We got glean: Following Europe, Americans stake out roles in the food recovery movement

In a National Geographic cover story earlier this year, Garbage Land author Elizabeth Royte follows Tristram Stuart as he darts around New Jersey, New York, Colombia, and Peru on food-rescue missions that culminate in soup-kitchen-style events to feed scores of people, sometimes as many as 5,000. The son of a naturalist, Stuart is the high-profile British food activist and author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. Stuart’s food-waste consciousness was shaped in adolescence in rural East Sussex where he raised pigs he fed with the [shocking amount of] leftovers he gathered from local shops. At times Royte paints a caricature reminiscent of Road Runner or Inspector Clouseau, except this protagonist is making a difference in the real-life challenges of reducing food waste, feeding the food insecure, and conserving precious resources.

Gleaning―gathering what is left and edible after a harvest―has been preached and practiced since biblical times. In the 16th century King Henry IV of France championed the right of the poor to glean; long after its depiction in the works of Millet, Breton, and Van Gogh, gleaning persists as a French cultural phenomenon in the countryside and cities alike. I’m reminded of an excellent documentary I saw 16 years ago by French filmmaker Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I. Guardian film critic Xan Brooks called it “a kind of extended essay on poverty, thrift and the curious place of scavenging in French history and culture… .”

In the French private sector, giant food retailer Intermarché has gotten behind the food waste reduction movement in a big way. In 2014 the company launched the “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign to promote its decision to sell “imperfect” produce at a 30 percent discount to the “perfect” versions preferred by major food retailers―and until recently, most consumers―in the developed world. In my adjunct-marketing-prof opinion, “Inglorious” was a brilliant product-line-extension move by many measures and was likely a great inspiration to the “ugly” movement in the U.S.

In 2015 the French government enacted legislation that bans French supermarkets from discarding or destroying unsold food and requiring that it be donated to charities or for use as animal feed. Earlier this year the Italian parliament was due to pass similar rules cutting red tape for retailers wishing to donate food. For now the U.K. is relying on the voluntary pledges of leading supermarkets to reduce waste and related greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over the next decade.

One of the most vocal advocates in the drive to put America’s “ugly” (i.e., “inglorious”) fruits and vegetables to vital use is Jordan Figueiredo, founder of EndFoodWaste.org. Figueiredo is a California-based solid waste specialist and anti-food-waste activist who, among other things, works to get biggies like Whole Foods and Walmart to sell ugly produce. These days he’s spending extra time to support Hungry Harvest, the “No produce left behind” folks, and Imperfect Produce, a new consumer brand that diverts healthy, affordable, and eminently-edible uglies from landfills and delivers them to San Francisco Bay Area doorsteps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has committed to supporting the three-year National Gleaning Project (NGP) of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School. While the logistics of collecting uglies from farms and getting them to food recovery organizations across the U.S. has its challenges, the bigger obstacle relates to regulations. Thus, the NGP “is specifically focused on legal barriers to enhancing gleaning and fresh food recovery in the United States.”

Then there’s U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s proposed legislation, HR 4184, the Food Recovery Act, and the Food Date Labeling Act. And last year the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency announced the United States’ first-ever national food waste reduction goal―50 percent by 2030. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also spearheads major initiatives in this arena.

Today’s food waste activists are buoyed by the all the awareness being generated around their cause. It is a moment being driven by the dark forces of growing food insecurity, natural resource scarcity, and urgent environmental issues. Next time I’ll talk about the educational resources and tools available that can help each one of us make a difference.

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