When Mariam Ebeid arrived at the University of Mississippi Medical Center for her studies, she wondered what happened to food waste, considering how many patients, faculty and staff the institution feeds daily. “I figured there would probably be some excess food,” the Mississippi native says.
She was right, and that led her to start a Food Recovery Network here in Mississippi to gather the leftover food and redistribute to those who need it. The fourth-year medical student at the is also the president of the chapter, and participated in the Rhodes College FRN chapter in Memphis, Tenn.
“I knew it was an opportunity to recover so much excess food from cafeterias and redistribute to people who need it,” the med student told the Mississippi Free Press.
The dean of students put her in contact with Kathy Taylor, who works in the cafeteria, and she put her in contact with the chef. The chef helped students work with the cafeteria staff to recover food every week.
“Beagle Bagel has food for us every day for us to pick up. Campbell’s Bakery will call us when they have food,” she said.
The Mississippi chapter donates its recovered food to the Stewpot Community Services near downtown Jackson. Ebeid volunteered at Stewpot while attending St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, which put it on her radar for an organization to partner with. That partnership has also birthed other opportunities and programs to help the community.
“The program is called Adopt an Elder. In April, we started pairing a volunteer with an elder or grandparent, and they’ve been delivering twice a month to their elders. I think that’s been another great way to engage with our community, especially since a lot of the volunteers are in the health profession or they’re students who are going to be health professionals,” she said.
Since the chapter was founded in 2018, the students have recovered more than 6,000 pounds of food. The pandemic hasn’t slowed the chapter down, and after the pandemic slows down, they would like to partner with more organizations, the chapter president said.
“A high school teacher once told me it’s not the issue of the quantity of food, it’s the issue of the distribution of food,” Ebeid said. “Hopefully, there can be efforts like the Food Recovery Network, local businesses and restaurants that can help redistribute some of their excess food that might be good healthy food and combating food insecurity in our state.”
‘133 Billion Pounds’
Those leftovers you’re tired of eating that you throw in the trash, the food that “expires” and the leftover crops rotting in farmer’s fields all contribute to the high percentage of food waste in this country.
Food waste is estimated between 30% to 40% of the food supply in the United States, and this correlates to about 133 billion pounds or $161 billion worth of food, the United States Department of Agriculture reports.
Then, in landfills, food waste creates carbon dioxide as it breaks down, which goes into the atmosphere and creates greenhouse gas emissions. And those are not good for the environment.
Consumers are huge contributors to food waste either by throwing away leftover food or tossing food that has passed its expiration date. However, those date labels can be very misleading as they have nothing to do with the freshness of food, Food Recovery Network Executive Director Regina Anderson said in an interview.
“(The date) is an indicator to the manufacturer at the grocery store to say we don’t want any food on our shelves that has a date that is older than x, y, z. So while food is still perfectly good, that little date is driving a lot of food waste,” Anderson said.
Forty-one states and Washington, D.C., require some food to have date labels, though regulations vary by state. Twenty states and D.C. prohibit or restrict the sale or donation of food products once the date has passed, even if the foods are still safe to eat, ReFed reports. Mississippi, for example, requires a date label for shellfish with no sale or donation of product past its expiration date.
In 2019, 34.9 percent of households with incomes below the poverty level were food insecure. From 2017 to 2019, Mississippi’s rate of food insecurity for those three years was 15.7%, higher than the national average of 11.1%, USDA reports.
Mississippi is number one in food insecurity with more than 70 fast-food restaurants and more than 150 gas stations, the City of Jackson reports. More than 14,000 households in Jackson are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, which provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of families who need it.
That 133 billion pounds of food that is discarded could feed the 34.9% of food-insecure households multiple times over.
A group of like-minded University of Maryland students founded the Food Recovery Network in 2011 after seeing an issue and deciding to create a solution. FRN Executive Director Anderson said one evening after flag football practice, one of the founders rushed to the cafeteria to grab some dinner before it closed.
The dinner was $12, and what was left over was going into the trash. The flag football player talked to his friends and they came up with an idea, Anderson said.
“They went to their dining provider and said can we talk to you about this idea we have about not throwing away all this food. She said no and they kept bugging her to hear them out. She saw how organized and persistent they were. She finally had a meeting with them and she heard them out and said it’s a really good idea,” the executive director told the Mississippi Free Press.
The dining provider trained the students how to handle the food safely when taking it off campus, she said. They began donating food on Friday nights to a church down the street from the university. After a few months, they had recovered thousands of pounds of food, she said.
“Some of the students said we can expand this to other schools. So they got on their phones and started contacting their other friends across the country. For a while, it was just volunteers and very grassroots,” Anderson said.
The organization was given a grant in 2011 to become a nonprofit. Within a year, they had chapters at 24 schools, and today they have more than 180 active chapters and a full network of 230 chapters. They are considered the largest student-led nonprofit fighting hunger and food waste across the country, the executive director said.
‘To Pick, To Dig, To Gather’
Before the pandemic, 10 million tons of food every year was left on the farm field for a variety of reasons: too big, too small, too ripe, no contract, FRN Executive Director Anderson said.
“When the pandemic hit, all these farmers had contracts to grow x amount of blueberries, x amount of apples, x amount of lettuce. And then all those contracts were broken because their buyers were closing down. Their big contracts were decimated. So all these farmers had grown all this food, and they didn’t have anywhere to bring the food,” she said.
Some of the food was rotting in the fields or being tilled under. Since students are no longer on college campuses due to the pandemic, they’ve started to conduct work on farms by gleaning, she said, meaning that students visit farms and pick any produce left on the fields post harvest.
“With the pandemic, we’ve partnered with Farm Link, and we are helping them by providing volunteers to do gleaning work. We’ve been working for them for a couple of months, and we’ve already been able to prevent 450,000 pounds of food on the farm field from going to waste. We bring that food to food pantries,” Anderson said.
Farm Link is a nonprofit grassroots movement that connects farmers and food banks in order to feed those who need it, the site says. They collect surplus produce from farms and pay for it to be delivered to communities in need.
“If we can build in these structures now, when there are disruptions things don’t fall apart. So many farmers had one buyer, and when that one buyer cancelled, there was nothing behind them to support them,” Anderson said
Society of St. Andrew, a 41-year-old hunger-relief nonprofit, is the nation’s largest and oldest gleaning organization. Director of Marketing and Communications Andy Lemmon, based in Virginia, said gleaning is a biblical practice about 2,000 to 5,000 years old.
People who were wealthy and owned land for planting crops would instruct workers to not harvest the corners of their fields, where the crops were thinner and not as plentiful, he said.
“They would tell them to leave them, so that people from the community, who needed the food, but didn’t have the money to buy it, could harvest what was left in the field,” Lemmon told the Mississippi Free Press in July. “They could glean what the harvesters left behind. That’s what gleaning really means to pick, dig or gather after the harvest.”
The organization gleans greenhouses and farm fields. The growing season in Mississippi runs from June until October, which grants them the best opportunities to go behind farmers, he said. This year, gleaning has increased due to COVID-19 as more farmers are calling the organization due to the tons of food left over from cancelled contracts.
Huge industrial farms that are used to selling tens of millions of dollars worth of crops are having their contracts cancelled due to the pandemic. Wasting the food would be more of an expense, so they’d rather give it away, which is where gleaners come in, Lemmon said.
“When possible, they give us a call to work with them, so that we can get our volunteers into the field, harvest the good food that’s still there, and give it away for free to food banks, food pantries or people who need it,” he said.
Compared to last year, Lemmon said they are giving away 50% more food this year than last year due to the pandemic. The organization has rescued and shared more than 1,000,000 pounds of food in the state this year.
“The more and more farmers that work with us, the less food that’s being wasted. That’s a fact that you don’t have to have statistics for. “The more people that rescue the food instead of wasting it, the less it’s being wasted,” Lemmon said.
There are a multitude of reasons for why food waste occurs. Spoilage, which occurs at every stage of the production and the supply chain is one of them. Food loss can rise from problems during the drying, milling, transporting, or processing stage as food can be damaged by insects, rodents, birds, molds and bacteria, the USDA reports.
Not a high percentage of farmers employ gleaners to their farms, Lemmon said, with only a few hundred that participate in Mississippi. He has noticed two barriers that prevent some farmers from embracing gleaning, he said.
“One, a lot of farmers don’t understand is that we’re not asking them for any money, we’re not asking them to hire any workers,” Lemmon said. “We’re telling them we’re going to pay the volunteers. Second, other farmers who do know about us are kind of scared. They’re very scared that a volunteer may twist an ankle and sue them. (But) we carry our own liability insurance.”
‘Freezing, Canning and Food Sharing’
Boxes of fresh ripe, red roma tomatoes, not even two hours old, sit on Dr. Cindy Ayers Elliot’s kitchen counters. Dr. Ayers Elliot picked these tomatoes herself earlier that morning in the heat of the day, which was 88 degrees by the time Mississippi Free Press visited Footprint Farms on Aug. 7. The tomatoes will be sold to the public for the farm’s drive-up market and at the farmers market.
“This was a beautiful tomato, but you see a yellow sunspot, so it won’t go to the public. But we’ll take this and make something from it for the house before we throw it away. Some we’ll just throw away because they got bruised or too much sun,” Ayers Elliot said.
She said the sunspots mean that the leaves didn’t cover the produce as much, so they were getting a little more sun than necessary. USDA reports that food loss occurs for many reasons at every stage of the production and supply chain from drying and milling to transporting and processing. Equipment malfunction, over-ordering and culling of blemished produce can cause food loss.
In west Jackson, Foot Print Farms is a 68-acre specialty farm that grows fresh vegetables, raises livestock and is a developing site for agritourism located in the west Jackson community. Despite its size, Dr. Cindy Ayers Elliot, the founder of the farm, doesn’t employ gleaners on her farm because she doesn’t plant a large enough volume.
“These farmers that are using their farm for gleaners, they have markets for what they have already sold to or what they’re selling too. These are usually industrial-type large farms that are doing this,” Ayers Elliot told the Mississippi Free Press in July.
The pandemic has not set her farm back; in fact, they’re delivering CSA boxes to more than 600 families a week, she said. Ayers Elliot also hosts a drive-up market, where customers can preorder a 7-pound or 15-pound CSA box and pick it up at Footprint Farms from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. every Friday. If consumers forget to pre-order, they can still come to the farm at the allotted time, place their order, and a box will be prepared, she said.
Dr. Ayers Elliot said Mississippi is one-sided in only producing commodity crops that are sold outside the state, and most of the crops go to animals. Mississippi’s top exported goods are poultry, soybeans, corn, cattle and catfish with poultry bringing in $2.8 billion, according to Mississippi value of production estimates.
“They do not put anything major in place for its people as it relates to food. Edible for people, for humans. Mississippi has maybe one plant that actually does have value added for humans,” she said.
Tomatoes grown in Mississippi have to go outside the state to be made into tomato paste or tomato juice. Peas grown here are not canned or frozen here, Ayers-Elliot said.
“As a farmer, if I don’t sell two or three days after a harvest, I have no place to take it for it to become soup. I have no place to sell it for it to become a melody of veggies. That means that my shelf life is two or three days, where if there was a processing plant here, processing of fresh local fruits and veggies, they can go in freezers that can stay longer,” she said.
Ayers-Elliot already has a small cooler on her farm for storing produce after it is harvested. They’re expanding the farm by adding a bigger facility that will be used for cooling and storing produce post harvest, the farmer said.
“You have to have everything ready for the post-harvest, too. You have to have a place to keep it cool so you can keep it fresh, as well as to keep it for a longer shelf life. Imagine how long you can have something in a jar for canning; you can have it six or seven months to sell it versus having three days,” Ayers-Elliot said.
More food could be grown if facilities for canning and jarring existed. There would also need to be people to operate these facilities, so jobs could be created as well, the farmer added.
“Gins were put in place for cotton. Silos were put in place for soybeans. There’s a place for everything except for humans and Mississippians,” she said.
To preorder a CSA box from Footprint Farms, consumers can visit their Facebook page and use the order form at the top of the page. Along with debit or credit cards, they also take EBT payment and food vouchers.
‘Tips for Holidays’
Thanksgiving is this week, which means tons of food will be cooked and a lot thrown away. In 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation reported that on Thanksgiving Day, 172 million pounds of turkey, more than 150 million pounds of sides and 14 million pounds of dinner rolls was wasted nationwide.
Regina Anderson shared a few tips for curbing food waste for this holiday season and beyond. First, she said, freezers are a good way to keep food from going to waste, she said.
“When I really like something, when I put it in the freezer, not only do I label it with the date I put it in there, I’ll put yum. That’s like an indicator to myself this is good stuff. Freezing food is huge,” Anderson said.
Putting together “everything meals” is another good way to not waste food, where people make creative meals out of leftover food in their fridge or pantries, Anderson said. She also suggests that consumers take inventory of items in their kitchen, so they do not buy a product they already have. And there is an app called Olio, which is the Letgo or Offer Up of food, she said.
“We have this apple pie and these kabobs, and we don’t need this extra food because we’re going out of town. You can take a picture of your food, post it on Olio and your neighbor can get it. You’ll be surprised about who will comment that they want your dish,” Anderson said.