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Food Forward: A New Salvo in California's Historic War on Food Waste

Fruit gleaning is everywhere these days.
Fruit gleaning is everywhere these days.

Today I reported about Food Forward in a public orchard, a follow up in a way from Stephanie O'Neill's lovely story about backyard picks last December. Food Forward tries to call attention to food waste. I didn't know that when I went out recently to Orcutt Ranch. I just thought it was going to be a lovely damp morning with a friend-of-a-friend's birthday party. 

When I got to Orcutt, I saw piles of fruit on the ground, and it reminded me of one of my O.G. favorite authors, John Steinbeck, whose haunting images of food waste, where "the smell of rot fills the country," animate Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath:

The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce. Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow. 

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?

According to the EPA, the 33 million tons of food waste that made it to landfills and incinerators last year represent "the single largest component of [city waste]." And last year the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations released a study it commissioned from the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, in which I learned that industrialized and developing countries waste food nearly equally.

It's just that here in California, we waste it when it's not fresh, when there's too much of it, when it seems old, in stores and in our pantries. We waste it when we leave it behind. In other places, the waste is infrastructure-related. It rots before it makes it to refrigeration, or in piles in the sun, or without packaging. (On a different topic, I was intrigued by the report's arguments that in North America and Oceania, half of fish and seafood caught is wasted.) 

What all this means about Food Forward is that they're motivated by the belief that food waste doesn't have to be a violent act, food taken by force, as in that part of Grapes of Wrath. Those times about which Steinbeck wrote were an active and open economic war in which hungry people became hostages. People at Food Forward and other gleaning groups around the country see neglect as a sort of violence, too, no less important for being so much more subtle.