A friend who grew up in central Florida came to town on a business trip. He said the other day he is amazed at the amount of poverty and suffering in Southwest Virginia. I had not thought of our area exactly that way, instead concentrating more on the wonderful scenery, terrific climate, and friendly people. Of course, since I have a job I enjoy, for the most part, and am in reasonably good health, it is easy for me to have a brighter outlook. There are many among us not nearly so blessed and I am very much reminded of that every December when we do the Community Christmas Tree program out at the Bluefield Auditorium. In between, I probably concentrate too much on announcing ball games, grading papers, and writing stories — the “fun” things with which I fill nights and days.
Nevertheless, not all Americans are as “deprived” as we here in Four Seasons Country might be. While we worry about the attacks on coal and how the tons of black gold coming out of these hills is dwindling enough right now to idle some major area Consol coal operations over in Buchanan County and perhaps into Tazewell County, as well, there are some other surprising tonnage totals that caught my eye earlier this week. Believe it or not, they relate to another of our favorite subjects — food. I remember not too many years ago when the mine where my father worked was producing approximately 13 to 14,000 tons of metallurgical coal per day. At that rate, the production for a year would total about 3,523,500 tons for an estimated 261 working days.
Now — and I just found this out — in the United States we throw out an incredible 1.5 billion tons of food every year. That is almost three times the amount of coal those hundreds of old-time miners could put on the rails every 12 months. Whether or not we are suffering here in what the late “Stubby” Currence called “Our Grand Area,” the fact remains that from Norfolk to Los Angeles, about 40 percent of the total U.S. food supply is wasted. That is according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
I might waste a few morsels myself, although not many. Especially snacks. We have some wonderful people, for instance, who provide treats for our press box at Tazewell High School. Bill Weeks at Italian Village and Andy and Robin McCann at Subway always make certain the main courses are freshly prepared and that gives both the Daily Telegraph writer and the KICKS Country guy (same person!) the energy to get the job done on every Friday night at home. This past week, Claire Fields Barrett, one of my dearest friends in the world, brought up an tray of absolutely incredible brownies with sauce and topping and nuts and I don’t know what all. They were blue ribbon, believe me, and not a morsel was wasted. The food people we deal with for the Bulldog press box are so incredibly good that we use every crumb every week and are thrilled to have the chance. I am so fortunate to have friends like that who care so much about our school and our students. Things are not so great everywhere else.
Having visited a few major cities, I have seen many street people fishing through dumpsters for food. To be honest, with the rules and regulations we operate under there are many restaurant locations where the eating could be quite good if one did not mind biting from a morsel somebody else had already eaten from. It certainly happens every day across this country.
On the other hand, what about all that food that simply has been going to waste? It is not just a problem in the United States (if you can call being able to toss out more than a billion tons of food a problem) but in other countries, too. For example, Hong Kong’s landfills are near to overflowing and will be full within the next five years, so all that food waste is going to require new solutions. Researcher Alice Park notes that biochemical engineer Carol Lin is working on the problem.
A team of scientists is developing a plan to convert organic wastes into succinic acid which happens to be a key ingredient of biodegradable plastic, which is used in products ranging from laundry detergent bottles to car parts. Groups in Asia, Europe, and America are starting work on similar projects that help to take “wasted” food into something that can be really valuable. One of the problems with this is that various types of food cannot presently be transported for long distances. Processing food quickly, then, is a major challenge in such endeavors. The scientists are working on it even now.
In the meantime, if I don’t eat all of those snack-size donuts I bought last night, then I feel sure there is someone out there who can do something beneficial with them.
Larry Hypes is a teacher at Tazewell High School and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.