Earth that gives us all this food,
Sun that makes it ripe and good.
Dearest Earth and dearest Sun,
we will not forget what you have done.
As spring brings blossoms and ever-present bird song to the metro D.C. region, I’m reminded on Earth Day of this blessing that has stayed with me since my child’s preschool years. It is a deceptively simple act to pause, reflect on and appreciate what the Earth and sun give us, but it is harder to practice in the bustle of everyday life. Personally, I derive disproportionate joy from seeing my small patch of lettuce sprout and then grow, visibly it seems, every day.
To those of us who have it in abundance, food is one of life’s pleasures and an important element of socializing and community. To others, food is about survival, economic stress and helplessness. If our eyes are open, we need not look far to find individuals facing risks from food scarcity, often right in our neighborhoods, schools and communities.
Reducing waste, reducing CO2
The United States leads the globe in efficiency of food production and in food exports, but there’s much we still need to learn to fulfill the responsibility of abundance. A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds that U.S. consumers wasted about 150,000 tons of food per day—a quarter of the daily food available for consumption—representing the production from 30 million acres, or 7 percent of our cropland.
In this study, higher-quality diets were associated with greater amounts of food waste, especially fruits and vegetables, which are the most likely categories of food to be discarded. Even more is counted as wasted if we include produce that doesn’t make it to market, such as those deemed unattractive because of bruising.
Wasted food has a significant toll on the climate from greenhouse gas contributions—both in the emissions from wasted energy and resources to grow, harvest and transport the unused food and in methane release from decomposition. Researchers have estimated food waste contributes 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year, nearly as much as emissions from road transportation.
Giving back to the Earth—and fellow humans
Climate impact alone provides strong motivation for many of us to reduce waste. But perhaps an even stronger motivation is our natural desire to give. Sharing our collective food abundance taps into our human impulse of generosity, which science shows contributes to individual happiness. Actions to help get food where it’s needed, and keep it out of landfills, are not just things we "should" do.
Opportunities to give, and to and reduce waste, are everywhere—at food banks, farmers’ markets, soup kitchens, community gardens and home compost stations. I’m excited by innovative models that are cropping up to match volunteer solutions with our human desire to help.
Also, new attention is being paid to the dual food waste/hunger challenge. For example, Baltimore-based Hungry Harvest sells “ugly” produce that would otherwise be thrown away and uses the proceeds to subsidize food access for those in need.Globally, Selina Juul has created a movement about stopping food waste.
Tangible ways to appreciate and share our abundance—to thank the earth and sun—are right in front of us, if our eyes are open. Earth Day, Earth Week and Earth Month are a terrific time to notice and take advantage of those chances to give back.
Find food donation resources and tips on the U.S. EPA's Donating Food webpage.