First, I’m really grateful for the great speakers we were able to hear from the last few classes. In thinking about all that I heard and the paraphrase from Frederick Buechner, I was struck by the approach of one of our speakers that helped me realize what type of work I’d like to be involved in this semester and beyond. I’m afraid this my end up sounding like an attack but I truly don’t mean that.
Last Tuesday, Mr. Lutz (of Hungry Harvest) spoke to our class and discussed his approach to food system waste. He talked about how at each point along the journey from seed to the consumption there are huge inefficiencies that add up to 40% of food being wasted. He, correctly in my view, connected that problem to the malnutrition problem. His approach to tackling these problems involved a business model for recovering produce waste, selling the food through a home delivery service and donating an amount of food equal to the amount sold. I was shocked to learn how grocers typically over-order (presumably to ensure they don’t under-order, I guess?? should have asked) from distributors and then when the food is delivered tell the driver to keep whatever they don’t need. The drivers are instructed to throw the perfectly good food away in the name of efficiency, rather than having the driver take it to a food kitchen or some other grocer nearby. It’s very interesting that somehow, in our system, throwing perfectly good food away while people go hungry is “efficient”. Also, at some point he talked about how a farmer might not harvest his entire crop if it’s not profitable. It reminded me of this article I read months ago.
Just to summarize, volunteers glean the unharvested food and give it to hungry people. In the article the farmer is quoted, “There’s times I don’t know what I would do without them, because we grow a lot more than our markets can use. And so it’s good to have an outlet for that,” It’s interesting to note that somehow hungry people nearby are not a part of the “market” for good, healthy food. I understand what he means; he can’t sell it to them. If there’s no money to be made he’s not going to spend the resources (time, energy, etc.) to harvest the food. If he did he’d probably lose a significant amount of money. Anyway… back to my point.
Eventually, Mr. Lutz made the point that we have to make it so that it is more financially sound to sell the food to Hungry Harvest (or some other food waste program) than throw it all away. And that is where my issue is. This approach is for reform of the current system not transformation to a better system (more on why both are important later). Ultimately, the problem is not that the incentives aren’t set correctly. The problem is very clearly a food system that is built on making short-term profit and not making the best long-term decision for the people and communities it serves. The problem is that profit trumps people. In short, the problem is capitalism. Capitalism is a system that pushes people and the rest of the natural world to the limits and beyond. It commodifies everything, including humans. Capitalism leads to decisions that deplete the land to the point it is unusable, in the name of profit. Capitalism leads to choices like throwing food away rather than feeding hungry people because, you know, it’s cheaper. Essentially what happens is decisions are made by individuals and small groups of people that affect many, many more people who had no say. That’s almost the definition of tyranny. We can see this clearly with the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada wants to make a decision that literally could put us over the tipping point of catastrophic, irreversible climate change ending civilization as we know it, so they can improve their quarterly profit. Interestingly, it’s the ‘uncivilized’ and ‘backwards’ indigenous populations that are taking the most sane and responsible actions to save our future (not to mention our children and grandchildren).
I do sympathize with Mr. Lutz’s concerns about the non-profit system; however, I see nothing Hungry Harvest is doing that couldn’t be done by a non-profit where any ‘profits’ would go into feeding more people. You can still pay people good salaries. You can still bring in funds by selling the food and also take donations. I also worry about a for-profit model that allows you to ‘get investors’. Presumably, the investors would be investing to make money: otherwise that’s called a loan or a donation. However, I wonder what happens when some big investors realize they can get a larger return if Hungry Harvest gives food to one person for every two people that sign-up instead of 1 for 1. I bet they could make more money if they did 5 sign-ups for 1 donation or 10 for 1. And even if Mr. Lutz and his co-founding partners would like to resist that direction they would run into another issue. If you rely on investors, they have the power to leverage their stake and say “Hey, if you don’t do this – I’m pulling my money out.” And then I can imagine a conversation that ends with, “Well, if we don’t do this we won’t be able to feed anyone. It’s definitely better to help some people. And hey, we’re still recovering a lot of food waste.”
Let me be clear though, I am glad Hungry Harvest exists and I hope they grow wildly successful… at feeding people and reducing food waste. All of this brought to mind something I heard Noam Chomsky say in an interview on YouTube years ago. Below is the link – starting at about 6:20 he is discussing why someone who thinks ultimately there should be no nation-state would support reforms to the system instead of outright dissolution of the system:
The important part for me is the idea that if we’re serious, we want to see people’s lives improved. Feeding people through Hungry Harvest is a great thing and, again, I wish them, and anyone who joins their project success. The other important point for me is that we can’t remove a rotten system unless we show that even when we make it as humane and socially responsible as possible, it “cannot satisfy our needs”. We should be pushing the system to its limits in terms of reform that improves people’s lives and simultaneously creating new institutions based on the fundamental human values and principles we cherish (justice, equality, democracy, solidarity, etc.) so eventually new institutions can step in and provide for society. That framework leads me to a choice. Do I feel I can make a bigger, better impact by pressing for reform or helping to create new institutions? I have decided I feel more passionate and drawn to the latter. That’s why I will not be participating in the Hungry Harvest project which I consider in the ‘reformist’ category. Alternatively, I feel there is great potential though in the Edmondson Village Farmer’s Market for a community centered project that is part of the community, responds to the community, addresses their problems and concerns, and gives people an empowering experience. I have experience doing door-to-door organizing and I feel I can help lead some canvassing teams to reach out to the people in the area and make this farmer’s market a real part of the community. Although I hope to make the farmer’s market my primary project I hope to contribute to some of these other projects as well. I’d like to work with the Baltimore Orchard Project, as it seems to be an interesting way to give communities some autonomy. Rosa’s presentation on the IRC project also seems to be a great way to help empower the refugee community. The last project I’m really interested in is Dominic’s permaculture project. It seems like a great way to create a community that is focused on sustainability and give people some idea about how we could ultimately be free of our current food system.
Phew… I’m going to bed now.