“Gleaners” can help solve hunger, food waste and nutritional deficiencies, if volunteers managed efficiently – Deishin Lee

MIT Sloan Visiting Asst. Prof. Deishin Lee

From the Griffin Report, July, 2017

Food banks have benefited greatly from the incredible generosity of farmers and volunteers who have taken the time and made the effort of gathering produce left in the fields after a main harvest.

Indeed, the practice of “gleaning” which dates back to ancient times, has been growing in recent years as more efforts and associations are organized to meet the simultaneous need of feeding food-insecure persons at food banks and reducing food waste.

Modern-day gleaning in America is a noble endeavor, but is fraught with operational challenges that introduce inefficiencies into the process.

My colleagues Baris Ata, Xiaoli Fan, Miguel Gomez and Erkut Sonmez and I study the root cause of these process inefficiencies and how to address them in a series of papers, based on our work with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier in New York and the Boston Area Gleaners.

We found that a key part of the problem – and ultimately its solution – is tied to how volunteer staff members are utilized in the gleaning process. It’s not necessarily about a lack of volunteers. In its simplest terms, it’s about when and where those volunteers are deployed for gleaning operations.

But before we get into our recent findings on staffing and other key issues, let’s first step back to look at the larger picture of the gleaning activity itself and the challenges it faces.

It’s been estimated that about 6 percent of planted acres go unharvested in the U.S. To be clear: these are edible crops fit for human consumption that will be left in the fields to be plowed under unless someone goes back to harvest, or glean, them.

Simultaneously, it’s been estimated that about 14 percent of U.S. households faces food insecurity. Food insecurity is not just about hunger. It’s also about people not getting the healthy, micronutrient-rich foods that we all need.

So a gleaning operation is ultimately addressing three societal problems: hunger, food waste, and nutritional deficiencies.

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Overcoming the culture of waste – Deishin Lee

Deishin Lee, MIT Sloan Visiting Assistant Professor

One of the key messages in the Pope’s recent TED Talk was an entreaty to overcome the “culture of waste.” I wholeheartedly agree — this is a critical issue. The question is how do we even think about taking on such a large problem?

The “culture of waste” can be viewed through many different lenses: moral, philosophical, societal — just to name a few. But in addition to these broader notions of waste, there is simply the mundane notion of trash. Although mundane, trash is omnipresent, and perhaps understanding our mentality towards it can yield insights into broader cultural issues on waste.

Embarking on the study of waste (of the trash kind) several years ago, I was surprised to find that most waste is generated on purpose. Aside from the trash that we discard as individuals (municipal solid waste), there is trash (industrial waste) generated by supply chain processes that make the products we use. It turns out that the amount of industrial waste is orders of magnitude greater than municipal solid waste, which is already staggering. Moreover, the generation of this kind of waste is codified in the processes we use to produce our goods.

Pick any product and look at how it is produced. You will find that along with the desired product, whether it be an automobile or a hamburger, the process that produced it also produced other stuff, which we generally refer to as waste. An industrial example is production of pig iron, a key ingredient for making steel. In the process of making pig iron, a waste stream of oxides and silicates called slag is generated.

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