October 16, 2020

Food insecurity impacts more than 1.4 million people in North Carolina. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers have increased.

On October 16, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations celebrates World Food Day to promote awareness of world hunger and the need to provide healthy food for all global citizens. This year’s World Food Day — which also marks the 75th anniversary of the FAO — is a good day to reflect on the weaknesses in food systems that COVID-19 has brought to light, and it is an opportunity to celebrate and learn from the “food heroes” who are making food systems more resilient in the wake of the pandemic.

Dr. Alice Ammerman

Dr. Alice Ammerman

The Gillings School’s own food hero is Alice Ammerman, DrPH, Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor in the Department of Nutrition and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Ammerman is working with the Food Recovery Task Force, part of the North Carolina Local Food Council. Council colleagues include Angel Cruz, PhD, from North Carolina State University; Jared Cates, MSW, with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association; and Ethan Phillips, an undergraduate student in the Department of Health Policy and Management. The team has a wide array of experiences working in local food systems, and they are using these experiences to reduce food waste across the state.

The Environmental Protection Agency reported that 41 million tons of food were wasted in the United States in 2017 — that’s roughly 40% of all food produced in the country. This waste occurs at multiple stages in the food system — from farm to fork, everyone along the chain holds responsibility.

From an environmental perspective, this is devastating. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest contributor to greenhouse gases each year (PDF). From a public health perspective, this is a lost opportunity.

While fully solving the problem of food insecurity will require addressing systemic problems and institutional inequities, immediate food needs can be met in a straightforward manner through food banks and similar organizations. By donating excess food to these organizations, food vendors such as restaurants, caterers and college dining halls have a unique opportunity to be a part of the solution. Instead, much of their excess food goes to waste.

Last year, local food councils brought this issue before North Carolina state leadership. In response, the Food Recovery Task Force was created. Ammerman and the task force began their work by looking at barriers to recovering this excess food. They surveyed food vendors and learned that vendors want to donate, but lack knowledge about how to do so safely while not incurring liability should someone get sick. North Carolina does have safety regulations for the recovery of prepared foods, which limits vendor liability if someone becomes sick from donated food. However, these regulations are not easy to interpret and, in the absence of clear guidelines for how to apply the regulations, vendors find it safer to avoid donation altogether.

As a solution, Ammerman’s team has partnered with a group at North Carolina State University to create standardized procedures for prepared food recovery. These procedures translate complex regulations into simple steps businesses can take to donate food safely. Once approved by the state Department of Health and Human Services, these guidelines could revolutionize food recovery, bringing prepared meals to food-insecure individuals across the state. In addition, the guidelines could be used as a template for other states to improve food recovery.

The results from this work have significant implications for the future of food recovery, and it is important to remember how it all started — with local food councils. These are places for community members who are passionate about local food systems to meet, discuss ideas and work toward change. In this way, coalitions like the local Orange County Food Council — and people like Ammerman — can embody the spirit of World Food Day by fostering grassroots efforts to improve access to safe and nutritious foods, while advocating for food systems that are more just and sustainable for all.

This story was written by Anna Claire Tucker, a graduate student in the Gillings School’s Department of Nutrition.

Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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