What’s it going to take to wake Americans up to the staggering problem of food waste? An enormous communal meal made from what otherwise might be pitched as garbage could be a start.
For the first time since its launch in London five years ago, the social media–savvy event Feeding the 5,000 is coming to U.S. shores, specifically Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 18. Conceived by the British NGO Feedback, the gathering serves up a public feast made entirely out of food destined for the Dumpster—the sort of perfectly edible, nourishing stuff that routinely gets tossed, thanks to a notoriously wasteful food-supply chain.
It’s just this kind of wanton waste that Feeding the 5,000 seeks to spotlight. The United Nations estimates that the world wastes 1.3 billion tons of food every year, or a full third of the amount that’s produced—a percentage that’s estimated to be higher in wealthy countries such as the U.S. While Feeding the 5,000 cleverly evokes the story of Jesus’ transformation of five loaves of bread and two fish into a bounty for the masses, it turns out we don’t need a miracle to feed the world’s hungry: We could feed 3 billion people by reducing food waste, reports Feedback founder and food-waste activist Tristram Stuart.
Food loss and waste in North America is the highest in the world, according to the U.N., with more than 660 pounds discarded per person annually. Europe comes a close second (about 620 pounds per person), but while the issue appears to be garnering more widespread attention across the pond—Feeding the 5,000 events have cropped up in Paris, Dublin, Brussels, and other cities since 2009—it has been stubbornly slow to gain traction in the U.S.
In 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2020, and the United Kingdom seeks to do the same by 2025. Britain’s slick, consumer-friendly Love Food Hate Waste campaign has demonstrated particular success. It's attributed with generating an 18 percent drop in food waste and an impressive eight-pound savings in the cost of disposing that waste for every one pound spent on the campaign. A report released by a House of Lords committee last April called for even more aggressive action, taking supermarket chains to task for promotions like “buy one, get one free” offers that encourage people to purchase more food than they need (creating additional waste) and demanding that the new European Commission come up with a five-year strategy for food-waste prevention when it is established in November.
"Food waste in the E.U. and the U.K. is clearly a huge issue,” Baroness Scott of Needham Market, chair of the House of Lords committee, said in a statement. “Not only is it morally repugnant, but it has serious economic and environmental implications.”
Morally repugnant! You’d be hard-pressed to find an American politician speaking out like that against food waste. As Dana Gunders, author of a landmark 2012 report on the issue for the Natural Resources Defense Council, has pointed out, the U.S. government has done “close to nothing” to tackle the problem of food waste. Feeding the 5,000 in Oakland may be just what we need to kick-start action.