Maureen Torrey (left) of Torrey Farms, Elba, N.Y., talks with Brooke Parsons, a Cornell University ag sciences student after the waste session.
Maureen Torrey (left) of Torrey Farms, Elba, N.Y., talks with Brooke Parsons, a Cornell University ag sciences student after the waste session.

NEW ORLEANS – About 40% of all fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. are thrown away, straining landfills and wasting the resources used to produce them.

Through creative thinking and communication, much of that food waste can be diverted to food banks, animal feed, composting operation or energy generation.

A panel involved with waste reduction shared their experiences at the 2013 Fresh Summit, Oct. 18.

Since the recession, food banks have seen a 46% increase in demand since 2006, said Lisa Davis, vice president of public policy for Feeding America, Washington, D.C And food insecurity, as she called it, hasn’t declined even as the economy has rebounded.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 49 million people at any one time don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

At one time, food banks shunned produce because of its perishable nature, Davis said. But that has changed as fruits and vegetables have gained prominence in enhancing overall health.

For the 2013 fiscal year that ended June 31, Feeding America’s 203 affiliated food banks received 950 million pounds of produce out of the nearly 3 billion pounds of food donations.

In northern Colorado and Wyoming alone, the Denver-based Food Bank of the Rockies received 24 million pounds of mostly locally grown produce, said. Kevin Seggelke, president and chief executive officer.

He runs a fleet of 17 trucks that visit 128 retail stores to pick up produce and other food items.

Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets Inc. is part of a much larger effort spearheaded by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance comprising retailers, food manufacturers and restaurants, said Michael Hewett, director of environmental and sustainability programs.

The group has already reviewed existing data worldwide to try “get our arms around the scope of the problem,” he said. It also has surveyed members to try to figure out how and why food waste occurs.

The results of those two efforts have already been published, and the group hopes to issue a best practices and a case studies report shortly, Hewett said.

Some retailers already have seen results from their efforts, he said.

Kroger Co. built an anaerobic digester at its manufacturing site in Compton, Calif., to convert food waste into energy that can be used at the site and compost.

Although no producer grows a crop with donations in mind, weather, pests and other factors create a percentage that is cosmetically challenged, said Maureen Torrey of Torrey Farms, Elba, N.Y.

Depending on the year, that could run from 10% to 20%, she said.

Torrey has worked with local food banks to take what “ugly” produce, which is perfectly wholesome but just doesn’t make the grade.

“We feel very committed to helping and improving the health and nutrition of a segment of society,” she said. “It’s our moral obligation to do what’s right.”

But Torrey said growers and shippers also have to look at how to be cost-effective in the packaging and how to make it easy for the packers to divert the unmarketable crop.

“One of the biggest problems has been dedicating floor space,” she said. “Sometimes we have to wait for transportation. But we worked as a team and communicated our concerns.”

Consumers also play a role in reducing waste, Hewett said. In fact, they account for 51% of all food waste that ends up in the landfill.

He said the alliance is exploring public service announcements to help educate consumers about their contributions.

“Consumers need to understand how their behavior affects in just the environment but their own pocketbook,” he said, adding that the average family of four throws away $1,500 worth of food annually.