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Want Not

Volunteers at Three Square Food Bank package meals.
Photo by Ganny Belloni
Photo by Ganny Belloni

Food waste hurts everyone. These Las Vegans are doing their part to lessen the damage

IT WAS A BALMY 75-degree Monday. The grills were hot, kids running around, and parents sat quietly as teenagers waited in line for food. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed several times before, but today I marveled at the sheer quantity of food on display: miles of hot dogs, mountains of pizzas, piles of donuts, and enough chips to dehydrate an elephant. Like most people, I live life on autopilot — not always cognizant of the fact that my choices have consequences. My half-eaten donut will eventually end up in a landfill, and the unopened bag of hot dog buns will never touch the lips of a child struggling with food insecurity. What makes food waste so insidious is that — unlike issues such as deforestation, rising sea levels, and droughts — it is completely within our control. 

The topic hasn’t gone unnoticed by the media, which seems to prefer covering it by the numbers: “The U.S. wastes more than 108 million pounds of food annually” … “Food waste contributes to six percent of global CO2 emissions” … “We waste enough food to feed the world two times over,” etc. Although this type of coverage has its place, treating food waste as an insurmountable obstacle neglects the efforts being made to whittle it down. 

Enter Las Vegas Livestock, a nondescript pig farm 20 minutes north of Las Vegas. Before anyone was talking about methane gas emissions or sustainability, the Combs family saw this city’s buffet scene as an opportunity to bring their traditional food scrap agriculture to town. For more than 50 years, the Combs family has been upcycling foo

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d waste from casinos, preventing millions of pounds of food from reaching landfills each year. Although operations like LVL make up less than 1 percent of today’s animal agriculture, Sarah Stallard (right), the company’s farm manager, believes we will eventually see a resurgence in sustainable methods.

“We are probably one of the first pig farms to showcase that it can be done on this large of a scale,” Stallard says. “And we have essentially created all the equipment that we use for ourselves and learned how to feed pigs a full and nutritious diet. I think that sustainable agriculture will eventually catch on, considering how much food waste is going to be a problem in the future.”

Much of the food we waste never reaches our plate. For commercial food waste, organizations like food banks fill that gap. When most people think of food banks, they think of a small warehouse filled with canned chili, some near-expired apple sauce, and cartons of milk. In reality, food banks such as Three Square, off North Pecos, operate less like vaults and more like Amazon distribution centers. For the almost 400,000 Southern Nevadans who are food insecure, Three Square is a lifeline that they depend on to stay fed. On an average day, the 31,000-square-foot facility turns around more than 1 million pounds of produce, meat, and cereals. Those are figures that Maurice Johnson, director of operations at Three Square, is proud of.  “If you look at our fiscal year to date,” he says, “a little over 11 million pounds has been rescued from Walmart, Albertsons, Costco, Sam’s Club, and Smith’s.”

Despite these efforts to tackle the problem, it’s hard not to come back to the numbers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that almost 40 percent of food in the United States goes to waste. It’s a discouraging problem — but one with a simple solution, according to environmental officials: source reduction.

Consumers would only need to be mindful of their habits and reduce the volume of food they consume to put an end to food waste. The EPA advises consumers to avoid buying food they already have, take more trips to the grocery store instead of buying in bulk, and — most importantly — only cook and serve what will actually be eaten. The crusade against food waste doesn’t have to be a losing battle. If everyone pitched in, a world with food waste could be a thing of the past.

Ganny is no longer an intern at Nevada Public Radio, but you can still read their stories below.