Waste not, want not, as the saying goes.

And yet we find ourselves wasting a lot at a time when there are a lot of vulnerable Vermonters in need. The Everybody Eats program has underscored the state’s food insecurity issues during the past 12 months of the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of meals have been provided.

Pre-COVID, one of every 10 Vermonters struggled with food insecurity; today, the ratio is one in four.

The Gund Institute at the University of Vermont found that 50% of state residents have experienced job losses, furloughs or reduced hours during the past six months. With a quarter of Vermonters having trouble getting enough nourishing food, Vermont is at the top of the list of states where food insecurity has increased most dramatically since the pandemic, along with West Virginia and North Dakota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition, Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law, was supposed to make us more mindful of how much we throw away.

Before the full implementation of Act 148, every year Vermonters discarded about 400,000 tons of waste, 28% of which was compostable. Within this compostable waste, 60,000 tons was food waste and 30% to 40% of this food waste was edible. Food that could have provided valuable nutrition was instead thoughtlessly thrown away.

Which is why we should be gleaning more. Gleaning is the practice of walking farmers’ fields and gathering usable food after the farmers have finished the regular harvest.

According to the website for Community Harvest of Central Vermont, one of six organizations committed to the Vermont Gleaning Collective, “Research shows that during each growing season in Vermont, there are 14.3 million pounds of edible vegetables and berries grown that are not sold by farms. There is about 1 million pounds of this surplus just in Washington County that could be gleaned for people to eat. CHCV and the many other gleaning programs around Vermont are making progress in recovering some of this surplus, but only a small portion is being gleaned each season at this point.”

According to the collective’s website: “When we glean, we reap unmarketed, quality crops after harvest that would otherwise go to waste with the help of others in our communities. This produce is distributed to sites that help feed our more vulnerable neighbors. This develops a more dependable food system for the people, by the people.”

According to the Intervale Center in Burlington, another partner in the collective, “Freedom from hunger is a basic human right. But poverty and hunger are big problems in the United States; in 2015, hunger is a daily reality for nearly 43 million people. … Accessing fresh fruits and vegetables is a struggle for many of these families; barriers include cost, transportation and the time and knowledge to shop and cook. At the same time, up to 40% of all produce grown in the United States is rejected before it reaches market because of cosmetic imperfections or overproduction. By gleaning and rescuing food, we are providing a way for food insecure people to access fresh food and more fully utilizing the food that is already grown on local farms.”

Waste is not a Vermont problem alone.

An article published by the Associated Press this week states that 17% of the food produced globally each year is wasted, according to a report issued by the United Nations. That amounts to 1 billion tons of food.

The waste is far more than previous reports had indicated, though direct comparisons are difficult because of differing methodologies and the lack of strong data from many countries.

According to the published report, most of the waste — 61% — happens in households, while food service accounts for 26% and retailers account for 13%, the U.N. found. The U.N. is pushing to reduce food waste globally, and researchers are also working on an assessment of waste that includes the food lost before reaching consumers.

The authors note the report seeks to offer a clearer snapshot of the scale of a problem that has been difficult to assess, in hopes of spurring governments to invest in better tracking.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates a family of four wastes about $1,500 in food each year. But accurately measuring food waste is difficult for a variety of reasons including data availability, said USDA food researcher Jean Buzby, adding that improved measurements are part of a government plan to reduce waste.

Vermont does better than most states because of the efforts toward gleaning and closely monitoring the waste stream. But clearly, we have more work to do to reduce our proclivity toward wasting.

In the end, food is just too important to throw away.

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