Most of the time when you hear me talking about food, I am talking about the food we eat. But a few years ago, I realized I needed to talk more about the food we DON'T eat.
Far too often, food is thrown in the trash and dumped in landfills instead of filling hungry bellies. You have probably heard the statistics: Nearly 40% of our food goes to waste in the United States -- either in the fields, on the docks, in grocery stores or in people's homes. That's 165 billion pounds of food every year. It is an astonishing number and one that sadly reflects both the extravagance and the waste seen in one of the richest countries in the world.
I promise you that our children and grandchildren will rightly hold us accountable for this tragic misuse of food that has led to a plundering of our land, an accumulation of greenhouse gases and the loss of precious water used to grow and produce that wasted food.
What boggled my mind, though, is the unacceptable disconnect between food waste and hunger. How is it possible that we trash this ridiculous amount of food while one in six children (one in eight people of all ages) in the United States is food-insecure, unsure when or if they will receive another meal? This is why I chose to focus on the charity Feeding America for CNN's Champions for Change series.
I didn't get into journalism to become an advocate for anything. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize I still don't know. So it is not my nature to be so certain that I become dogmatic and categorically convinced that I am right. Yet after 17 years of traveling the world reporting on both natural and manmade disasters, this particular issue has haunted me more than most. And I now know it is one we can absolutely solve.
The most emotional story I have ever covered
Witnessing mass hunger and starvation during the 2011 famine in Somalia was the most emotional story I have ever covered. To this day, to speak about it, my chest tightens, my eyes redden, and I can't hold back the tears. It gets to me because it was senseless and so unceasingly brutal to watch. Also, I hate to feel helpless, which has gotten me into trouble at times as I dive headfirst into situations wanting to do something, anything, to try to help. During that famine, the UN estimates that more than a quarter of a million people died for lack of food, and there was nothing meaningful I could do about it.
What is happening in the United States is not a famine by any means, but it is a lot worse than people tend to realize. Despite gains in employment and economic growth, many people you probably know have never really recovered after the recent recession. They are your friends, neighbors and colleagues, and a significant percentage of them are staring down empty cupboards and refrigerators.
I recently spent time with a woman named Charity Mills in Colorado Springs and saw just how much the face of hunger has changed in America. Charity is educated, eloquent and employed. She also waits in a food bank line most days of the week just to feed her family. Charity described her situation to me as "the tyranny of the moment." At the time, I wasn't entirely sure what she meant, but I was reminded of artist Willem de Kooning, who once said, "being poor takes up all your time." It's true. Today, 41 million Americans aren't sure where their next meal is coming from, and for them, it is all they can think about.
In the past, Charity and her family qualified for food stamps, now known as SNAP, the supplemental nutrition assistance program. They used to get $963 a month for a family of seven, which is about $4.58 a day per person. But nowadays, Charity and millions of other Americans find themselves in an unforgiving middle ground, not benefiting from the recent improvements in the economy but having their benefits slashed nonetheless. With her husband back in school and Charity back at work, her family is still food-insecure but no longer able to qualify for food stamps. The reality: They are now dependent on the generosity of others to eat.
How we can fix this problem
Luckily, Americans are among the most generous people on Earth. As a result, organizations like Feeding America are able to create a web of 200 food banks across the country and help make sure more than 40 million Americans like Charity have a good shot at securing their next meal. Formerly called Second Harvest, Feeding America works under the philosophy that America already has enough food to feed everyone if we can just connect the food that is being wasted with the people who so desperately need it.
As with most things, this is trickier than it appears. First off, for big businesses to simply donate food, they have to spend money. They have to package it, ship it and store it or refrigerate it properly. Without organizations like Feeding America, it is often easier and cheaper for companies to throw out the extra food. Second, many organizations worry about the legal risks of donating food, even though they shouldn't. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects good-faith food donors from liability if the recipient should become ill.
Finally, most of us consumers often trash our food much earlier than we should because of somewhat arbitrary "use by" and "sell by" dates. These dates aren't even required by federal law, except for infant formula, and have nothing to do with safety of the food. You can eat your eggs more than a month after purchase, even though the "use by" date is much earlier. Unless your produce is clearly spoiled, it is still fine to consume. The expiration dates in this case are more an indication of freshness. And even I was surprised to learn that canned meat can last five years past the date stamped on the container.
It is time for all of us to start thinking more about the food we don't eat, because when it comes to hunger and food insecurity, we all have a role to play. We don't need to be so picky when it comes to our food. Resolve to eat uglier but perfectly edible fruit. At the grocery store, buy only what you need instead of what you want, and don't worry so much about the dates stamped on your food.
And when you think of throwing food in the trash, remember Charity Mills and the tyranny of her moment. I am not asking you to turn your world upside-down or even to make tough sacrifices. Simply cut down your food waste, and I am convinced we can successfully feed Charity and the rest of America.