When I was in high school I was a counselor for a couple of YMCA overnight camps. On the whole, this was a delightful experience. But there was one part of camp that really bothered me: wasting food. The camp directors scheduled activity after activity where making a mess with desserts, condiments, and sometimes full meals was the whole point. The most egregious example was an activity called Bat-O-Rama, where an athletic slugger, armed with a baseball bat, would smash food as it was pitched to him. Gallon jugs of milk, heads of cabbage, melons, and apples would turn into a shower of particles that covered the trash-bag-protected audience of squealing campers. One night of Bat-O-Rama easily consumed enough good food to feed a family of 4 for the day. On the final day of camp each year, the directors would stand up at camp fire and talk about how lucky we are: we have enough food to eat and we have parents that pay for us to go to camp. There are lots of kids in the world who don't get to eat every day, and they can't afford to go to camp. Then they'd encourage all the campers to give money to a charity that provides a camp experience and meals for poor kids in another country.
The hypocrisy of the ask - after a week of wasting food - was lost on the directors. At next year's interview for a counselor position, when asked "how would you improve camp", I brought it up. I said it seemed like we were sending mixed messages to the kids. One day we were saying that we need to do something to help poor children who don't have enough to eat. Yet in the same week, we'd waste all kinds of food - just for fun! It's as if we spent the whole week saying "We're so rich we can waste as much food as we want." I think that's insensitive and we should send a consistent message, I said. Let's play these games with something other than food.
I didn't get selected to go to camp that year. When I got my decline letter in the mail, I called up and asked why. "In your interview, you offended everyone in the room," I was told. When I asked for specifics, my comments about wasting food were the only complaints they could site.
Now, I'm sure as a 17 year old, I probably didn't use the most politically correct language to share my concerns about wasting food. But regardless, no one like to be told they've done something wrong. No one likes to hear that they are doing harm. Saving food from the Bat-O-Rama doesn't do a lot of good, but it does some good. It is better to try and stop the Bat-O-Rama than to do nothing. It is better to speak out against a culture of waste (even at the summer camp level) than to let it continue unchallenged. If we want change, we must act.
Food insecurity, the threat of starvation, is a growing problem. For the people living on our planet earning less than $1.25 a day, a small shift in grain prices determines whether or not they can afford to eat. The poorest amongst us get the bulk of their daily calories from grains. But the growing demand for meat and animal products from rich nations is driving grain prices higher and higher. Some 60% of the world's grain now goes to feed farmed animals. Drought and changing weather patterns are destroying crops. Nations that once had large grain reserves for food security have used them up. The crisis in Somalia, which has gotten little media attention, will not be the last major famine we'll see this decade.
The threat of starvation across the globe is a big problem. It feels like a problem far removed, something that you can't do anything to fix. But that's not true. You can help. You can help three times a day (or five if you're like me). Every time you sit down to eat, you choose your meal and, without intending to, you enter the global market for grain. So how much grain will you buy? How much will you take for yourself? If you choose to eat meat and animal products, you are taking a lot more for yourself than you need. You are taking food from others who need it - you are driving world grain prices higher. 48 lbs. of grain can be fed to a cow and produce enough calories to feed one person for one day. Or 48 lbs. of grain can be fed directly to people and provide enough calories to feed 30 persons for one day. By eating less meat and animal products, you can help keep the cost of grain down so that the poorest people have a better chance of feeding their families. You can take a small step to make things better by changing your diet, or you can do nothing and actively make things worse. Next time you're getting ready to order a burger or a steak, remember that you're taking more than you need: enough for 30 people. That's really selfish.
Eating a plant based diet doesn't solve food insecurity, but it helps. If you are waiting to find a big action that you can take to solve a wide spread global problem, you will always be waiting. Big problems are solved when lots of individuals take small actions. Doing a little to help is not enough to end the problem, but doing nothing is worse.
Check out this handy infographic to learn more about how your food choices can change the world.