are so many going hungry when agriculture is doing all it can to increase food production? One reason is that in today’s society we regrettably waste a large proportion of the food that we produce.  It is estimated that in the US, we waste 160 billion pounds of food annually, a 50% per capita increase since 1974.  This represents a remarkable 40% of available food calories and food accounted for over 19% of landfill waste in 2007 (J. Bloom. 2010. American Wasteland: how America throws away nearly half of its food. Cambridge, MA. DeCapo Press).  Addressing this level of food waste will require a major societal shift in consumer habits.

However, there is hope that we can start the process of reducing waste before it gets to the consumer.  Let’s look at eliminating waste at the farm level by diverting the crops that go un-harvested each year to feed people in need.  More than 12% of our crops are never harvested – for various logistical, marketing, and economic reasons—and 18% of these totals are vegetables.

Wisconsin is leading the nation in efforts to reduce this portion of the waste chain.  The challenge is logistical: how do you divert large quantities of perishable, fresh food that is still in the field and move it through the complex and time consuming distribution chain to reach those who need it, before it rots? The answer is simple: process the food into non-perishable, nutritious products before it is distributed.  Where better to demonstrate this concept than in Wisconsin, the nation’s leading center for processed vegetables!

Thus was born a remarkably successful partnership among the producers (primarily in the Central Sands), the food processors (the Midwest Food Processors Association and its affiliates), the distribution chain (Second Harvest Foodbanks of Southern Wisconsin) and the knowledge base and experience of the University of Wisconsin (Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture).  The collaboration, called Field to Foodbank, began in 2011 with an oversupply of carrots which, instead of going to waste, were harvested, canned and distributed as thousands of pounds of delicious food to needy families across Wisconsin. Field to Food Bank has since built on this early success and expanded to encompass sweet corn, green beans, potatoes, onions and apples and now has distributed well over 1.5 million pounds of food.

 

This scale of success requires the commitment and dedication of many entities. Growers, truckers, processors, can manufacturers, distribution centers, advisors, volunteers and others must all be involved, and we are fortunate in Wisconsin to have all these elements in abundance. As a result, we are showing the country that the food waste chain can be reversed and replaced with the food supply chain by beginning in the farmer’s fields.

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