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Insecurity, Banks, and Waste—How Food Plays a Role in Our Everyday Lives

food scrap

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Key Takeaways

  • Food insecurity affects over 54 million people in the U.S., which can lead to hunger-related issues such as eating disorders, trauma, and malnutrition.
  • The charitable food system—including food banks and pantries—helps to minimize waste and redistribute food.
  • There are plenty of ways to minimize your own food waste from meal prepping to repurposing ingredients.

Food: It brings us together, it nourishes us, it comforts us. But not all of us have equal access to food, and much of it is wasted. While these are, and have been, ongoing issues for years, COVID-19 has exacerbated them. People are struggling to put food on their tables and families are unable to congregate around their tables safely. 

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity—defined by the USDA as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food”—may affect more than 54 million people in 2020 in the United States, up from 35 million in 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.??? As a result, millions of adults and children will face hunger-related issues. 

Colleen Reichmann, PsyD

When somebody is engaging in chronic dieting, the obsessional thoughts around food and tendencies like food hoarding are pretty similar to someone who maybe grew up in poverty, and had food scarcity in their household.

— Colleen Reichmann, PsyD

Hunger can have many negative effects, such as stress and mental health issues, developmental delays in children, and an increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

“There's a lot of gastrointestinal effects of prolonged hunger, like delayed gastric emptying [time it takes food to empty from the stomach], symptoms like migraines, headaches, [and] fatigue,” said Colleen Reichmann, PsyD, a Philadelphia-based licensed clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders. “Effects of hunger are pretty profound in terms of the cognitive-emotional aspects of it. It has been shown to slow cognitive processing, and also increase obsessional thinking.”

Eating Disorders

There is emerging research that hunger and food insecurity can trigger eating disorders.????? 

“Hunger creates an obsession with food,” Reichmann said. “When somebody is engaging in chronic dieting, the obsessional thoughts around food and tendencies like food hoarding are pretty similar to someone who maybe grew up in poverty, and had food scarcity in their household.”

Obsessional behaviors were first scientifically documented in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. In 1944, 36 men volunteered for an experiment researching the effects of hunger and starvation. They switched between normal caloric intake and semi-starvation, followed by restricted and unrestricted rehabilitation periods. Little had been known about the effects of hunger and starvation before this study; consequently, researchers didn’t know how to treat people who were suffering. 

“Some of the men—none of whom had any prior history of eating disorders—basically developed the exact same symptoms and really severe obsessions,” Reichmann said. “Some developed compulsions, some started to engage in self-harm. It was profound, the impact. [Interestingly], things didn't clear up right away once refeeding was over. A lot of the obsessional thinking and emotional and cognitive elements lasted for several years.”

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Hunger can also be problematic during childhood. Many experts believe that exposure to hunger should be considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE), which is an event that occurs between ages 0-17 that could have traumatic implications. 

If pregnant women don’t have adequate access to food, they are likely to have higher rates of anemia and insufficient amounts of calcium that can be passed onto their babies.?? Hunger can also affect attachment, said Kara Dean-Assael, DSW, the director of the Clinical Education and Innovation Department at the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. Mothers who want to breastfeed but can’t feed themselves well may not be able to produce enough breast milk to feed their child. 

“[In childhood], not having enough good nutrition leads to potential growth restrictions, as well as learning. [Hunger] affects a kid's brain and ability to learn properly, [and] it can lead to other poor outcomes in kids all the way through adolescence,” Dean-Assael explained.

There is also an inverse relationship between hunger and obesity. Research shows that when cortisol—a primary hormone involved in stress response—levels rise, people may experience an increased preference for comfort food, which can ultimately lead to obesity.???? When you get access to food and are unsure where your next meal is coming from, people tend to overeat or stress eat.

“When kids are exposed to chronic conditions,” said James Rodriguez, Ph.D., LCSW, the director of Trauma-Informed Services at the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, “it can lead to this increased need for food, especially high fat, high carbohydrate, sugary foods. In many ways, the availability of food can impact both the intake and availability of quality nutritional food.”

Not having enough food, let alone adequate nutrition, can have multiple negative effects on children and adults. Some people can’t afford groceries to put a meal on the table, which is a main reason food banks were established.

Kara Dean-Assael, DSW

[In childhood], not having enough good nutrition leads to potential growth restrictions, as well as learning. [Hunger] affects a kid's brain and ability to learn properly, [and] it can lead to other poor outcomes in kids all the way through adolescence.

— Kara Dean-Assael, DSW

Food Banks

Chris Meehan, the chief community impact officer at the Vermont Food Bank with nearly 20 years of food banking experience, said that food banks were essentially founded because of the “dual challenges of food insecurity: [there are] people who are hungry and dumpsters filled with perfectly good food.”

In the late 1960s, retired businessman John van Hengel came across the idea of food banks after meeting a woman in Arizona who fed her children with food she gathered from grocery store dumpsters. She said there ought to be a place where discarded food goes for people to pick up rather than getting thrown out, according to Feeding America. And the concept of food banking was born.

Food banks have played an interesting role throughout the pandemic, which has caused food insecurity for a new set of people who lost their jobs, Meehan said. At the Vermont Food Bank, they shifted resources to focus on promoting the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—nutrition benefits provided to people who are low-income that can be used to purchase food—and other resources for people facing food insecurity.

“The first line of defense against hunger in our country is SNAP because people are able to access food on a debit card, like everyone else, and go to the supermarket,” Meehan said. “The food bank has been working really hard on trying to be out there [spreading] messages to make sure that people understand that this is for you, that this is why the charitable food system is here.”

How the Charitable Food System Works

Food banks are non-profit organizations that store and distribute food to food pantries. Food pantries are distribution centers that interact directly with people who need food; they typically serve hundreds of people weekly.

Feeding America is the national network of food banks. They are, on a nationwide level, connected with large food manufacturers and large food companies to make sure any waste that may be happening on that level is funneled to the food banking industry…then [food] is allocated to food banks based on need in your state,” Meehan said.

Food banks work with the grocery industry to minimize waste and redistribute food in many ways. Meehan explained two ways they go about it at the Vermont Food Bank.

Supermarkets remove non-perishable products that are close to their expiration date or are visually damaged, but still safe to consume, and send them to a reclamation center.

“[The supermarket chain] Hannaford…has a reclamation center in Maine. All the products from Hannafords all over New England go to their center. They sort through and package it to be distributed to the food banks across New England,” Meehan said.

The other way the Vermont Food Bank redistributes food is through a “food rescue,” she said. Either they or their network partners will pick up perishable food products from local grocery stores and distribute them to food shelves and meal sites.

Essentially, food banks act as the middle person between grocery stores and reclamation centers, and food pantries and people who eventually receive the food.

Fighting Hunger

A large amount of trashed food comes from catering services, restaurants, and retailers whose quality control standards weren’t met. These places fear that they will be held liable for food related injuries and illnesses if they donate excess food, which prevents most of them from doing so.

However, there is a federal law called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. It protects donors and donees from civil and criminal liability should their donated food products cause any issues, so long as there were no acts of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. The goal of this law is to “encourag[e] the donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals.”

Chris Meehan, Chief Community Impact Officer at the Vermont Food Bank

There’s perfectly usable and edible food that could be going to people that need it. Even if there weren't hunger, it still would be unacceptable for food to be wasted.

— Chris Meehan, Chief Community Impact Officer at the Vermont Food Bank

Typically, a good way to help fight hunger in your community is to donate to a food pantry. However, COVID-19 has made it challenging for food banks and pantries to accept donations and maintain food safety standards since they don’t know how the food was handled, Meehan said. 

She suggested other ways to help, such as volunteering your time, donating money to organizations that help rescue food, and simply buying what you need and wasting less food.

Food Waste

Approximately 30-40% of the United States’ food supply—food that could have been used to feed people in need—is wasted, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Food waste is essentially any food that is unused through either what you intentionally don't use in your cooking, like the food scraps that are left over when you are done cooking, or what you let go bad in your fridge. It could also be what's left to go bad out on the fields. It's anything that isn't able to get to somebody's stomach, either intentionally or unintentionally,” said Nathalie Munoz, the administrative coordinator at the Berkeley Food Institute.

Food waste is not only detrimental to humans, but also negatively affects the environment.

Environmental Impact

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash.”

Food ends up rotting in landfills, producing methane gas rather than enriching the soil with nutrients through composting. Methane absorbs heat from the sun, thus warming the atmosphere; it’s a “major factor in global warming,” said the FDA.

Isaias Hernandez, Environmental Educator

I think we need to celebrate the different types of produce that are out there. The way that they're shaped and the way they're grown doesn't mean that they have a fungus or a certain virus in them.

— Isaias Hernandez, Environmental Educator

Soil and crop quality has also suffered due to pesticides and insecticides. This has decreased the nutritional quality of produce over time. Isaias Hernandez, a Los Angeles-based environmental educator, scientist, and creator of @queerbrownvegan, said this “means that you're not getting the same nutrition [now] as you did eating an apple 40 years ago, which is very alarming.”

More than two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and one-third of its vegetables are grown in California. Much of the land there is used for monoculture—using a specific area of land to cultivate a single crop. This has caused a surplus in produce year round that should only be available during certain seasons. It has disrupted both the soils and farmers’ lives, Hernandez said. 

Those disruptions can be all for nought, too. A lot of food gets wasted during transportation if it becomes damaged or is no longer seen as “genetically or market advertisable,” Hernandez said. “That's something that's so concerning to me because I think we need to celebrate the different types of produce that are out there. The way that they're shaped and the way they're grown doesn't mean that they have a fungus or a certain virus in them.”

Ways to Reduce Food Waste

There are a number of ways to reduce your food waste on a household level. 

Meal Prep

First, see what meals you can make out of the food in your pantry and fridge. Then, write down what you will eat each day and make a list of what you still need to purchase. This way you walk into the store knowing what you need and can avoid making purchases that will lead to excess food.

Buy In-Season Produce

Purchasing local, in-season produce ensures that you are eating the highest quality, most nutritious produce you can. Unlike out of season produce, in season foods don’t have to be picked early, shipped, and distributed to grocery stores. And, try to choose the “ugly” produce that would otherwise be tossed.

Practice Zero Waste Cooking

Often, we throw away parts of food that we think are useless. Instead, try to use every single part of the product. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Oat Milk: After blending and straining your oat milk, you can use the leftover pulp to make oat cookies, Hernandez said. Add chocolate chips and peanut butter for a tasty dessert to dip in your freshly made milk. 
  • Veggie Broth: Add your vegetable scraps to a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer for 25-30 minutes. Strain the broth and compost the remaining scraps. 
  • Aquafaba: The liquid in cans of chickpeas is called aquafaba, which translates to “bean water.” Instead of pouring it down the drain, it can be used to make mousse, in vegan mayo, as an egg substitute, and more.

Understand Date Labels

According to the USDA, product dating is not required on any product other than infant formula and is not a measure of product safety. Food labels can often be confusing, leading us to throw out food before it’s actually gone bad. Here is what the three most common labels mean:

  • Best By indicates when you should use the product for it to be of the best quality or flavor.
  • Use By is the last recommended date to use a product while it is at peak quality.
  • Sell By is primarily used for inventory management at stores, communicating how long to keep the product up for sale.

If your food is nearing the marked date, freeze it to preserve it longer, if possible. Even if your food is past the marked date, there’s no need to immediately toss it.

“We should use our senses to get a guess of whether things are bad or not,” Munoz said. “If something is clearly fermenting in your refrigerator, you should probably toss it. But if you have to toss it, composting is always best.”

Regrow or Compost Your Scraps

You don’t have to have a garden to grow your own food. Try regrowing scallions by putting them roots-down into a glass of water near sunlight. Change the water often. Soon enough, you’ll have an abundance of green onions.

“I [grew my own scallions] in a little old Mason jar from spaghetti sauce and I never had to go again to buy [them] because they kept regrowing. Regrowing has become very popular due to coronavirus because a lot of people are trying to find innovative ways to stay home,” Hernandez said. 

If you have to get rid of your leftover food scraps, consider composting them. Twenty-eight percent of our trash is made up of food scraps and yard waste, both of which can be composted. Compost is “organic material that can be added to help plants grow,” according to the EPA. Many cities have composting programs you can join or you can learn to compost yourself.

What This Means For You

It’s important not to take food for granted, and to be aware of its role in your life and in the lives of others. 

“As you see the COVID-19 crisis play out,” Rodriguez said, “community members, restaurants, faith-based organizations, and of course, food pantries, [have] been responding in huge ways to meet the needs of the increasing number of folks who are experiencing hunger. You see that community response, but oftentimes, those are limited, [and] they get stretched to the max.”

All the experts for this story stressed the importance of making changes at the policy level to ensure that every community has equal access to food. 

“There’s perfectly usable and edible food that could be going to people that need it,” Meehan said. “Even if there weren't hunger, it still would be unacceptable for food to be wasted.”

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