Eat Your View
By Robert Turner
My small farm in Arden, like many other regional farms, donates surplus produce to MANNA FoodBank. To get an idea of where some of this food goes, I jumped on a MANNA food truck and took a ride deep into the countryside. Way deep. Far into the hills and hollows of the more rural and remote mountain regions of WNC, where hunger hides among the green hills.
My drivers for the day were Bill Bass, a retired builder, and Bob Pace, a retired IT guy, both MANNA volunteers who make these runs regularly. Our plan was to set up a “pop-up food market” for the afternoon, with tables set up like a farmers market but with food free for the taking. Volunteer drivers like Bill and Bob made nearly 800 trips since the inception of the program and traveled 60,000 miles around the 16 counties that MANNA serves.
Bill averages two road trips like this every week and has made more than 125 trips since he started driving for the MANNA Volunteer Driving Program, which began in 2016. Although he’s retired now, he’s still as strong as an ox. As I found out, it’s a lot of work unloading and setting up all of that food.
MANNA distributed well over 19 million pounds of food over the past year, with more than 1.1 million pounds distributed by 50 volunteer drivers like Bill and Bob. If you average it out, they distribute more than 1,200 pounds of food to hungry households on every pop-up market trip. That’s a lot of boxes to move around.
Bill says of the work, “It keeps me active.” That’s an understatement.
But there are two sides to this story. This food not only helps feed hungry households in WNC, where one in four children face food insecurity, but the program also reclaims tons of food that would otherwise be wasted and end up in a landfill.
The fact is that the amount of food we waste in the US would feed another country—a very large country. About 40 percent of our food is going to waste, and that represents about 20 pounds of food per person per week. It comes to about $165 billion per year in wasted food. And it comes from points all along the food chain.
Potential waste comes from grocery stores and distributors as food approaches the “sell-by” date, or because it has a slight blemish or is misshapen in some way. At home, we throw out about 25 percent of the food that we buy.
The greenhouse gases that we emit just to grow all of that wasted food, using our fossil fuel-intensive system, is enough to rank third in the world for emissions. The vast amounts of water we use to irrigate that wasted food is more water than is used by any other country.
Food waste makes up a big, gooey chunk of the municipal solid waste in landfills and it’s the number two item that goes in there, behind paper. Food waste emits greenhouse gases in the form of methane as it decomposes.
Thankfully, in partnership with more than 60 grocery stores, retail businesses and produce packing houses, MANNA rescues much of this perfectly good food that would otherwise end up in a landfill. From surplus milk and cheese to fresh fruits and vegetables to pasta, canned beans and corn, nothing gets wasted and people get fed.
More than 80 percent of the food MANNA distributes is donated. Besides the aforementioned partners, MANNA also receives food from more than 60 local farmers, food drives and individuals. Perishable produce that can’t be distributed goes back to a farm to feed livestock and will end up on a plate as bacon some day. MANNA is a leader in green waste initiatives.
When we finally reached our destination where we would set up shop for the day in the parking lot of a small church, people who came for the food began helping to unload the truck. They grabbed boxes and brought them over to the eight tables we had set up, opening the boxes and arranging the food nicely. It turned into a colorful display, a little island of brightly colored cans and fruits and vegetables, an oasis of colorful food in the middle of a food desert.
I was standing on the back of the truck with Bill when a little kid came up to me and asked, “Can I have one of those watermelons?”
Bill said with a big smile, “Sure you can,” and he leaned down and handed the boy one off the truck. As he stood back up, he looked at me and said, “That’s why I do this.”
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.