The coming months will be pivotal in the fight against hunger. Decades of progress have been set back because of the pandemic. In 2019, 2 billion people did not have regular access to safe and nutritious meals; in 2020, this number increased precipitously.
Part of our The Future of Food Systems series
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Perhaps most shockingly, while billions of people face food insecurity, enough food is currently produced to feed everyone on the planet, yet one-third is wasted. And while the nexus between hunger and food waste is well known, the COVID-19 crisis has made finding a solution to these problems all the more urgent.
These issues are enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 2 to achieve zero hunger, and SDG 12.3 to halve global per capita food waste, and are front and center in the discussions leading up to the U.N. Food Systems Summit in September. However, summit participants seeking to transform how the world produces and consumes food needn’t look far for potential solutions. Local hunger organizations, food banks in particular, hold promise as potential game-changers to address the paradox of hunger and food loss and waste.
Saving food, saving the planet, saving lives
Food banks are community-based organizations that procure excess food and direct it to food-insecure populations. They partner with local institutions — such as schools, health organizations, job training programs, and senior centers — to improve food access and support wrap-around services to vulnerable populations.
In October 2020, The Global FoodBanking Network released a study of more than 1,000 food banks in 70 countries to learn how they are helping to reduce food waste and loss, have a positive impact on the environment, and reduce hunger.
Today this grassroots model for addressing both hunger and food loss and waste is happening in more than 60 countries, including in dozens of emerging and developing markets. From Bogotá to Nairobi to Mumbai, tens of thousands of community leaders — with the support of local companies and civil society — are connecting wholesome, edible surplus food to those facing hunger.
When aggregated, these local efforts amount to a significant global response: in 2019 food banks assisted 66.5 million people facing hunger while redirecting 3.75 million metric tons of nutritious, surplus food from landfills. This prevented an estimated 12.39 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of 2.7 million passenger vehicles.
Yet the upsetting images of piles of excess crops and food products this past year are a testament to how much more could be done to connect our abundant food supply with significant demand. In non-pandemic times it is estimated that 30%-40% of post-harvest production is lost in developing markets because of the lack of the technology and infrastructure to preserve, handle, and transport the food to market.
“[W]hile billions of people face food insecurity, enough food is currently produced to feed everyone on the planet, yet one-third is wasted”— Lisa Moon, president and CEO of the Global FoodBanking Network
In many places, it is cheaper and less risky to throw food away than it is to direct it to those in need. So pronounced is the impact of food loss and waste on the environment that if the greenhouse gases from food landfills were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world, following the United States and China.
With the right support, food banks can play an even more pivotal role in achieving the SDGs. Food recovery operations in dozens of countries are proof positive that producers view food banks as valuable partners in extending food supply chains to vulnerable populations and reducing the environmental impact and cost of food loss and waste.
A global approach with local impact
For example, in produce-rich Mexico, the national food bank network, Bancos de Alimentos de México, or BAMX, utilizes farm gleaning and agricultural food rescue to provide nutritionally high-quality and varied food options for those facing food insecurity. BAMX’s food banks move the fresh food through its fleet of more than 400 vehicles, as well as through partnerships with transporters.
For quality assurance, BAMX trains local food bank staff on safely handling and moving the food. According to the most recent data collected by BAMX, its large-scale food rescue operation saved 48 million kilos of fresh produce from waste and has helped 1.4 million Mexicans in need, including 553,705 children in 2019.
In India, pre-COVID, No Food Waste worked with local governments, catering associations, restaurant associations, and other vendors to collect excess food from weddings, events, and corporate conferences. To determine where the food should be donated, the food bank developed an app that geo-locates “hunger spots,” such as orphanages, shelter homes, or schools.
The app provides No Food Waste volunteers and staff with the location, contact details, and an estimate of the number of people needing food at the site. Food donors may also use the app to determine a hunger spot nearby and deliver the food themselves. The food bank estimates that this strategy helped No Food Waste serve nearly 200,000 people a year in 11 cities across India.
And Food Banking Kenya, which, according to internal project data, served 41,600 people in 2020, collects nutritious, surplus food from large-scale farms, smallholder farmers, and the retail sector, and distributes these food products to organized community groups that improve food access.
Like many start-up NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa, this relatively new food bank experienced difficulties finding funding initially. However, recent donor support provided funds to help the food bank invest in new transportation equipment and storage facilities. These new investments will help Food Banking Kenya build the capacity to rescue and distribute more food to more people.
Bold ambitions, bold actions, bold partnerships
The bold ambitions of the SDGs, including zero hunger and halving food loss and waste by 2030, must be matched with bold actions. Resourceful food banks are an integral component of a sustainable and resilient food system; with the right support, they could make an even bigger difference in their communities.
This support includes raising awareness which will help food banks engage more food producers for recovery and redirection. Also investing in these local organizations which, in emerging and developing markets, can serve many thousands of people with incredibly lean budgets. And finally partnering, because stronger connections with governments will help increase food access for those in need and address some of the policy barriers to food donation.
With less than a decade remaining until the 2030 deadline, we have been knocked too far off our course toward eradicating hunger. This year is crucial if we are to get back on track. Food banks are on the frontlines of this crisis. Now is the moment for bold ambitions, bold actions, and bold partnerships.
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