Yesterday, CBS Sunday Morning ran a segment about “Rescuing food to fight hunger,” and while this is an admirable goal, sourcing food from the garbage–food that is not good enough for you or I to eat–and giving it to the poor is not so admirable. In fact, giving the needy our “leftovers” can often be pretty disrespectful.
Sad but true, Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food every year, which breaks down to roughly 20 pounds per person every month. That includes what we toss in the garbage at home, as well as what restaurants, grocery stores and even farms dispose of. And why? Because it’s expired, it’s going bad, it’s bruised or it’s past its peak. So what are many people doing with this food? Giving it to the poor.
Now I have nothing at all against helping the disadvantaged, in fact, quite the opposite. I work with a lot of inner-city kids, and one thing I am steadfast about is this: I don’t give them anything that I would not eat or wear or use myself. Meaning, those old sneakers don’t go to urban kids. And that expired food doesn’t go to them either. Instead, I turn my old shoes into recycling centers (like Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe) and source new sneakers for these kids. Imagine your birthday and opening a present to find a smelly, dirty, used pair of sneakers. It would make you feel bad, right? Well that’s the same approach and respect I have for working with those in poverty. Something is not always better than nothing, because we all have the resources to give people things that we, ourselves, would want.
Same thing for food. Most of us probably wouldn’t pull food out of the garbage to put on the dinner table. And most of us wouldn’t buy or drink expired milk, bruised bananas or stale bread. And yet, this is the food we expect the poor to eat–and be grateful for. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in a soup kitchen what the food quality is like, and they will likely tell you that it’s pretty dismal. And pretty unhealthy. And yet, this is what we serve to the needy because our society tends to think that poor people don’t deserve the same treatment that the middle class gets. They don’t deserve high-quality, delicious food–they should just be happy with what they get because it’s free and it’s better than nothing, right?
So on Sunday Morning yesterday when they were praising some of the organizations for doing all of this, it just felt wrong. At Loaves and Fishes in Naperville, Ill. for example, 75 percent of everything there was destined for the dumpster. Now it’s given regularly to the needy. At another grocery store in Illinois, Jewel-Osco, produce that’s bruised and past its peak is donated to the hungry. Last year they gave away more than 7 million pounds of food.
True, there is a ton of wasted food every day in our country. And true, a lot of that food is still edible. But why do poor people always get the “leftovers”, the food that’s not deemed good enough for the rest of us to eat?
Pete Schaefer, who runs the local Northern Illinois Food Bank explained how grateful they are for these donations:
We’re in the richest county in Illinois, and yet one in five kids will go hungry sometime this year.
And while many of us would throw out a bruised banana, Shaefer said:
Well, if that’s the only fruit or vegetable you’ll see that week, you’re not looking at the bruise. You’re looking at a little piece from heaven right there.
Yes, old bananas can absolutely be eaten when they are bruised. And yes, stale bread can make excellent french toast. So it’s admirable that we are reusing what might ordinarily go in the garbage. Wasted food doesn’t help anyone. Now some of you are probably thinking: Well, at least the poor are eating. And yes, they are. But in an ideal world, the farmers and the grocery stores would simply donate 10% (or whatever a workable figure is) before the food is expired or considered “bad.” They know by now that a certain percentage will always be waste, so why not donate it to the needy upfront instead of waiting for it to be bound for the dumpster?
Once in a while, our society should think about helping the needy with some fresh food, healthy and delicious meals that we would order at a restaurant and new clothing and shoes, instead of always assuming that we can simply give the things that are not suitable for the rest of us to the poor.