By Erica Flock
“Free lunch?” I said, as I passed out fliers to commuters coming out of the Metro station in downtown Washington, DC. Standing beside me was a man dressed as a watermelon doing the same. Blocks away, more volunteers were preparing to feed thousands people for free later that afternoon.
But the size of this meal wasn’t the only thing that made it novel. This lunch was being prepared entirely with fresh food that would have otherwise been wasted.
Usually the topic of food waste is a grim one and rightly so. Over a third of food is wasted in the US - on farms, in restaurants, in grocery stores, and in our homes. A shocking 52 million tons of food is sent to landfills every year - it’s a tremendous waste of resources, and a travesty in country where nearly 50 million Americans are food insecure.
But the organization Feedback - with help from EarthShare member charity Natural Resources Defense Council and others, has created a fun way to help solve the issue.
Feeding the 5000 makes the case that saving food can be a delicious community activity. From the volunteers that unite to prepare vegetables the night before to the thousands that line up to get paella and sweet potato curry prepared by local chefs, the event creates a sense of shared commitment to fighting food waste.
The first Feeding the 5000 event took place in London in 2009 and has travelled across Europe - to Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and more. It’s garnered major press around the issue of food waste, and importantly, policy changes. In 2012, the European Union committed to cutting food waste in half by 2025; major UK retailers have agreed to release food waste data, and the UN Environmental Programme launched its “Cut Your Foodprint” campaign.
Now Feedback’s signature program has made it to the US, with inaugural events in New York City and Washington, DC in 2016. Each Feeding the 5000 event also involves local groups like EarthShare Mid-Atlantic member FRESHFARM Markets that work tirelessly year round to create a sustainable, equitable food system.
After eating some delicious food (prepared in the middle of Woodrow Wilson Plaza in giant fry pans), I wander the booths of local businesses and nonprofits, and federal agencies that are fighting food waste in my city. A local beekeeper showed off one of her hives while staff from the Environmental Protection Agency explained the importance of pollinators; DC Greens and DC Central Kitchen told visitors how they’re not only saving food, but growing education and instigating important policy changes in the city.
And there were social entrepreneurs too. Like the young founders of the MEANS Database who explained how their computer program connects surplus food with those who need it. When small food bank got a donation of thousands of cans of unwanted tomato sauce, MEANS figured out where to send it.
Feeding the 5000 DC couldn’t have happened at a timelier moment. After last month's publication of the ReFED report, interest in fighting food waste has surged.
In May, a group of big-name chefs and food waste advocates met with members of Congress and President Obama’s staff in Washington DC to deliver a petition expressing public support for fighting food waste. They also came with solutions, like proposals for better packaging and labeling; public education campaigns; waste-fighting software; and tax incentives for food donations.
From community gardens to food banks, environmental groups, to tech companies, solving the crisis of food waste will take a collaborative effort. But if the enthusiasm present at Feeding the 5000 was any indication, this is a problem we’re capable of tackling.
To find out more about food waste and Feeding the 5000, visit http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/feeding-the-5000/.