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Farm To Landfill: What New Research Shows Us About Food Waste

Fresh vegetable cups prepared for the National School Lunch Program at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, Wednesday, October 19, 2011. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service operating in public, nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.
Bob Nichols
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Fresh vegetable cups prepared for the National School Lunch Program at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, Wednesday, October 19, 2011. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service operating in public, nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

While there’s been a lot of national attention on reducing food waste, there’s still plenty of food that — instead of going from farm to table — ends up in the landfill.

Last week, research led and released by Roni Neff, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, examined the amount of nutrients contained in the nearly 40 percent of food that goes uneaten in the United States.

The results are staggering.

According to the study, if recovered, that wasted food could be used to provide a healthy diet to over 80 percent of the American population. And fruits and vegetables are among the items most likely to be tossed out.

While recovering all the produce headed to the landfill obviously isn’t possible, Stephanie Wooten, executive director of Glean Kentucky, says it’s a good place to start in fighting hunger in the state.

“So gleaning is a very old word — it’s a biblical word,” Wooten says. “It used to mean you know, the farmers would sort of intentionally leave the corners of their fields for those in their community that were in need and the gleaners were the people who came out and picked from the field.”

Glean Kentucky is a modern spin on that. Wooten organizes volunteers to pick up produce from gardens, orchards or farms that doesn’t end up in grocery stores.

“There’s an enormous amount of food that is, for whatever reason, not able to be sold,” Wooten says. “It doesn’t meet certain standards of a grocery store or a farmers market or there isn’t labor to harvest it or package it. Whatever the reason it may be, we see a lot of food that would otherwise be thrown in a landfill if we weren’t able to glean it.”

Wooten emphasizes there’s nothing wrong with this produce — it isn’t moldy or sour. It just isn’t sold. Glean Kentucky then redistributes that produce to food pantries and other organizations that fight hunger.

Since its founding in 2010, Glean Kentucky has redistributed over 1 million pounds of produce that otherwise would have been thrown away.

Wooten says one of their biggest challenges is keeping up that momentum during non-growing seasons.

She says, currently, they are looking to find other businesses — including more grocery stores and farmers markets — to partner with so they can provide produce during the winter months.