Food Fight, But Not About Hunger
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 27, 2017
A surprising business news story over the Thanksgiving break concerned a split among food lobbyists for big companies, who are having trouble promoting their brand name companies as public food tastes shift.
Rising taste for more fresh foods, more organic foods and for better food labeling to indicate what we’re eating apparently is splitting the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Companies like Nestle’s, which owns a wide variety of variously healthy products — from Hot Pockets to Deer Park water — are breaking from the lobbying group. Politico.com reported that Campbell Soup Co., maker of Goldfish crackers and V8 juices, announced it left the group six months ago, in part because the association fought against mandatory labeling for foods with genetically modified ingredients. Other major food companies, including Dean Foods, a dairy company, and Mars, which produces everything from candy to dog food are considering leaving as well, said Politico.
On its own, this trend seems less than fascinating or a question for big companies, except that it is a reminder of how much money and effort goes into trying to obtain influence in Washington to maintain big bucks. It also is a reminder that these companies have profits in mind rather than consumer concerns. And it is troublesome that the focus remains on sales, not on addressing hunger, the ultimate public food policy problem.
It is interesting that even as we are a country of plenty, we also see rising poverty and hunger. Annual figures show that more than 41 million Americans are formally hungry. Bread for the World, a nonprofit food researcher, notes that hunger adds at least $160 billion a year to our public medical bills (Note to Republican legislators: there are better ways to reduce medical bills than eliminating health insurance!).
And at the same time, we are a nation of food waste. The Natural Resources Defense Council, another nonprofit collection of scientists and lay people, published the definitive 2012 report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill” by author Dana Gunders. She explored the various ways food is thrown away by farmers, distributors, grocery stores and households to come up with what seems a stunning percentage of waste.
Over the weekend, NPR offered a Thanksgiving food-oriented review of holiday food waste by chef Massimo Bottura whose Modena, Italy restaurant, Osteria Francescana, has three Michelin stars, on how to reuse most of what families end up throwing out after a family feast like this week’s. The report cited those Natural Resources Council figures to say American toss about 200 million pounds of turkey alone.
The Gunders report shows that more than 20 pounds of food we buy goes uneaten on average, worth about $165 billion a year, plus all the energy, water, chemicals, and land used during production. Similar reports about food waste have been detailed by the federal Department of Agriculture and a Jonathan Bloom book called American Wasteland. Gunders argues that we are 50% more wasteful today than in the 1970s. Among her findings: Food prices are still relatively low, and we do not consider waste a sin; many don’t cook or cook half-prepared food — like frozen meals. We no longer stress the importance of basic cooking knowledge, she says. And, lacking information, we tend to throw out food too soon, arguing that labeling actually is encouraging us to discard food before it goes bad.
Some communities and food kitchens, in particular, are working to stop these trends. Nashville has an organized program to inform citizens about food waste, and actually has lessened the percentage of food waste while helping themselves cost-wise at the city landfills.
This problem is one that we actually can address as individuals. The Nature Resouces group has published advisories that call for people around the holidays, for example, to cook in a way to make sure that most food gets eaten, or asking what guests will eat. Skipping the family “traditions” that no one eats for foods that will be consumed. Nonprofit Save the Food actually offers a food “guest-mator” to help calculate how much of each ingredient to buy.
Maybe it was just the holiday weekend and its emphasis on lots of food that made the news of a business infight relevant. Or maybe my tastes are changing too. Or, most likely, I am watching television reports of refugees in Syria and Yemen fighting just to survive while hearing about disarray among food giants about how to increase profits.
Along with the search for more organic foods, I’d like to see more concern about those who don’t have enough food. The changing tastes apparently are serious: That Politico report said the top 20 U.S. food and beverage companies lost about $18 billion in market share between 2011 and 2017. Their answer is to buy up the most popular “alternatives” to their brand name products.
That’s fine, but it’s not going to solve hunger. That will require new investment in technology in agriculture and a coming to terms with handling of artificial genetically motified organisms (GMO) techniques and labelling.
But we can start by being more responsible food consumers.