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Throughout December and January, people around the world celebrate a variety of holidays. While the traditions and celebrations may differ, holidays are generally a time of abundance and excess, especially when it comes to food. But not for everyone.
The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet the number of people living in food-insecure households is astounding. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, 38.3 million people lived in food-insecure households in 2020, including 6.1 million children. These households were uncertain of having—or were unable to acquire—enough food to meet the needs of all their members. The picture is even more bleak when you look at other areas of the world. The latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organi-zation of the United Nations confirms that nearly 2.4 billion people—almost one in three—faced food insecurity at the moderate or severe level in 2020.
On the flip side, large segments of the population have more food than they need. They have grocery stores and restaurants nearby with a variety of options available. They can afford healthy food. They throw food away because it spoils or expires. They dine out at least once a week. Among these people, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has risen to crisis levels. For the first time in history, the World Health Organization reported the number of people worldwide who are both overweight and malnourished equals the number who are underweight and malnourished. It’s a sad and discouraging predicament.
There is general consensus on the factors that contribute to food insecurity, which include global population explosion, unequal wealth distribution, diminishing natural resources, climate change, conflict and war, food loss and waste, and shifting dietary patterns, among others. We all must acknowledge the significance of the problem and commit to finding solutions if we have any hope of bridging the food security gap.
While it may be easy to think the work you do doesn’t make a difference with an issue of this magnitude, you couldn’t be more wrong. Food science and innovation play an important role in solving the food security problem.
Reducing food waste is one of the most important things we can do to address food insecurity. For example, transforming discarded agricultural and food waste into added-value products via upcycling serves two needs—providing food for those who need it and positively impacting the environment.
Improving ways to provide shelf-stable foods to parts of the world where there is little to no refrigeration and identifying less costly and less resource-intensive ways to process food are additional areas of promise. By looking holistically at the food value chain, food scientists and innovators from organizations ranging from small startups to major corporations are well-positioned to make a difference in this fight.
The science of food community can also shine a spotlight on the problem. We need to keep food inequity in mind when creating new products. Try to strike a balance between developing high-end and affordable products. Explore ways that your company can reduce waste in manufacturing processes. Perhaps most importantly, convey your concern about the equitable distribution of food to members of company leadership teams and challenge them to commit to addressing inequities in the food system.
I also challenge our community to use our collective voice to draw attention to the issue of food insecurity. As food experts, we can educate our nonscientific colleagues, family, and friends about ways they can make a difference, such as purchasing and preparing only the food they need and supporting local food banks. Whether you volunteer to sort and package food, deliver groceries to the homebound, or make a financial donation, countless people will benefit from your generosity.
It is easy to take for granted that food will always be available when you have plenty, but food insecurity is prevalent in every corner of the world. In big and small ways, we each have the power to make a difference—during times of abundance and year-round.