“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way,” said Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
In short, the period Dickens described in 1859 is much like today.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 38 million people in our nation — 13.9 million of them children — live in households that suffer from hunger or live on the edge of hunger. This hunger and “food insecurity” are far too widespread in our wealthy society. Hunger in the United States is a problem that can be solved.
Another report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals we waste 96 billion pounds of food in America each year. A recent study from the University of Arizona at Tucson discloses that almost half the food in the country goes to waste — a statistic that should alarm an industry that is struggling to achieve greater efficiency in order to salvage profits.
Message to Mission Control: “We have a problem here.” It’s time to bring in the heavy hitters. As a start, we can assemble a table for four of the weightiest. Together they can find the answer to our problem.
Chair #1: The Queen of England knows all about losses. The British throne lost the 13 colonies: now, the United States of America. It lost India, (The Jewel in the Crown), Hong Kong and many other colonies, protectorates and dominions. Her Majesty also lost the Royal Yacht. She’s down to two castles and one palace. Even so, her annual operating costs for running the Royal Household soared to $80 million last year. Her photograph is printed on the British currency but she still has to pay hefty taxes. Some days the Queen dines in sumptuous elegance and luxury. Other days her solitary supper is served on a folding table in front of the television. She sees both sides now. She has noticed, “We are wasting far too much food and must pay attention to leftovers.” Hold that thought.
Chair #2: Seated at the table next to the Queen is a chair reserved for Warren Buffett, the sage of Omaha. His $58 billion fortune made him the richest man on the planet, but he’s recently lost a staggering amount of his fortune in the global melt down. There’s one bright spot for him though. The home in which he still lives may be one of the few in North America that hasn’t declined in value since he bought it in 1958 for $31,500.
He bought Wrigley’s gum — the company — in 2008 for a cool $23 billion. Since then, he’s been chewing things over. (He also owns stock in Coca-Cola, beer, (Anheuser-Busch), and Pringles potato chips.) Warren Buffett is a man of simple tastes. He eats at fast food restaurants. He knows all about remaining profitable or semi-profitable or not losing. While people are hungry for many different things, Warren Buffett says, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Hold that thought.
Chair #3: Dr. Tim Ryan is the president of The Culinary Institute of America. He occupies the third seat at the table. He is a chef. Big Time! He started his professional life as a dishwasher so he is qualified to address the current despondency in the restaurant business from the ground up. He also is a Master Chef and one of only five Americans ever to receive the Presidential Medal from the World Association of Cooks Societies. He knows everything about kitchens and cooks and all things culinary. He says, “It’s exciting to see that people are going ‘green’ in every facet of their lives. Dining habits are no exception. I believe smaller carbon footprint foods will become more popular and further gain prominence.” Hold that thought.
Chair #4: Danny Meyer completes the table. He is a prince among men, adored by his staff, his guests, his purveyors and everyone who has ever met him, near, far or through his writings. He doesn’t own a palace: his restaurants are his castles. His restaurants and chefs have earned an astonishing, unprecedented 17 James Beard Awards for Excellence.
He doesn’t chew gum. He is not a chef. He is a restaurateur. He isn’t a sage but he is one of the three wise men. This means he knows a whole lot about restaurants and the people who dine in restaurants. He says, “I think people learn to trust that you get more when you first give more. They learn that the best way to get a hug, is first to give one.”
As we gather together all these thoughts we realize that it takes only a small group of influential people to solve a problem. Every problem.
Our current pressing problem is we are not adequately matching the quantity of food we are throwing away —wasting—with its intrinsic value to the millions of people who need good food to eat.
We’ve all heard about the difficulties and the ‘what if’s’ of distributing foodservice leftovers. Yet, now is the time to change our thinking. The hospitality industry could and should become more hospitable. A restaurant, a catering service, indeed every company that serves food runs risks. Surely we could at the very least offer our leftovers to those who would be grateful to receive the untouched remainders from a banquet, a wedding feast or when the restaurant closes. We can also look to organizations like Share Our Strength for guidance on how to get started.
“Today’s slowing economy is having an impact on the restaurant industry; it is experiencing its steepest traffic losses,” announced the NPD Group. Maybe restaurants could receive a tax break if they distribute their surplus food with those who live nearby and are willing to accept it. We would not have to waste a lot of time and fuel or impose a heavy footed carbon imprint to reach them. The inconvenience is a small price to pay for something so valuable.
As Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” Together we can offer a gift of hope. And give and receive a warm hug.