On Wednesday, May 18th, a one-day food festival will offer free meals to 5,000 people at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. The event is designed to educate the public on the problem of food waste, and to elevate the conversation around food and sustainability policy.
Recent research estimates that the U.S. alone spends $218 billion a year growing, processing and transporting food that is never eaten, with up to 63 million tons of perfectly edible food ending up in American landfills each year, while roughly 49 million Americans live in food-insecure households.
Feeding the 5000 is the flagship campaigning event from London-based Feedback, an environmental organization dedicated to ending food waste at every level of the food system by working with governments, global institutions and businesses, NGOs, grassroots organizations and the public. The objective of the meal is to send a loud message to decision makers that there is strong public demand for food waste reduction across the supply chain, and citizens want government and businesses to take tangible action to tackle it.
Feedback founder Tristram Stuart, a long-time Champion of the issue, authored Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal in 2009. hortly thereafter, he organized the first Feeding the 5000 event in London’s Trafalgar Square. Since then Feedback has held over 34 Feeding the 5000 events worldwide - from Paris to Dublin, Manchester, Sydney, Amsterdam, Brussels, Oakland, Barcelona and Kenya - equating to more than 170,000 meals served from donated, surplus food. With the support of The Rockefeller Foundation and a coalition of partners including Food Tank, NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, the EPA, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the James Beard Foundation, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and many others, Feedback brought Feeding the 5000 to NYC’s Union Square on May 10.
We spoke with Feedback's managing director, Niki Charalampopoulou, there to learn more about the organization’s impact on this systemic failure affecting the entire Western world. She reported a lot of momentum generated, particularly on the retail front.
“Businesses have started responding to the public pressure created through our campaigns,” she said. “Retailers in Europe have increased the amount they donate to charity and others, such as Asda and Sainsbury’s in the UK, have relaxed their cosmetic standards,” she said.
“Following a challenging but constructive dialogue with Feedback, Tesco has also become the first supermarket globally that now transparently publishes their third-party audited food waste data – in their own operations as well as starting to look at their supply chains,” she continued. “They have also relaxed their cosmetic standards for green beans, following our food waste in Kenya report that revealed enormous waste in overseas supply chains As a result, Tesco no longer trim the Kenyan green beans they sell, which leads to up to 30 percent reduction in the waste of this particular crop.”
As for the actual mechanics of getting the food to the feast for 5000, Charalampopoulou explained, “For NYC, surplus food was donated by Hunts Point wholesale markets and Baldor Specialty Foods, vegetables from the catering industry as well as beautiful fresh produce such as carrots and spinach that volunteers gleaned through Salvation Farms in Vermont. Getting the ingredients from source to plate involves a mix of flexible and last-minute logistics, as well as incredible volunteers. We are fortunate enough to be working with inspirational chefs who do heroic work turning the ingredients into a delicious feast at the last minute.”
Charalampopoulou said last week’s New York event exceeded expectations.
“For the first time we fed more than 10,000 people,” she said. “We served over 5,500 meals, and amazing chefs at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen and Great Performances had prepared another 5000 meals on the basis of the ingredients we sourced, which were distributed to kitchens and food pantries across the city via the networks of our partner, City Harvest. Hundreds of volunteers in NYC helped make the event happen.”
As it’s impossible to miss the homage to Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 in the Bible, Charalampopoulou told us, “Although we are not a religious organization, the name is indeed inspired by the Biblical story; after Feeding the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, he said ‘gather all the pieces, let nothing be wasted.’ All religious texts regard food waste as morally wrong, including the Koran.
“The name and format of the event is also a parallel to the Biblical story as it could be seen as a modern-day miracle to come up with enormous amounts of food that no-one thought existed – hidden from the public eye and sequestered in farms, packhouses and wholesale markets - to fill the appetite of large crowds,” she added. “This is a parallel to the story of our current food system. Over one billion people are food-insecure and we need to feed an ever-increasing global population. Some are advocating that the solution is to increase food production. Yet globally we waste 1/3 of the food we produce, and in rich countries like the US that figure is closer to 40 percent; most of this food waste could be easily avoided.”