Having lived in California and Arizona, I’ve seen luscious fruits hanging from trees all around. Unfortunately, a lot of the fruit that these trees produce ripens, falls to the ground and goes to waste. One organization, Falling Fruit, has been trying to address the problem of wasted fruit.
The Jewish tradition adamantly emphasizes that the earth is not our own and that we ought not waste the fruits of the earth. The hunger pandemic is not a crisis of sufficiency, but of distribution. “Falling Fruit” is working to actualize the Biblical mandate to surrender field crops to the local poor. This inspiring group is reacting to fallen fruit, something most people pay little attention to, and is taking initiative to address hunger while truly and deeply cherishing God’s creation.
Today there are new open-source Internet maps showing fruit trees available for free harvesting in urban environments all over the world. We should consider taking advantage of these resources to enjoy local produce and do our part to reduce waste.
A 2012 report from the National Resources Defense Council estimated that about 40 percent of food in America (about $165 billion annually) is discarded, about 240 pounds of food per person annually. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not keep many statistics on the wasting of fruits and vegetables, the USDA estimates that supermarkets waste $15 billion in unsold produce annually. U.S. households on average throw out about 25 percent of the food brought home.
6 billion pounds of produce is not even harvested or not sold annually, partly due to a shortage of labor and partly due to the public's demand for produce that looks good, meaning that fruits and vegetables that do not have the right color or shape, for example, may not even be harvested. One producer of citrus, pitted fruit and grapes estimated that anywhere from a fifth to half of his produce was edible but could not be sold to distributors due to its appearance. It is often simply discarded.
Furthermore, uneaten food creates environmental problems and hazards. The water and energy used to produce this food is squandered, and about a sixth of the critical landfill space is occupied by uneaten foodstuff. In addition, it is estimated that 23 percent of all methane (a much more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) generated comes from uneaten food.
Per capita, Americans waste 10 times as much food as people in Southeast Asia; this amount of food waste is 50 percent more than it was 40 years ago. In contrast, the European Union has embarked on a concerted and diligent mission to reduce food waste; similarly, the United Kingdom has had remarkable success in food waste reduction waste and has cut their waste by 18 percent in the past 5 years.
Falling Fruit exemplifies a positive step in the campaign to reduce wasted food. The Biblical prohibition against being wasteful is actually learned from fruit trees [Deuteronomy 20:19]. It is the paradigmatic example for our responsibility to take care of the earth and feed the hungry. Jewish law has taught that feeding the hungry trumps other needs of those suffering in poverty:
If someone comes and says, “Feed me,” you don’t check him to see if he is an imposter, but you feed him right away. If there is a naked person who comes and says, “Give me clothing,” you check him to see if he is an imposter. And if you know him, you give him clothing right away [Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, Laws of Tzedakah 251:10].”
Skeptics might consider that only a generation ago Americans had no idea what recycling was, and yet today we take it for granted. We can succeed in this endeavor – it is our ethical and moral obligation to do so.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”