The image of empty shelves in produce aisles has become commonplace during the Covid-19 crisis, while food banks are hustling to meet a growing demand for food assistance. These barren shelves and overwhelmed pantries suggest a country in famine. But the fact is that we are simultaneously wasting food en masse—plowing produce back into farm fields, dumping milk into lagoons and watching perishables expire in warehouses.
The illogic of simultaneous food insecurity and food waste is clear enough to anyone. That we wrestle with these problems nonetheless speaks to the structural inequity behind unequal access to all resources, including food.
Food waste has shot up as the sudden loss of large-scale buyers has left farmers and bulk distributors stranded with products they cannot sell. At their scale, they cannot reconfigure their operations to match small grocery store portions, and often the cheapest solution is to simply dump their product, or plow it under. These farmers operate on a hope that by harvest time they will have a market. But the pandemic makes clear that our food system is optimized for production, not resilience.
Meanwhile, food insecurity surges as Americans lose work and compete for limited food at grocery stores. Financial insecurity begets food insecurity, and growing financial fragility has pushed many Americans to visit their local food bank for the first time, where they wait in mile-long lines.
Neither food waste nor food insecurity is novel. Even before Covid-19, a staggering 40 percent of food produced in the United States went to waste, even as 50 million Americans faced food insecurity. The organization I work for, Food Shift, an Earth Island Institute Project, has worked in the Bay Area for eight years to address these problems through a joint food-recovery operation and social-enterprise kitchen, which trains and hires individuals who face high barriers to employment. Last year alone we recovered over 120,000 pounds of food that would have otherwise gone to waste. We don't operate alone. Larger operations, like San Francisco–based Imperfect Foods, have diverted far more.
During this pandemic, our country's industrial food system has proven too inflexible to pivot and meet people's immediate needs. Instead, nimble local agencies and grassroots organizers have stepped up. According to a Feeding America survey, food banks across the country have seen a 60 percent increase in demand on average, and nearly 40 percent of people served are new to food assistance.
At Food Shift, we have pivoted to focus on the gaps in regular food supply chains that have been interrupted. We recover excess produce from wholesalers to supply frontline food assistance organizations that are serving about 10,000 people in the California Bay Area. Similarly, community partners such as Alameda Point Collaborative, East Oakland Collective, Youth Employment Partnership, CityTeam and Iglesia De Dios Evangelio Completo have all doubled down on distribution of food and essential supplies.
We never have to look far to find more food waste in need of rescue, but we don't want to compete for the lowest-hanging fruit. Rather, we orient ourselves towards food and neighbors that are most overlooked. Large operations like food banks cannot accept bulk food donations that require additional labor to sort into smaller portions. This is where we step in. Non-English speaking folks like our partners in the immigrant Mam community face an additional language barrier to accessing aid like SNAP. We prioritize these partners.
Born out of need, new localized food networks are emerging. Farmers who have lost restaurant clients are connecting to local households through grassroots CSA networks, and Michelin-starred restaurants are turning into meal-production centers for frontline healthcare workers.
It might seem as though food insecurity is simply a problem of distribution—that if we could only optimize the logistics of connecting excess food to hungry people, we could end hunger. But models like food banks and soup kitchens are not designed to tackle the root causes of hunger. Long term, we need to push for longer-lasting relief that only racial and economic justice can provide.
The federal government can take some legislative measures. However, food insecurity is ultimately a local problem. People who are marginalized are not visible at a national level, but they are people we know in our neighborhoods and who line up at our food banks. We need a federal-funding scheme to support local agencies that have direct insight into community needs.
In California, we have an opportunity to serve our communities by stewarding our environment. California Senate Bill 1383 will go into effect in 2022, making businesses responsible for the disposal of their organic waste, including food waste, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global warming. This legislation opens the door for operations like Food Shift to replicate, transforming food waste into a resource for our most vulnerable neighbors. The market demand built into this legislation will grow our sector, and grow it rapidly. We want localized, community-based organizations to lead the charge, generating green, living-wage jobs and establishing a robust network of recovery streams across the state.
In this unprecedented moment, more people than ever are experiencing food insecurity. We must resist a return to normal and use this moment as a catalyst to build a better, more inclusive safety net to hold us all. There is opportunity available to us in this crisis, if we are willing to see it.
Audrey Mei Yi Brown, operations and communications manager at Food Shift, is a writer and activist working at the intersection of social justice, environment, food and the arts in the Bay Area.
This article was first published in the Earth Island Journal.