Right now, I feel pretty bad for myself. As a result of my personal version of a pre-Passover plague of bed bugs, everything I own is in a plastic garbage bag. My kitchen looks like a landfill; a giant heap of what looks like garbage, but is actually the only possessions I have to call my own. I have been wearing the same pair of pants for more than a week, and have been sleeping on my couch with a towel as a blanket.
But, at least I know I can survive this part. A few years ago I traveled through Nepal for a number of weeks with only one pair of pants and two shirts. I traveled from Israel and when the Nepali banks refused to exchange my shekels into rupees, I had no choice but to sit on the curb and cry. I was alone in a place I had never been and had nothing but the very few clothes in my pack. Where would I sleep? Where would my next meal come from?
If you’re Jewish, and into food, and not outraged, then you’re not paying attention.
Americans like to think of ourselves as a generous people, and we are – even though special interests transform much of our international food aid programs into a wasteful boondoggle that undermines the abilities of communities and countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to feed themselves. And that’s what’s happening now. Food aid is critical and important, but for it to work, it needs to work right, and right now, not enough of it is.
Here’s why: if children are starving in part of Ethiopia, it makes sense for US aid dollars to buy food from farmers close by in other parts of Ethiopia or neighboring countries. Buying locally develops and sustains local agriculture, and gets the food to those in need quickly. But instead current US law requires virtually all food aid to be bought from heavily subsidized US agribusinesses and shipped overseas. That means that more than half of every food aid grain dollar is wasted in subsidizing large companies and shipping costs and takes up to 14 weeks longer to reach hungry people than buying food locally. And it’s even worse than that, because sending free or subsidized US grain to developing countries such as Haiti can undermine local agriculture in the long-term, making future famines more likely, as communities are no longer able to feed themselves in the face of future shocks such as drought. Communities in which I have worked as a volunteer with American Jewish World Service are now far more vulnerable to hunger are a result of of subsidized US food dumped into their countries.
One of the ethical principles on which the Jewish environmental and food movements rest is ba’al tashchit, the commandment not to needlessly waste or destroy. One area of modern life that desperately needs to understand this principle better is our food supply, where over 40% of the food produced for human consumption is thrown away. Food waste begins in the fields, where imperfect produce is left to rot, continues through to stores that throw out expired products and restaurants that dump uneaten servings, and to our homes. With so many Americans going hungry, it is a travesty that so much food (and money) is being thrown in the trash.
Restaurants have also come under increasing scrutiny because of the rapid rise in portion sizes, with single servings often containing more than the recommended daily allowance of calories. These large portions either encourage people to eat beyond their satiation point or leave much of the food to be thrown out. Combined with the growing number of meals that Americans eat in restaurants and the fact that restaurant food often contains more salt and fat than comparable food served at home, the super-sized restaurant meals are a major factor in both the obesity crisis and the food waste epidemic.
So how do we as individuals and communities try to uphold the value of ba’al tashchit when we eat in restaurants? Many of us curb our instinct to eat mindlessly by taking home leftovers or by splitting dishes. Through the blog Wasted Food, I learned of an innovative program taking shape in Austin, Texas.
It is often said that Americans are overfed and undernourished when it comes to food. Supermarket shelves are lined with highly processed “food” products that contain little nutritional value when compared to the number of calories provided. While these products excel at meeting our energy requirements as cheaply as possible, one of the many hidden costs is that they leave us lacking required nutrients. In America it is difficult to starve, but easy to be malnourished.
And yet, there are still people who are hungry in this country. The USDA census on hunger estimates that in 2010, 48.8 million Americans suffered from food insecurity, meaning that nearly 50 million people in this country were not only malnourished but also hungry. That number included adults and children, and in fact households with children were more likely to be dealing with issues of food insecurity.
This time of year, as I plan my Thanksgiving feast, I struggle to reconcile that while there will be a literal feast on my table, others are struggling to have any food at all.
Imagine sitting down to an intimate community dinner with a smattering of neighbors and fellow city dwellers. The host directs you to a buffet table of simple spaghetti and offers you a can of soda. Perhaps you think nothing of the no-frills meal you’re about to enjoy, until you notice that your neighbor Jill, who works in finance, and is seated at the small table next to you, receives a steaming, full plate piled with lean meat, mashed potatoes, and vegetables and a healthful sparkling drink. Meanwhile the family of four that lives down the street, and whose head of household you know has recently been laid off from her job at the post office, has been ushered to a third table in the corner and is being served only small portions of white bread and water.
As your face boils at the indignity, and your pasta starts to leave a bitter taste in your mouth, you might question who would host such an uncomfortable and poorly distributed meal — and why.
While many kicked off 2011 resolving to eat less, that isn’t a choice for 17.4 million Americans. 14.7% of households nationwide don’t know where there next meal is coming from, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
Worldwide, 925 million people – one out of every seven, or 14% – are undernourished, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme. And in Israel 1.1 million people, or 22% of the population, are food insecure.