The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food supplies

Food Waste? There’s an App for That

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WE’VE BEEN AWARE OF THE PROBLEM for decades, have wished some solution(s) could be found, and are slowly working towards finding ways to divert good and nutritious food from landfills. All of the efforts in this regard are driven by a simple ethical question: how can we be tossing out perfectly good food when hunger is growing in our communities?

In reality, a vast array of initiatives is underway around the globe to tackle this dilemma head on. One of the more interesting ways to approach the issue comes from recent MIT graduates Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter. Key to their success has been the ability to divert quality food from landfills as soon as it becomes surplus or redundant.

To facilitate the effort, Malina and Ashenfelter developed Spoiler Alert – an app that quickly connects business with business, or business with charities or non-profits, and effectively makes connections between the surplus and the demand as it’s required elsewhere. In fact, the transactions are sometimes so quick that the deal is struck inside of five minutes.

These two innovators grew troubled that, while some 50 million Americans face hunger, nearly one-third of food inventory goes to waste in America. That’s 20 pounds per person, according the UN’s Environment Program. This is a predicament just begging to be overcome, and many are endeavouring to do just that. Malina and Ashenfelter are attempting to address it at its source.  Soon they hope to expand their efforts from the New England area to all the U.S. and around the world.

Often it’s just easier for food surpluses to just be tossed in the landfill. It’s the least expensive option for companies, especially those looking to externalize their costs off onto someone else, or even the future itself. Stores are often required to make quick decisions about products soon to expire or spoil. Surprisingly, many of those decision makers aren’t aware that there are other, more ethical options. Malina feels that there are also economic reasons for locating better places for the surplus than merely landfills:

“Many people come to this issue from an environmental or social perspective, which is absolutely right, but it also has serious financial implications for food businesses, many of which are dealing with extremely slim margins across the industry. In America, businesses are throwing away $50 billion worth of lost revenue and hauling fees in wasted food.”

That’s a lot of lost capital, and it’s where Spoiler Alert wants to create its greatest impact. The application is designed to remove obstacles to food donations, by connecting retailers, producers, and supplies to nearby organizations for donation, or, in the case of products that are no longer edible, companies that make fertilizer and animal feed. As soon as inventory becomes available, notices are sent out and all transactions are recorded in the app itself, thereby making it easier for donors to prepare tax deductions. The operation offers a secondary market for discounted food sales, provides new revenue streams, and simplifies documentation.

It’s only a matter of time until ethical demand from citizens prompts governments to legislate and provide incentives to divert food from landfills and onto the tables and cupboards of those who are hungry. Europe is already far ahead of North America in this regard, such as in France, where grocers that deliberately destroy unsold goods face hefty fees, perhaps even jail time.

But while keeping good food out of landfills is a noble quest, the ultimate task, especially on a planet already under duress in its attempts to feed billions, is to seek efficiencies where surpluses are greatly reduced and better planning will mean that the world will produce only that which it can eat. Somewhat like some food banks, Spoiler Alert sees itself as possibly working itself out of existence. “If we can get to the point where there is zero wasted food,” Malina says, “I will feel like we have done our job.”

However all these efforts to keep good food out of landfills and waste bins shakes out, it is becoming a global movement driven as much by efficient business plans as ethical concerns for the hungry. There are numerous apps dealing with diverting food available. Spoiler Alert shows what can happen when creative people create immediate connections that can head food supplies off in another direction almost immediately. Food that is good enough to eat is also too precious to waste.

Food Bank Myths

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FOOD BANKS ACROSS CANADA HAVE BEEN with us for some three decades now, and despite the fact that they have been highly public and faithfully supported, assumptions continue to be made about both food banks and their clients. Here are some common misconceptions.

Food Banks have a high rate of dependency

That’s not what the statistics reveal. In the London Food Bank, for example, 40% of our clients came only once a year, and 75% came four times a year or less. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, close to half of the people assisted in 2013 at food banks were there for the first time, while an equivalent number stopped using food banks. Food banks are still primarily used for emergency purposes. As poverty increases over time, those numbers could change but for now families use food banks only in a pinch.

Clients collect large amounts of food from food banks

This doesn’t bear out. Again, to use the London Food Bank as an illustration, a family of four receives food enough for four days in a hamper that is worth between $80-$120. This is average with what most food banks distribute across the country.

People can come to the food bank as often as they wish

The majority of food banks help on a once-a-month basis, as with the London Food Bank. The vast majority of clients come only a few times a year.

Clients aren’t required to give any proof of identification

This has never been the case for the vast majority of food banks across the province. Most utilize an interview process where clients have to provide proof of where they live, how many dependents they have, and proof of whether they are on social assistance of any kind.   Eligibility criteria is important to maintaining public trust. This information is then stored on computers from which statistics to provide the public, media and donors are generated. No private information is shared, but the general statistics help Canadians to understand how entrenched poverty is becoming.  Food banks across the country share this information for one month a year in order to produce what is called the Hunger Count – a report detailing food bank use across the country.

People who use food banks aren’t very educated

Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank – Canada’s largest – says one in four clients have a university education or higher. From this number, 17% have some college or university education, 16% have a college diploma, while 13% have a bachelor’s degree. This mirrors much of what is occurring in the job market, where people become unemployed despite having adequate levels of education.

Food banks only distribute food

This is highly unlikely. Canada’s food banks support community garden initiatives, collective kitchens, skills programs, budgeting programs, services for new mothers, community food centres, job application services, and dietary educational classes. The London Food Bank, like many others, while not managing such programs, supplies and assists school breakfast programs, various food models in the community, women’s shelters, homeless programs, research initiatives, and couponing/price matching programs.

Food banks are as diverse as the communities in which they function. They come in all shapes and sizes, but, like London, share in both national and provincial codes of ethics and share statistics, food supplies, and transport with one another. They are attempting to keep up with ever-increasing demands and are only able to do so because of the high levels of support they get from their communities. They are not the answer to poverty, but without their presence in those places where we live, hunger would be far more obvious and widespread. Whatever myths might be assumed about their work, they have become important community partners to the hungry, the media, other social agencies, and numerous community initiatives.  They continue to work with other organizations in attempts to define, track, and overcome poverty itself.

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