I learned something truly ridiculous this week. In cities across America, it is illegal to share food with the homeless.
More than 550,000 men, women, and children in America are homeless right now – 193,000 of whom will have no access to a safe shelter of any kind tonight. Not a tent, not a car, not a bed at the Rescue Mission. And for most, that also means no access to food.
Yet, 130+ billion pounds of food goes to waste every year.
Let that sink in for a minute.
On Sunday, when the grocery store next door was closed and the construction workers were home celebrating Easter, we snuck across the fence to visit “our dumpster”. I wish I’d taken a camera. The waste was unbelievable. One clear 50-gallon garbage bag lay outside the dumpster, it’s contents spilling onto the ground – 6 packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 2 salmon filets, and enough beef to feed a family of four for several months. Inside the dumpster was even worse – oranges, strawberries, grapes, cucumbers, coffee, and more – all spilled out and already starting to rot.
I can’t for the life of me figure out why an international grocery chain that has committed to reduce food waste by 50% in EUROPE by 2030, can’t do the same in it’s US stores. I love you ALDI, but when it comes to food waste, you suck!
Which brings me to the sandwich.
About a month ago, we rescued 3 spiral-sliced hams from the dumpster. I gave two of them away and kept the third to bake for Easter. At the time, I was picturing a potluck lunch with several family members and friends. As it turned out, my family had their own plans, my mom got sick, and the friends I invited bailed, leaving us with an 11-pound ham to split between two people who barely eat meat. Not wanting to waste the ham (which was delicious, by the way), my first thought was to share with the homeless. Our plan was to make ham sandwiches and pack them in paper sacks with a bag of chips and an apple and hand them out in the park on Monday.
Since I couldn’t remember the name of the park where we saw the homeless gathered one day, I started Googling and lo and behold, what did I come upon?? Article upon article about how it’s illegal to feed the homeless. I still thought, not my city…after all, we’re the nicest place in America and we pride ourselves on taking care of our fellow man. So I made a few inquiries. Seems we can’t hand out food without a permit. The most affordable permit costs $100 BUT it can only be purchased by an actual non-profit.
It’s okay (and even encouraged and celebrated) to hand out blankets, sleeping bags, coats, and clothing to the homeless yet it’s not okay to share your lunch. I understand there’s a concern about food poisoning, but seriously, only 0.0009% of people die each year from a foodborne illness. And according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (January 2018), there has been no documented cases of food poisoning coming from food that is shared with hungry people in public places.
I suppose we could have broken the law and handed out lunches anyway. Technically, we broke the law all last summer when we routinely made lunches for a homeless family with 3 children who were living in the motel near our apartment. But I have no desire to go to court or pay a fine this week for trying to do something that shouldn’t be illegal in the first place.
This incident has left us with much to ponder. If we can’t legally share the food we rescue from the dumpster, should we even bother to take it? We’ve pretty much decided that when it comes to meats, the answer to that is no. We won’t eat the meat ourselves. We can’t donate it to a food bank (we tried that last year, only to be turned away). And we now know that we can’t share it with others either.
What we can share though is information. And perhaps the more we know, the more we can do to fight both food waste and hunger in our communities. This weekend, we’re volunteering with Compost Nashville to help educate folks at Nashville VegFest about food waste. This summer, we’ll be working with SOSA to collect unsold produce from the Farmer’s Market and get it to those in need. These small steps are just a few of the many ways that we can work towards changing the food waste vs. food-sharing narrative.
What are your thoughts on food-sharing? Should feeding the homeless be illegal? Are there organizations in your community that bridge the gap between food waste and food insecurity?
Food Waste Update
- Wasted Food this week: 0 ounces
- Total Wasted Food in 2018: 50 ounces
- Rescued Food this week: 1.3 US pounds
- Total Food Rescued this year: 185.69 US pounds
Keep up with our food finds in real time by viewing our Food Find Gallery.