The Role of Food Waste in the Fight Towards Food Justice


Food security food justice food waste

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Many people worldwide see the United States as the land of opportunity -- a place where dreams are filled and benefits abound. In reality, though, glaring problems face Americans, with a staggering percentage of the population facing food insecurity due to income levels or compromised access to food sources.   

The Struggle of US Food Insecurity
Food insecurity, defined as a person’s lack of access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, exists in every country worldwide, even wealthy countries. The United States is the wealthiest country globally, yet it sadly ranks within the top 10 countries for food insecurity. 

  • Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 13.7 million U.S. households (more than 35 million Americans ), or about 10.5% of the population, encountered food insecurity in 2019.
  • According to researchers at Northwestern University, food insecurity more than doubled to 23% of households due to the outbreak’s economic impacts.

When the demographics are studied, a disproportionate number of people experiencing food injustice in 2019 come from BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities. 

Attaining Food Justice in Urban Areas

So how does food justice come into the picture? It’s a holistic approach to the current food system’s ineptitudes that views healthy food as a fundamental human right. Communities have a given right to either grow or have access to healthy food and should exercise this right to reduce food insecurity.

One of the primary factors contributing to food insecurity is the percentage of households situated in food deserts. The U.S Department of Agriculture considers an urban food desert an area with low access to fresh, nutritious food within one mile; rural food deserts are areas 10 miles or more from the nearest market. An estimated 23 million Americans live in food deserts, with more than half of them coming from low-income areas.

Challenge #1: Land Ownership
Traditional food production isn’t a feasible option in urban areas for many reasons. Land ownership is difficult to obtain, and available land may pose safety concerns that prevent it from being used for cultivation.

Land ownership is disproportionately divided between races and ethnicities. Black Americans are the least likely to own homes -- 42.1% in 2019 compared to a much larger 73.3% of white non-Hispanic Americans. The disparity is even wider in agricultural lands, with white people accounting for 96% of owner-operators between 2012 and 2014; farmers of color comprise less than 4%. The Justice for Black Farmers Act, a new Senate bill released in November 2020 aims to reverse historical racial wrongs and allow Black farmers to reclaim 160 acres each, free of charge, through a system of land grants via the Department of Agriculture. 

Many underserved urban communities frequently live within proximity to landfills, waste transfer stations, or industrial facilities and have major road thoroughfares running through them. Not only is available land dwindling as landfills expand and industries grow, but residents face increasing health and environmental problems: air pollution from greenhouse gases emitted from waste in landfills and factories, as well as the contamination of water supplies and soil.

Challenge #2: Price of Urban Agriculture Products

Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) offers an excellent opportunity for urban food production to transform food deserts, bringing food justice to impoverished communities. But urban agriculture faces challenges such as immense energy demands and considerable resource expenditures that result in a higher cost of goods that are unaffordable for low-income families. On average, it is three to five times more costly to grow produce in indoor, soilless systems than conventional farming practices. In such, a head of conventionally grown lettuce retails for less than $1 at the market; lettuce grown in a greenhouse or vertical farm is marked to sell between $2 and $3.

Opportunity: Reassessing Food Waste
Currently, 30-40% of total US food produced, approximately 126 million tons, ends up as refuse in landfills. The staggering increase in food waste is a newer concern, brought about by a change in our modern relationship with food, described by Re-Nuble’s Head of Business Development & Strategy, Riyana Razalee.

“This is ironic though as families, especially BIPOC communities, traditionally knew how to manage food waste. The Western modern narrative has changed our relationship with food significantly; a disconnect now exists as people don’t see the value of their food in its entirety, leading to staggering waste.” - Riyana Razalee, Head of Business Development & Strategy, Re-Nuble

Diverting food waste from landfills and upcycling it into products that promote closed-loop agriculture systems is a modernistic concept, yet it holds much potential. Re-Nuble centers its core beliefs on this mission -- redirecting food waste to create biostimulant products for soilless farming systems to reduce the consumption and manufacturing of synthetic fertilizers. Waste can also be used as a biofuel, helping to power urban indoor agriculture and lowering operating costs. 

These novel approaches to food waste help improve urban food justice in a three-pronged approach.

  • Opening up land ownership and cultivation opportunities as less waste is diverted to landfills.
  • Making healthy foods from indoor farms more accessible and economically feasible. 
  • Reducing the environmental impacts in communities close to landfills and waste transfer stations. 
Changing the narrative surrounding food waste to utilize it sustainably is a necessary albeit not easy task. As the perspective shifts, it will help to make food justice and healthier communities attainable. While grassroots movements are integral in moving the needle, city planners, sustainability directors (municipal or corporate), as well as municipal stakeholders need to also be active and intentional with their work, something that Re-Nuble is able to assist with in terms solutions on how to use food waste streams as an economic development and food justice enabler.