Pope: Wasting food is tantamount to stealing from the poor (so how can you help?)

Says the pope, wasting food is no different from stealing from the hungry, during his Wednesday catechesis. How can you help? Lisa Suhay, through her volunteer activities, found mouths that needed feeding. 

Lisa Suhay
Zoltan Suhay assists Yorgos Bageldashery Worker Pheobe Morrel with a bagel rescue in Norfolk, Va., May 15.

Pope Francis took a page out of the "Book of Mom" yesterday by denouncing consumerism and the “culture of waste” of modern economies when it comes to food during his catechesis Wednesday. Given the high volume of food thrown away by American businesses daily, this papal message could be manna from heaven for food banks.

My hope as a community volunteer is that the pope’s message will help food banks get more volunteers and create additional partnerships with businesses in order to perform what they call “food rescue.”

"Remember, however, that the food that is thrown away is as if we had stolen it from the table of the poor, from those who are hungry," according to his written remarks.  

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization released data showing approximately 1.3 billion tons of food — one third of the world’s total food production — are lost or wasted every year. Furthermore, "The consumer share of food losses and waste can be very high in specific locations; for example, the amount of food wasted in one community in new york state in the united states of America in one year was sufficient to feed everyone in the community for 1.5 months and 60 percent of the losses occurred after the food was purchased by the consumer," the report states. 

“Consumerism has made us accustomed to wasting food daily and we are unable to see its real value,” Francis said, comparing this attitude to the frugality of “our grandparents” who “used to make a point of not throwing away leftover food.”  

While the pope is pointing the finger at us wasting food as individuals and families, I have found that individuals can’t hold a candle to the food waste taking place among businesses.  In his speech, the pope also warned that a “culture of waste”  chiding media by adding “some homeless people die of cold on the streets, it is not news. In contrast, a 10-point drop on the stock markets of some cities, is a tragedy.”

The speech was part of the United Nations’ anti-food waste campaign to mark World Environment Day

As a volunteer who works with others to feed local children, I wanted to shout, “Amen!” when I read the pope's speech.

It wasn’t until I founded an all-volunteer chess program for at-risk kids after school at our local community center four years ago that I became familiar with the hunger that pains our community’s children. The quest to relieve their suffering led me to discover the stunning amount of food being  thrown away by businesses – much of it not rescued by food banks that are sorely in need of more volunteers to make the pick-ups.

Many kids here in Norfolk, Virg. go directly from school , where they eat lunch before noon in most cases, to their local community center for after school care programs so parents can work. In our city,  these programs often allow parents to pick kids up as late as seven p.m. In areas we serve with our after school chess programs most of the kids live well below the poverty line and don’t eat anything after school because parents often can’t afford to pack snacks or extra sandwiches.

The other volunteers and I quickly realized that it is impossible to teach a hungry child. School teachers knew this long before we did.

A local preacher, the Rev. Arthur Devine hooked us up by explaining that all the supermarkets, bakeries, and eateries must, by state law, throw away all foods labeled as “fresh” at the end of each day. He advised me to just go to store managers and ask to be allowed to pickup the food that was to be wasted.

“The food bank does manage to get most of it, but even they can’t get it all with the limited number of volunteers available,” Mr. Devine explained.

So on chess days I now make the rounds to Yorgos Bageldashery where we get two massive trash bags of fresh, mouthwatering bagels. Anything the kids don’t eat we package and send home with them and give anything remaining to the local senior citizen home.

Yesterday, I watched a boy, age 4, trying to wolf down a bagel while stuffing as many as possible into his little shirt sleeves and playing chess. “Slow down,” I soothed. “There’s plenty.” With his cheeks looking fit to burst, he tried to ask if he could take them home, he said, “Murf uf homufff?”

It’s impossible not to want to fix as much of the problem as you personally are able when that’s what you are met with week after week, child after child, year after year as I have.  

Many parents do not make use of local food banks. Part of it is pride, part is hope that it will get better before they have to swallow their pride. Another factor is a lack of transportation to food pantry locations. Often it’s just lack of knowledge that such things exist or being a working single parent who can’t get to the locations due to scheduling issues.

My approach is to simply give the food to the kids at the end of each of our chess meetings and have them tell their parents the absolute truth, “Tell your Mama or Grandma that you are just helping out because these are gonna go to waste if someone doesn’t take them home.”

Telling one of these children that food is going to go to waste is like suggesting to a Christian that if they don’t take home a Bible someone’s gonna burn it. Food is that sacred in these households.

Julie Braley marketing and business relations director for the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia here in Norfolk  was thrilled to hear the Pope’s speech. In a telephone interview today she said,  “It’s great to see leaders in this country and other countries who are willing to step up and address the issues of hunger and waste. Giving time as a volunteer, food donations, money – no one has to go hungry.”

To get an idea of how much food is being thrown away in the US, consider that every day the volunteers from the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia pick up the leftovers from supermarkets, restaurants, and other food service establishments and help 400 local partner agencies (like Devine’s church) redistribute this wealth to the hungry via soup kitchens, food pantries, and after school Kids’ Café programs.  Last year that included 3.3 million pounds  of fresh produce.

“A lot of what we get is food rescue, those fresh products like sandwiches and bakery items that they [businesses] have to get rid of because they’re not fresh anymore at the end of the day,” Ms. Brayley explained in our interview. “We also get meat, dairy, things like that, that aren’t good for their shelves anymore; but we go pick that stuff up directly or have our partner agencies pick it up. Fresh produce is one of our major initiatives to distribute as much as possible.”

Bayley recently went on a ride-along with a volunteer.  “One of our drivers does pickups from Walmart. She has a refrigerated truck. At the end of the day we take it over to Potter’s House  – a food pantry – and other services in Virginia Beach. As it came off the truck people were coming through to take food home and out to their families – a little over 5,000 pounds of food that day which would have been wasted had we not picked it up.”

That’s not a misprint, they picked up over 5,000 pounds of good food destined for the dumpster and rescued both it and the hungry.

The catch is that they only have so many volunteers to get that kind of work done and it’s happening across the nation in every community at every business that serves or sells food.

There’s no reason for any child in America to go to bed hungry or be too anxious about where their next meal is coming from to pay attention in class. When it comes to educating a hungry child, a bagel is a terrible thing to waste.

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