The numbers published this week by Leket Israel, a nonprofit organization that operates a nationwide food bank, seem unreal. Last year Israelis wasted or lost a third of all the food produced in the country – a total of 2.4 million tons worth $5.1 billion, the organization says.
Anyone would be horrified at the thought that all those tomatoes and apples, hummus, vegetarian schnitzel, eggs, milk and cottage cheese, not to mention a few prime cuts of beef and maybe (who knows?) a few ounces of caviar, are ending up as landfill.
Leket juxtaposes this enormous waste with figures on food insecurity, which it says affects 18% of Israelis, nearly two-thirds of them seriously.
So you’re thinking, what a pity all this food that’s going into dumpsters isn’t given to hundreds of thousands of Israelis who don’t have reliable access to food throughout the year.
Leket does that very thing – it collects surplus harvests from farmers and leftovers from army mess halls and caterers, though it only manages to rescue a tiny fraction of all Israel’s wasted food.
Supper for flies
First, some perspective: Israelis don’t throw out more food than the rest of the world. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that planet-wise, about a third of the total is lost or wasted.
Given that in a lot of the world, the problem isn’t food insecurity but hunger and malnutrition, that seems an extraordinary waste that can and should be solved.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Most people seeing a figure on a third of all food being thrown out imagine it’s people ordering a double Whopper and large fries. Then they leave half of it on the tray, or mom makes a giant Shabbas dinner with enough leftovers to feed an army on the march for several weeks.
Actually, in the undeveloped world most food is lost in fields and orchards to insects, or it rots due to poor storage on the way to the market.
In advanced economies, the main problem is food not consumed by its sell-by dates. Or institutions like restaurants and cafeterias order more than they know they will ever serve, to ensure that each diner can be offered everything on the menu.
A lot of fresh produce is thrown out because it's "ugly" – slightly damaged or insufficiently pretty – even if it’s edible. Leket admits that only a third of the wasted food in Israel comes in a form that can be rescued.
Doesn't pay to rescue
Making sure this food reaches people who could use it is a problem of market failure, Leket says. In other words, for each business along the food chain – from farmers to delivery companies, food processors, restaurants and supermarkets – the cost of rescuing unneeded food exceeds the cost of just throwing it out.
France and Italy have passed laws banning perfectly good food from being thrown out. That sounds like a good idea, but it’s been painfully tricky to enforce.
Giving it to the needy sounds even better, although to do this on a large scale would be complicated – finding the food, identifying the recipients, getting it to them fast enough and then sorting out who's legally responsible when someone gets food poisoning or worse.
A better solution is to make food waste uneconomical. There’s a national and business case for doing so, because it would save on water and electricity, boosting productivity and helping the environment. (Wasting food means more has to be planted and processed than needed.)
The Economist for one suggests much more extensive use of vacuum packaging to extend food's shelf life. Tesco, a supermarket chain, is a big user of advanced packaging; it aims by the end of this year to reach a point that no edible food at its stores is tossed out. Right now 59,400 metric tons gets dumped every year from Tesco alone.
What about people who aren't getting enough food? Tesco is using an app to allow nonprofits to collect whatever unwanted food there is.
But this is the 21st century and the idea of soup kitchens and people lining up to get food packages is inefficient and needlessly humiliating to the poor. Probably a lot of it gets thrown out anyway, since the users take what they’re given, not what they want.
What the poor need isn't leftover entrees from bar mitzvahs and bruised avocados from supermarket produce sections. They need effective programs to determine need, and adequate cash allowances from the government – and most of all, education and job opportunities.
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