Wasted food, hungry people

One-third to one-half of food production in Israel is wasted, spoiled or simply thrown out

Vegtables (photo credit: screenshot)
(photo credit: screenshot)
MY LATE father was very quiet and gentle.
But, on one occasion when I was a small child, I enraged him. At supper, I threw a tantrum and refused to eat. I threw a slice of bread on the floor. My father made me pick it up and kiss it, explaining that bread was sacred. Years later, I understood.
In Bessarabia (now Moldova), my father, the eldest of five children, had struggled, together with my grandmother, to feed the family after his father, Israel, fell ill and died in Pittsburgh, where he had gone to earn money and planned to bring his family to join him. My father had known real hunger and taught me never ever to disrespect bread, the staff of life, or to waste food.
Today, there are many hungry people in Israel and the world. One person in nine in the world suffers chronic undernourishment.
“The world produces enough food to feed everyone,” according to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report in 2016. “Per capita [world] food availability is almost 3,000 calories per person, per day.” Yet about one-third to one-half of all food production in Israel and the world is wasted, spoiled or simply thrown out. This, when 700,000 Israeli children live in poverty and an estimated one child in three faces hunger.
The reason? Lack of awareness and massive disrespect for the bounties of the earth.
The simultaneous presence of waste and want can be described only as a shanda – Yiddish for a shame or a disgrace ‒ one that could be greatly reduced if we undertook a few simple actions.
Leket Israel, an NGO that distributes surplus food to the needy, estimates the value of wasted food at 19.5 billion shekels ($5.3b.) annually, or 1.6% of the gross domestic product.
“The average Israeli family throws away 4,200 shekels worth of food a year by failing to correctly estimate what will be consumed,” the Environmental Protection Ministry says.
A study by Leket and BDO, an Israeli consulting and accounting firm, claims it is possible to eliminate about half of the volume of wasted food.
I spoke with my Neaman Institute colleague Prof. Ofira Ayalon, also of Haifa University’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, about food waste. I asked her, specifically, whether the data on food waste are accurate.
Ayalon told me about research by her PhD student, Efrat Elimelech, who randomly selected 200 middle-class Haifa families and asked each to save their food expenditure receipts. Each family handed over its garbage to Elimelech, rather than discard it, and she sifted through each bag to sort and weigh “avoidable” and “non-avoidable” waste, e.g., apple cores (non-avoidable) vs.
whole apples (avoidable). Elimelech found that 54% of the waste was “avoidable,” i.e.
perfectly edible food thrown away. If there is a prize for “smelliest, most courageous research,” Elimelech wins hands down.
IN A 2015 Neaman Institute Report, Ayalon noted that as many as half of all Israeli families experience “food insecurity.” She found that “200,000 tons of fruits and vegetables [of 4.8 million tons produced in Israel per annum] are left in the field, or picked and discarded.”
Vegetables are the main problem, she found, because they are hard to store. The Plant Council, she noted, fails to comply with Article 60 of the Plant Council Law (1973), which forbids destroying surplus produce. Let the government purchase such surpluses and provide them, for instance, to children through school lunches.
Ayalon also explained to me that individual families could do much more to reduce food waste. First, be more aware of what you waste. Second, plan your food purchases more carefully, organize them aisle by aisle, and avoid impulse buying that often leads to waste.
How can food waste be reduced? Leket, founded in 2003, runs a fleet of refrigerated trucks and 56,000 volunteers who collect food otherwise discarded and distribute it to the needy. The founder and chairman of Leket (originally called Table-to-Table), Joseph Gitler, was saddened by hunger amid waste and began collecting food resources from restaurants, catering halls, bakeries and fields, and distributing them to the needy.
Leket’s volunteers now reclaim more than 150 tons of produce weekly, provide 15,000 hot meals to disadvantaged children and prepare sandwiches for them in more than 100 schools. Much of the food is collected from IDF bases; from my own army service, I recall that IDF cooks would rather discard extra food than face hungry soldiers.
We need some Knesset legislation.
France, for instance, punishes supermarkets that waste edible food, fruits and vegetables, because of slight blemishes. Italy, on the other hand, rewards supermarkets for not wasting food. Ayalon thinks the Italian approach is more effective.
A Law to Encourage Rescue of Food Surpluses passed preliminary reading in the Knesset in 2014. It is still stuck in the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee.
It is high time to move it forward. Leket wants food rescue to become a condition for private businesses to participate in government tenders.
Many states in the US have so-called Good Samaritan laws, based on a rather antisemitic parable in the New Testament (Luke), which tells of a lay person who helps a traveler after a Cohen and a Levi pass him by. These laws provide basic legal protection for those who assist a person who is injured or in danger and protect the “good samaritan” from lawsuits if unintended consequences result from their help.
WHAT IF, alas, people get sick from rescued food, despite every precaution? An Israeli Good Samaritan Law might help incentivize rescued food in a nation that ranks first in the world in per capita lawyers.
Realistically, food waste is not the most basic cause of hunger. But poverty is. In the Irish potato famine, 1845-1852, some one million people starved to death and another million people emigrated. The potato crop failed owing to blight, but British Corn Laws prevented the import of alternate, cheaper food.
Harvard University Prof. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate and native of India, studied the Bengal, India, famine of 1943 in which 2.1 million people died of hunger. The cause was not scarcity of food. Food was plentiful – but the poor could not afford it.
Any serious effort to mitigate hunger must, of course, tackle poverty. Sen proposes a simple solution: Entitlement. A human right is the right to food, and everyone is entitled to basic sustenance, along with other civil rights. Governments must ensure such entitlement.
Food is the biggest single item in household spending, comprising one shekel in every six shekels of purchases. With daily concern over the high cost of living, each household can save substantial amounts by reducing waste.
Food rescue should be expanded. Studies show that every shekel invested in rescuing food that would otherwise be thrown away can save 3.6 shekels of food – a rate of return few other uses of public money achieve.
A huge amount of food is wasted by “event” halls, e.g. weddings. All of us have experienced groaning tables of food at weddings after guests have already stuffed themselves with hors d’oeuvres. These halls avoidably waste 18% of served food, far higher than the 12% avoidable waste at IDF mess halls or 10% in hospitals. The Leket- BDO study claims 18,000 tons of food a year could be rescued from such event halls.
It is interesting that restaurants are actually a small source of waste – only 3% of restaurant food is avoidable waste – largely because people have become accustomed to taking home uneaten meals.
We live in a consumption-driven society that encourages us to throw perfectly good things away and buy new stuff, filling drawers and closets with articles that are soon discarded. Much of our economic growth is based on that premise.
This is a fundamentally destructive core value, buy and discard, because our planet cannot sustain it. We can change it; the place to begin is with food. If we treat food with more respect, we are, in fact, treating human beings with more respect.
Buy what you need, track what you discard and see how you can discard less. If everyone did that, we would all benefit, not just the hungry.
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com