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Mega-Events Are Warming Up Conversations on Food Waste

Hunger and trashed food are commanding attention at this summer's biggest events, from the political conventions to the Olympic Games.

Volunteers in a Philadelphia food pantry in July 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Mega-events offer the chance to catapult issues to national consciousness, intercepting a vast and rapt audience. This summer, cities hosting blockbuster gatherings—from the political conventions to the Olympic Games—are vaulting hunger and food waste into the spotlight.

Plate of the Union, a new collaborative advocating for food and farms, hitched a ride to the RNC publicity train in Cleveland this week, leveraging the event as a platform to broadcast their message about focusing federal attention on America’s food system. They’re off to Philadelphia for next week’s Democratic National Convention, where they’re co-sponsoring a food truck festival and soliciting signatures for a petition calling on politicians to curb subsidies for unhealthy food and ban antibiotic usage in livestock.

“This is about families who are struggling to feed themselves. It is about making sure that healthy foods—foods that can sustain us—are accessible and less expensive,” the chef and Plate of the Union co-founder Tom Colicchio said in a statement. “These are the issues that we want the next president to help us solve.”

This dialogue will continue in Philadelphia next week, where local advocacy groups are also using the event has a chance to brainstorm and test-drive pragmatic and immediate solutions to the city’s struggle against hunger.

When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia last fall, the city projected record-breaking crowds of pilgrims. In anticipation of the deluge, the city cordoned off roads, and ratcheted up transit and security.

Food waste, on the other hand, was an unexpected consequence. Across the city, venues had stocked up on food—picture trays of breakfast pastries, or cocktail-hour finger foods—and local hunger relief organizations hadn’t amplified their response plans to tackle the increased volume of donations, says Megha Kulshreshtha, the founder of the local organization Food Connect. “We didn’t have a redistribution plan,” she adds. “We were only a small group of volunteers.”

As many as 50,000 people are expected to attend the DNC next week; since hospitality is often equated with abundance, Kulshreshtha anticipates another glut of surplus food. The data analyst wondered how the city could better make use of the food waste that the onslaught of visitors will surely leave in its wake.

This time, anti-hunger advocates are girding themselves and calling for reinforcements. With the help of a handful of other local organizations, Kulshreshtha is expanding her scope, launching an iPhone and Android app, Operation Food Rescue, to help funnel leftovers to shelters, food pantries, and other sites.

Anti-hunger groups say mega-events lead to an uptick in wasted food. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Philadelphia needs more food. A 2014 survey by the food bank network Feeding America found that nearly 22 percent of Philadelphians—335,560 individuals—were food insecure, lacking reliable access to nutritious food. And though the city has more than 500 food pantries or soup kitchens, those organizations struggle to meet community needs. A 2015 survey of 200 such organizations found that 90 percent of them had empty shelves at least once throughout the year, according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. At the same time, Americans cast off some 63 million tons of food annually. Though many grocery chains are embracing “ugly” produce, a large share of food is squandered as a result of narrow cosmetic standards that deflect it from supermarkets; at home, consumers often hew closely to date label stamps, even though they’re unstandardized. Across the U.S., the food waste crisis and the pernicious hunger problem are unfolding simultaneously.

Logistics are a choke point when it comes to shuttling food from one location to a site where it’s needed. Kulshreshtha recalls once taking three separate trips to accommodate 2,000 boxed lunches; if she’d dispatched a larger truck, she says, she could have consolidated the order into a single pick-up.

Operation Food Rescue, Kulshreshtha says, is a way to address inefficiencies and redundancies in transporting donated food from the pick-up site to the receiving organization. Through the app, venues looking to offload excess food will connect with a centralized effort channeling the collective resources of six local operations sharing resources, vehicles, and drivers.

Donating organizations can log on to specify what they’re looking to hand off—prepared or packaged, hot or cold, anything that hasn’t made it to diners’ plates; prospective receiving organizations indicate what their facilities can accommodate. The app serves as a matching service and physical intermediary, coordinating and delivering the food. The dispatchers will be able to decide how to best utilize the resources on hand, gauging when to send out a refrigerated truck, or when a small hatchback would suffice.

Smoothing out the process of redistributing surplus food, Kulshreshtha says, will involve ongoing calibrations. “The DNC was the start of a great conversation,” she says. “I think it will continue when the DNC has left, as well. This is just the beginning of the work.”

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.