The poster above hangs in the dining room at the Franciscan Mountain Retreat of Mt Irenaeus in western New York. It is about thirty-eight-years old. Fr Lou at the retreat was interested to know how I remembered its exact age. “I made it,” I said.
When in college I started the World Hunger Committee, which had a short-lived purpose to provide information about the plight of hungry at home and abroad. Maybe the greatest accomplishment of the group was obtaining permission to have just one day where all students who were on the dining plan would turn in their dining cards for that day and the money would go to World Hunger organizations. I do not know if that tradition continued, but we managed my senior year.
But before that, when I was a sophomore, I had twenty-five of these posters made and put them up around campus. A few went in the dining hall, a few in the campus café, and one in the campus ministry, where Fr Dan Riley, founder of Mt Irenaeus, was then working. I still have one at home.
It’s a bit surreal to sit at the dining room table at the mountain and see the poster. I can picture a young man, a boy really, standing next to Mikel Wintermantel in Studio 4 East discussing the phrase to put on the poster. Mikel—or one of his brothers, I’m not sure—came up with the idea of the wheat stalks up the side. It is like a different life, a movie I once saw and only kind of remember the plot. But that scene I recall just fine. And here is the evidence that those times existed—like going from dorm to dorm for floor meetings where we collected money to help the hungry. We were inspired by the late Harry Chapin, who championed efforts to end world hunger, and who had recently been killed. We held a coffeehouse during which we handed out information about the numbers of hungry in the state and the country. And we helped sign up volunteers to assist at the Warming House in the next town. It was a time—both the era and our age—when we believed in things like solving world hunger, like achieving world peace. We were so idealistic.
But like all twenty-year olds I aged, lost some idealism, got busy with life, and the energy of that time faded.
Yesterday when everyone had left the mountain but me I sat at the table and stared at the poster. It was like it suddenly became animated and was calling to me across the room, across decades, and it said, “Where the hell did you go?”
I got sidetracked I guess. But seeing the poster had one immediate effect: I was aware of the food I ate, and the food I didn’t eat.
It is coming on forty years later and today forty percent of food is wasted every year in the United States. Forty percent. Here, in numbers: 40 percent.
60 million tons worth of produce alone is wasted every year just in this country.
According to a study published in The Atlantic, food occupies the single largest amount of room of all landfills. One reason is American’s maniacal obsession with perfection. Most of the waste is the result of blemishes on produce, or other such aesthetic “faults” which cause chefs both professional and not to toss food away. Another reason is how cheap food can be, so throwing it away doesn’t have much impact on the budget. In addition the portions are insanely large, and to make it worse parents stand over their children trying to push in another fork from the way-too-big pile of corn and tell them to “eat every bite” because there are children starving. Result? Some American kids get fatter while some American kids get nothing, and the balance gets tossed in the trash. The only punishment for the stuffed kid is “no dessert” for not gouging his mouth with more and the punishment for one in five American children is to go to bed hungry.
We think of “wasting” food as a “trash” problem. That is just part of it. Wasting food is also a consumption issue. Portions, again, are too large, snacks are too common, people eat between meals, multiple dinners, and while the recommended daily caloric intake is about 2000, the average American caloric intake every day is 2900, while 1 in 5—that’s ONE in FIVE—children’s average caloric intake is 700 a day. That’s just a little less than one blueberry muffin from Starbucks.
I could go on; there seems to be some rekindled idealism in this dormant conscience. But the point is clear: we don’t need to feed the world to help the less privileged—the first step to ending world hunger is much closer to home: Please don’t waste food.