Thursday, December 2, 2021

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Cover Story



“Clean your plate, or you’re grounded.”

Just about everyone heard some variation of that admonition growing up in mid-20th-century America. Filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman included scenes with willful children, often orphans, sitting up all night rather than complying. Etiquette taskmaster Emily Post was stern on the subject, writing in 1953 that “leaving food on your plate is not good manners — and never was because it not only shows lack of appreciation for your hostess’ food, but also ‘wanton’ priorities. Wasting a precious commodity could never be an ethical choice.”

My grandmother reminded me to “think about all the starving children in Asia.” Even at preschool age, I could not see how my eating the last of her dreaded turnips was going to help anyone halfway across the world, but Grandma was a formidable authority figure so I usually held my nose and swallowed. Today, plate cleaning and food shaming is psychologically incorrect — at least within some schools of thought. Opponents believe it leads to children developing eating disorders when they grow older.

When it comes to feeding the world’s hungry, history has not exactly endorsed the methods of modern authority figures, either. The International Food Policy Institute believes that 795 million people in the world are undernourished today. That means one in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are the biggest risks to health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” influenced authorities into promoting drastic changes in agriculture. Ehrlich predicted massive world famine in the 1970s and said the world population would double by 2005. (He was actually only five years off on that.) He also endorsed the potential for industrial agriculture and genetic modification to increase crop yields. That led to a lot of government encouragement on those fronts, with Iowa in the front row.

Food production increased after Ehrlich’s book, but so did the percentage of people who go hungry. What happened? As Yogi Berra said, “Predicting is hard, particularly when it comes to the future.” and insist that there is more than enough food, but distribution and corruption are serious problems. It’s easier to identify what does NOT help than what does. Both organizations identify these as the great myths about world hunger:

  1. Too little food, too many people.
  2. Climate change makes hunger inevitable.
  3. Only industrial agriculture and GMOs can feed a hungry world.
  4. Organic and ecological farming can’t feed a hungry world.
  5. Greater fairness or more production? We have to choose.
  6. The free market can end hunger.
  7. Free trade is the answer.
  8. U.S. foreign aid is the best way to help the hungry.
  9. It’s not our problem.
  10. Power is too concentrated for real change — it’s too late.

That list sounds like the main arguments for status quo agriculture policy heard in Iowa the last 40 years. If aging authority figures have failed the hungry, it might take an earnest younger generation to fix things. There are good signs.

The national perspective

Let’s revisit myth No. 9 on the above list. Daunting statistics suggest that America has failed worse at feeding its own people than those of the world at large. While most world organizations believe that one in nine people go hungry and that the number has been shrinking the last 10 years, the numbers on the home front are much worse.

Ben Simon, 29, is chief executive of San Francisco’s food redistributing company Imperfect Produce and is founder of Food Recovery Network, which now has more than 100 college chapters, including Drake, donating uneaten food to soup kitchens and other food recovery organizations. At a lecture at Drake this fall, he said that “one in six Americans goes hungry.” He can explain this and see a way to fix it.

“In America, 6 billion pounds of food are wasted each year because it’s deemed ugly,” he said. Ugly food is anything considered substandard in size, shape, color or symmetry. Supermarkets don’t want it, so much of it goes from the fields to the landfills of California. Simon said that amounts to 40 percent of food produced, saying that was a number he got from the Environmental Protection Agency, but that the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes the number is 30 percent.

Either way, there is lots of wiggle room to cut the number of hungry folks. Simon talked about grading standards while showing photos of fruits and vegetables that went directly from harvest to landfills, like apples that did not stand on end, or were too small, or not the right shade of red. Simon also encourages people, particularly chefs, to use perfectly edible parts of vegetables that are usually thrown away. He called these the most wasted food parts: carrot tops (“not just for rabbits anymore”), turnip greens (cook with strong flavors like bacon or vinegar to cut the bitterness), radish tops (similar to arugula), beet greens and celery root tops.

Raley’s, a Sacramento grocery chain, sold Imperfect’s peppers, pears and apples for a few months in some of their stores, pricing them lower than their more handsome cousins. However, the chain dropped that practice this fall. In West Des Moines, Whole Foods occasionally has some uglies on the shelves at similar discounts, but that is not consistently so. Farmers markets are the most reliable sources of irregulars, heirlooms and uglies, but they are only open half the year at most. City greenhouses, an exciting new rumor in town, could provide a year-round venue for such.

Carrot tops and radish greens are two of the most baffling wasted foods.

Carrot tops and radish greens are two of the most baffling wasted foods.

Policy-wise, Simon said he lobbies for five things: giving food producers more access to the kind of tax extender bills that benefit manufacturers; standardized expiration dates (“Way too much food is tossed because of ridiculously short ‘sell by’ dates”); state and city home composting laws, which are working in San Francisco and Seattle; mandating grocers to recover their surplus; and more foundation grants.

Beauty standards influence food marketing more than flavors or textures. On a fall trip to Seed Savers Organization in Decorah, I found dozens of old varieties of apples that all tasted more complex than anything in a supermarket. They were not huge, shiny or bright red, and none had the texture of latex.

Jordan Figueiredo, founder of, told Food Today that for each pound of food donated to people in need, 10.2 pounds were recycled and 60.2 pounds of food went directly into the trash. He also said that no one seems to know where size, shape and beauty standards for produce originated.

In “American Wasteland,” which explores the reasons so much food is wasted in the U.S., Jonathan Bloom calls the rejection of uglies “a real chicken and egg problem,” explaining that retailers say they won’t sell them because people don’t want to buy them, and people say they want to buy them but retailers won’t sell them. The book also says that the amount of food Americans wasted increased by 50 percent between 1974 and 2006. He called ugly produce the “gateway drug” into the larger and more complicated problems of food waste.

Feeding America provides food to 46 million people, including 12 million children, with 3.7 billion meals annually. That group asserts that the average family in America spends $2,225 annually on food that goes uneaten. They recently endorsed the American Academy of Pediatrics “Promoting Food Security for All Children.” Those assert that children who are malnourished for even a brief period can suffer lifelong physical and cognitive impairments.

Local action

Delicious beet greens are often detached by supermarkets.

Delicious beet greens are often detached by supermarkets.

Local chefs say it’s not all that easy to rescue or recycle unused food. In a recent conversation with David Baruthio (Baru66, Blue Tomato, Prime, Baru at the Art Center), Michael Leo (Strudle Haus) and George Formaro (Centro, Django, Zombie Burger, Gateway Market Café, South Union, Malo), all three said they would love to do more of this but that bureaucracies, health and safety regulations make it next to impossible.

Those encumbrances are mostly creations of post-World War II America. While industrialized agriculture created new threats to health, such as E. coli bacteria, bureaucracies swelled along with the size of regulation manuals about serving and redistributing foods. The idea of perfect and imperfect food standards came from the same era. Nobody during the Depression cared if an apple stood perfectly on end.

Drake law professor Ellen Yee developed a group of food recovery programs and classes.

Drake law professor Ellen Yee developed a group of food recovery programs and classes.

Simon said he formed Food Recovery Network after watching how much cafeteria food was being dumped directly into the trash at the University of Maryland. University food services supplier Sodexho cooperated and became one the organization’s largest contributors. Similarly, Drake law professor and Principal Financial Group’s World Citizenship Award winner Ellen Yee went to Sodexho to pitch a Food Recovery Network program at Drake.

“They liked the idea from the beginning. I went to pitch food recovery to their staff at one of their training day sessions. When I told them that 80 percent of all food-insecure households in the U.S. are headed by working parents, I saw people all around the room nodding ‘yes.’ Employees really related to the issue,” she said.

Workhorse volunteer Gabby Miller, an English and history major, certainly agrees. Yee recruited other professors to integrate Next Course, a food recovery class, into several different Drake disciplines, including marketing, public relations, public administration and law. Miller was in one of the first classes to do so.

“That was when the course was called ‘The Real Hunger Games.’ My mom divorced when I was in sixth grade. She raised me and four sisters working as a waitress. My experience drew me in. Food insecurity affects me. I believe there is a solution. I learned a lot from ‘Hunger in the Heartland’ (a documentary film made in Iowa by Debra Landwehr Engle and Thomas Sawyer).

Thanks to Drake’s University Service and Community Engagement office, Laura Leben, an economics and sociology major, is a part-time service ambassador for the food recovery group. She explained their goals.

“We want to expand the volunteer base and expand that enthusiasm to other donors. We want to host films and discussions and to recover 7,000 meals a year and deliver them appropriately.”

The group has recovered 8,000 pounds of food since August 2014. It required about 250 volunteer hours to turn that into 6,600 meals.

Miller said that Leben challenges the group constantly to imagine new ways to make a difference. “Food drives accomplish very little.”

Yee said that when she first began talking to potential student volunteers about food insecurity, few had any awareness and some completely doubted that anyone went hungry in America. “Then Gabby began sharing to the class about her personal situation,” she said.

“It was like a foreign concept to them,” Miller said.

Kelly Nichols is a third-year law student who came to Drake specifically because of the law school’s reputation in food issues. “I Googled ‘food law’ and Drake was the first thing to pop up. I also wanted to attend school in a state capital to keep in touch with food policy,” she explained.

Some promising signs

There have been some signs recently that awareness is indeed being brought to the issue. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency recently initiated its first-ever national target for food waste. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said that 50 percent reductions were the goal. Simon said that those are “ambitious” and that half that could rescue millions from hunger. Figueiredo compared the problem today to recycling 40 years ago, suggesting it will catch on but not overnight.

According to the Daily Mail, a Chinese restaurant buffet in the northeast of England is now charging customers about $32 if they leave food on their plates. reported a similar policy at a restaurant in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, with the fine being calculated according to the quantity of the leftovers. Hayashi Ya, a Japanese restaurant in New York City, charges a 3 percent surcharge for not finishing a meal from their all-you-can-eat buffet.

In Boston, the former president of Trader Joe’s has opened Daily Table Market that sells prepared dishes made with packaged food that has passed its listed “sell-by” date but is still safe enough for consumption, and Iowa State University’s Dietary School teaches a new focus on healthier foods that can delay diabetes.

More locally, under leadership of Sister Sarai Rice, the Des Moines Area Religious Council recruits volunteers to move leftovers from Downtown Farmers Market vendors to their food pantries and other sources. Even the Iowa Cubs are getting showing support, offering free Sunday admission to fans that bring three food items for food pantries.

As an undergraduate at Fort Hays State, Nichols brought food issue awareness to campus with hunger banquets, support for Food for the Horn of Africa and Food Pantry. Since coming to Drake, she has attended Harvard’s Focus on Foodways Policy,” with one goal in mind:

“(I want) to be part of the first community in the U.S. to end hunger,” she said. CV


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