One steaming bowl of soup bursting with carrots, sweet potatoes and onions; one refreshing cup of smoothie, blended with apple, banana, strawberry and kale; and one loaf of bread—an ideal lunch. But the best part: All of these are free.
This was the first Feeding the 5,000 event in the United States, which took place at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland on Saturday. More than 5,000 servings of lunch were prepared out of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise have been wasted.
Feeding the 5,000 Oakland was launched as part of the global campaign to tackle food waste, and was modeled after a similar event in London in 2009 and in Brussels earlier in 2014. It was organized by Jordan Figueiredo and Feedback, an environmental charity that campaigns to end food waste.
“A third of the world’s food is wasted, which is an environmental and social disaster,” said Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback and organizer of the first event in London. “But the good news is that most of the solutions to this problem are delicious. They involve eating and enjoying the food rather than throwing it away.”
From noon until 5pm, thousands of people lined up at Frank Ogawa Plaza for the free lunch. People enjoyed the food while swinging along to music played by a deejay.
The night before the event, volunteers including chefs, educators, college students, charity workers, environmental group members and national food justice leaders peeled and chopped thousands of pounds of food for the event. They gathered at St. Vincent de Paul in Oakland, a non-profit organization that has been serving hot meals to the hungry across the county for over 70 years.
Shouts of “Hair up!” “Hot tray!” and “Knife walking!” echoed against the walls of the kitchen. There, 1,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, 500 pounds of carrots and 500 pounds of onions were chopped and baked for the soup.
The 2,000 pounds of ingredients for soup and the 1,000 pounds for smoothies were salvaged from farms in the San Joaquin Delta and Salinas Valley, as well as from wholesalers and distributors in San Francisco and Alameda County. The produce used would not have been eaten because the food was either imperfect looking, or that the farms had produced too much of it, according to Figueiredo.
“We have all these standards,” Figueiredo said in the back kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul, “where a tomato can’t look like this way or that way, strawberries have to be red, carrots can’t be twisty.”
In addition to the lunch served, 9,200 pounds of fruits and vegetables, which were also collected from these farms and distributors, were given out for free throughout the event.
During the event on Saturday, chefs from St. Vincent de Paul, who created the soup recipe, demonstrated on stage how to make the best out of leftovers. People were invited to sign a pledge showing their personal commitment to reducing their own food waste and calling for businesses to do the same. “You don’t have to stand on a soapbox and make an argument,” said Stuart, wearing the event’s T-shirt and cap designed and donated by Oaklandish, an Oakland-based fashion brand. “You’ve proved your point just by getting people to eat.”
Food waste no longer refers solely to what’s left over on the plate, said Figueiredo. It occurs in almost every stage of the supply chain. Vegetables and fruits are left to rot in the fields if they are crooked or have two heads. Grocery store vendors throw them away if they are too big or small, or too bruised, by the time they make it onto the shelf.
“Ideally, food waste should refer to inedible food scraps,” said Ashley Zanolli, an environmental engineer from the US Environmental Protection Agency, who was volunteering on her own time for the event. “But there’s lots of wasted food, edible food, excess food and quality unsold food that’s currently ending up in the waste stream.”
According to the National Resources Defense Council, one of the most powerful environmental action groups in the US, 40 percent of food in the nation goes uneaten. That equals 100 billion pounds of food—enough to feed 30 million people—every year. Producing the food wasted every year costs up to $161 million, and uses 3 percent of all energy and one quarter of the freshwater consumed in the US.
Meanwhile, every one in six Americans does not have assured food everyday. The number in Alameda County is one in five, and one in three for Oakland kids, according to Mayor Jean Quan, who attended the event. “We have wide gaps between the haves and have-nots in Oakland,” Quan said, as she stood in front of the smoothie tent on Saturday.
“Oakland is the place where things get done,” said Dana Frasz, founder and director of Food Shift, an Oakland-based organization that develops solutions to reduce food waste and hunger, as she helped prepare the Saturday lunch. “Having the Feeding the 5,000 here in Oakland absolutely rocks, and it totally demonstrates that we are one of the places that are leading the charge on this issue.”
Regional and national leaders from food, nutrition and environment groups donated their time to the fight against food waste, and served as volunteers at the event. Among these was Joseph M. de Leon, operations director of Keep Austin Fed—a nonprofit organization that serves hungry people in Texas—who came to the event to “give service and draw inspirations.”
“I didn’t have food on regular basis as a kid,” de Leon said as he put on an apron to help prepare the food. “Now that I have the resources to give back, it is important that we take this idea to Austin and to more and more places in the world.”