Portland, Maine – Today, Feeding the 5000 Portland, Maine filled Monument Square with crowds of Mainers eager for a meaningful midday meal. The celebration featured a free lunch served to thousands made from perfectly good food that would otherwise have gone to waste, cooking demos by prominent local chefs, and helpful tips and resources that promote the many delicious, sustainable ways we can avoid wasting food.
The waste of edible food is a growing, global problem with social, environmental, and economic consequences. Researchers have found that about 40 percent of food grown for human consumption is never eaten. Wasted food costs a family of four about $1500 a year, and Maine cities and towns spend an estimated $8.5 million a year to send more than 100,000 tons of food to landfills and incinerators. Meanwhile food insecurity affects more than 200,000 Mainers, including 1 in 4 Maine children.
A coalition of Maine’s nonprofit organizations, led by the Cumberland County Food Security Council, Healthy Acadia, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, teamed up with UK-based Feedback and the Rockefeller Foundation to bring to Portland a global campaign to change the way people think about throwing away food.
Feeding the 5000 events have taken place in 40 cities throughout France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, including New York City and Washington, D.C., this past spring. Portland is the smallest city to host a Feeding the 5000 event.
Feedback founder Tristram Stuart is on a mission. “We want to catalyze a food-waste revolution one person, one town, one country at a time, to take food waste ‘off the menu’ —helping to stop needless hunger and environmental destruction across our planet,” he says.
“Wasting money to buy and dispose of food that we don’t eat makes no sense, and the true cost of food waste is even higher,” explains Sarah Lakeman, Sustainability Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Wasting food also wastes all of the energy, water, land, time, and money used to grow, transport, and process that food.”
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of climate-changing carbon and methane emissions, behind China and the United States.
More than 250 volunteers pitched in to organize the event, glean 4000 pounds of vegetables from local farms, and prepare and serve the meal. Thousands of free meals were served at Portland’s Monument Square, and thousands more were served by the Yarmouth schools, the University of Southern Maine, and Preble Street Resource Center.
Studies suggest that reducing food waste by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year.
“Rescuing food that would otherwise have been wasted is not the solution to food insecurity, but it can help,” says Jim Hanna of the Cumberland County Food Security Council. “Food insecurity is rooted more in economic circumstances that limit how much a family can spend on food. Our goal is to make nutritious food available and useful to as many people as possible, especially those vulnerable to hunger.”
Food banks and pantries in Maine already collect a lot of surplus food from supermarkets and other suppliers; preventing even more food from going to waste can make healthier options available to more people, while making better use of Maine’s natural resources and shrinking the waste stream.
“In just the past couple of weeks, with support from Penny Jordan and the Maine Farm Bureau, we recruited 100 more volunteers to glean 4000 lbs. of food in four days, as part of the nascent Cumberland County gleaning network,” says Hannah Semler, Gleaning & Farmdrop Manager at Healthy Acadia. “Connecting local farmers to markets ready to absorb surplus crops being left in fields is a central goal of Feedback and the Portland coalition behind the event.”
Another goal of Feeding the 5000 is to encourage shoppers to recognize that although some fruits and vegetables may look imperfect, they are just as tasty and nutritious as others, and it is a sad, costly waste to throw them away.
“Many people have an expectation that all produce should be the same size, shape, and free of all blemishes,” says John Crane, General Manager of the Portland Food Co-Op, “but imperfect produce is perfectly edible. Farmers regularly leave it in the field because history has shown that customers often won’t purchase it. This results in a lot of wasted food. Some farmers and grocers like us try to offer this ‘less than perfect’ produce for sale. We all need to do a better job of educating people about food waste and encouraging them to purchase produce that is perfectly fine to eat but isn’t visually perfect.”
Importantly, reducing food waste will require collaboration across all sectors of societies—from farmers, to consumers, to nonprofits, to the retailers selling and distributing this food. Feedback, for example, is asking major U.S. supermarkets to reform date labels that cause many packaged foods sold to go to waste, and is asking the public to sign its Change.org petition targeting the CEOs of the six largest supermarkets in the U.S. Others in Maine are approaching the challenge from a different angle, seeking legislative solutions to address the problem.
What about food that should not or cannot be eaten? The state’s recently adopted Food Recovery Hierarchy promotes composting for disposing of inedible scraps. Composting returns the nutrients in organic matter to the soil, a far better outcome than producing methane gases in landfills or being incinerated.
“Garbage to Garden encourages participants to reduce food waste long before the compost bucket; our company does not want to collect and compost food that should or could be eaten,” says Tyler Frank, President and Founder at Garbage to Garden. “We are proud to provide a service for collecting and composting the inedible parts of food like rinds, peels, grounds, and plate scrapings to keep these valuable resources out of landfills and recycle them for nutrients and energy.”
“This event brings to light the social, environmental, and economic benefits of reducing food waste in our community, which is a message that resonates with the people of Portland,” says Portland Mayor Strimling. The City of Portland is one of many supporters of Portland’s Feeding the 5000 event, and Mayor Ethan Strimling kicked off the festivities by eating the first meal alongside middle-school students and the event planning team.