Out and About

Food Tank Summit explores food waste, disparity

The issues discussed were highly applicable as we recover from the impact of Hurricane Florence.

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Food Tank Summit
Hadassah Patterson, Out
About contributor
NEW YORK — I had the opportunity to travel to the second annual New York Food Tank Summit earlier this month with the National Black Farmer’s Association, the National Women’s Farming Association and the Association of American Indian Farmers.

The issues discussed were highly applicable as we recover from the impact of Hurricane Florence. All the participants contributed meaningful information from their respective fields.

"Nearly one-third of all food produced for human consumption — approximately 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted globally each year," according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This waste occurs systemically, from farms to homes, and is not often easy to trace or document, much less eradicate.
This year’s Food Tank summit in New York aimed to spotlight the Food Loss Waste issue and gathered top thinkers and doers dedicated to reducing food waste impact on our food culture.
Food recovery panel at the Food Tank Summit (Photo by Hadassah Patterson)

The Food Tank's mission is to highlight environmentally, socially and economically sustainable methods to alleviate hunger, obesity, and poverty as well as create networks which can push for food system change.

There are so many programs being enacted by industry, governments and municipalities already – and these efforts can serve as a touchstone to those looking to better prevent food loss and maximize food utilization. France, and recently Austin, Texas, voted to fine grocery stores or ban throwing away edible food instead of donating to charities. There are also efforts like L.A. Kitchen, which reclaim healthy food and offer culinary job training to fight hunger.

In our region, what we are facing now are the effects of a lack of infrastructure support and food resiliency. Crop, farm and animal losses, environmental disasters from ill-contained toxic areas and catastrophic flooding are bringing more challenges than ever to our residents, shelters and regional food system. We have been fortunate to have efforts like World Kitchen, headed by Chef Jose Andres, responding to the crisis with comprehensive relief efforts based in Wilmington and Raleigh. Both Andres and Sean Penn’s J/P HRO have been responding to the crisis in eastern North Carolina in Pembroke and in Robeson County.

The question now is – how can we resolve issues facing the regions affected long-term?

Crop Growth

I sat with spotlight speaker Tobias Peggs, CEO of Square Roots and co-founder with Kimble Musk. Square Roots is an urban farming and entrepreneurship program based in Brooklyn. Locally grown food is valued in our area, but he reminded us of the benefits: fewer miles from farm to table – meaning a lower carbon footprint overall, knowing your farmer and where your food comes from, as well as the pure access to fresh food this proximity affords.

Josh Aliber transplanting basil (Courtesy of Square Root)

"If you want to do that in the city, where 70 percent of our planet's 50 billion people will live by 2050, then you have to think about resource utilization in different ways," Peggs said. "No one is going to give me 20 acres to build a farm in Brooklyn. But I can create a 20 acre farm from 10 shipping containers, which is what we've done.”

Square Roots grows food three-dimensionally, using racks of vertical fields to optimize their food growing space versus the traditional field and row paradigm. "We get a lot more food from the same footprint," Peggs said.

They can produce year-round, implementing an LED lighting system that grows food faster. They can do so without concern for the vagaries of weather, and they use 90 percent less water than the average outdoor farm, comparatively.

Does the food taste good?

"We grow with a lot of precision, so we can ensure great nutrient profiles, taste, texture, etc. This is not GMO. In fact, it's like the opposite of GMO. We use heirloom varieties and source from places like Johnny’s Seeds, but we control the climate around that seed (light, temperature, humidity, etc) to make… the perfect growing conditions for the plants," Peggs said.

Square Roots Basil (Courtesy of Square Roots)

Additionally, they have an urban growing entrepreneurship program where farmers can come in and work with them for a year through their Next Gen Farmer Training Program. In just two years of operation, Square Roots-trained farmers have started their own farm initiatives, gone to work with other urban farms, or decided to stay on with the company.

Another panel was on preventing on-farm food loss. Professor Jane Ambuko of Kenya spoke at length regarding the benefits of minimizing waste at farm level and impact on local farmers.

What is better for our food system sustainability - a change to the value culture of corporate agriculture, or increased support of the small farmer? This is the question that was posed to to both attendees and speakers.

As panelist Jack Algiere, of Stone Barnes Center for Food and Agriculture, brought up, small farms are still the majority. They make up 70 percent of our total food production. I asked if he thought it was more important to change the corporate agriculture value culture or decentralize the corporate agricultural structure altogether.

"Absolutely. Hundred percent," he said. "Hundred percent decentralize the agricultural system. Get back to caring for the land. In fact, we should break that barrier between conservation and agriculture, and start doing some real good for the planet. I think we set up a lot of false barriers for ourselves."

He also opined that corporate farms’ absorption of small family farms was a disempowerment. That the fact that a farmer might seem like someone distant from the rest of the community is itself a disempowerment of culture - for all of us. Not just for the farmer who gets outcast but for the consumers who don’t know where or how their food got to them.

“That it has become something of a utility to eat - and not a great pleasure of our culture - I mean, we can return to that. We can directly return to that. We can do it in urban space," Algiere said. "And really, there’s so much potential to see that, and now that I see all these hydroponic farms and things happening in the cities…what I look at them as, is kind of those gateways. People understanding - you get a little bit and then realizing that we can actually care for soils again and trust the natural systems. I mean, I think people get that obviously, climate change is a major thing and we’re all having to deal with the change and adapt to that. But, it’s not hopeless. It’s just not.”

Food recovery and waste prevention

One of the things that struck hardest about Hurricane Florence was shelter support and disaster recovery feeding. Shelters were not always well equipped for the challenges they already faced.

What could prevent this effect long-term? We have a plethora of chefs, hospitality groups and die-hard foodies who are both concerned and actively conscientious. Is there a way we can better utilize our regional food systems to both minimize food loss and promote food resiliency?

I spoke aside with panelist Dickie Brennan, of Dickie Brennan & Co. restaurant group out of New Orleans. He is on the Board of Directors for the National Restaurant Association, among several others, and a member of the Coalition for Coastal Resilience and Economy. We asked him questions concerning food recovery among restaurants which could better equip shelters and food banks, and discussed implementation tips.

During the panel, Brennan mentioned the value of using recyclable materials to re-purpose for community benefit as well. For instance, if someone were to rep-purpose wine bottles or similar items generated en masse by the restaurant industry into a material suitable for creating or building levies, that would be both a successful and meaningful venture.

Questlove at the Food Tank Summit (Photo by Hadassah Patterson)

We learned a great deal at the summit and were also reminded of much, not the least of which was the chat between Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg, teen advocate Hailey Thomas and polymathic food activist Questlove chatted about the concept of food deserts, systemic racism and social justice.

“One out of seven people in America are food insecure, but 40 percent of food is wasted," Questlove said. "That is alarming.”

The question is, what can be done about that in our area?

At the summit, there were at least 35 speakers in all, and participants discussed the various sectors in which change can be affected - at farms, supply chain, corporate, municipal and retail levels – going from “micro” to “macro,", as the FAO written panel observed.

The next Food Tank Summit, Food Loves Tech, will be held in Brooklyn, NY from Nov. 2-3.

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