Our Hungry Planet: Climate Change and Food Security
You may not think anything of tossing leftovers in the trash. Maybe you feel a pang of guilt when you notice a few moldy pieces of forgotten produce in the back of the fridge. It is not your fault if this is you. In our society, it is hard to be anything more than ambivalent about food waste. Whether through oversized portions at restaurants or grocery stores only selling perfect produce, our culture normalizes wasting food. Really, it has to; in a world where one-third of all food produced—approximately 1.3 billion tons—is wasted annually, this is a survival mechanism. Yet, in the end, it contributes to our downfall.
Every year, food waste causes approximately 8% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). In the United States, it “generates the equivalent of 32.6 million cars’ worth of” GHGs. As a result, wasted food is a large driver of climate change. However, not everyone is equally responsible for producing it. High- and middle-income countries create the majority of their waste in the late stages of the supply chain: consumer waste, personal or corporate overshopping, or simply avoiding a certain item because of an aesthetic imperfection. This waste is willful—and there’s a lot of it. However, in lower-income countries, most food waste occurs much earlier in the process. Often, weak or faulty infrastructure prevents the food from reaching people who need it before it decays. This is through no fault of their own; reducing food waste requires a systematic change.
That said, food waste is a strong contributor to hunger. Globally, 811 million people wake up hungry every day. In 2020, over 38 million Americans suffered from food insecurity; due to the pandemic, that number may rise to 42 million this year. Feeding America defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life”. It is heartbreaking that this is the bitter reality for so many in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. This is a social justice issue—access to food is a basic human right. Unfortunately, many are denied it.
Specifically, access to affordable and healthy food is key. However, in many lower-income areas, this is not always available. Disregarding the fact that produce and other fresh food is often more expensive than shelf-stable items, it is often hard to find. This is especially true in food deserts, urban areas with little or no access to affordable and healthy food. They are disproportionately found in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. On average, wealthy areas contain three times as many grocery stores as poorer areas and white neighborhoods have approximately four times the number of grocery stores as predominantly Black neighborhoods do. Food deserts force their inhabitants to travel long distances to grocery stores with high prices. Many simply do not have the time, money, or ability to do so. This decreases the percentage of residents who shop at grocery stores.
As a result, grocery companies pull their stores out of lower-income neighborhoods or do not build new ones there. This only perpetuates the problem. In consequence, food deserts usually contain a high proportion of fast-food restaurants, where the food is cheap and calorically dense. When shopping on a tight budget, this is exactly what is needed. It enables shoppers to save money while still eating a meal. However, this comes at a price. Fast food is low in nutritional value and usually high in sodium, sugar, and saturated fats. A diet that replaces nutrients with processed foods is not sustainable. Preexisting health conditions are exacerbated and new ones—such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity—are created. Again, these health impacts disproportionately fall onto communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods. However, they are often the ones least equipped to address them. Likely, they do not have the money needed to pay for health care, nor to travel long distances to economically prohibitive grocery stores.
As the effects of climate change increase, the scale and prevalence of food deserts will only worsen. At-risk communities will suffer from more than just a lack of healthy and affordable food; extreme weather events like heat waves will become more frequent and more intense. In part, this is amplified by the commonness of heat islands in poor urban communities. Heat islands, areas that retain more heat than those around them, form in places with little greenspace. They result in increased rates of heat-induced death and disease, especially in people unable to avoid them or seek treatment for illness. In addition, because heat traps pollutants, these areas usually have lower air and water quality than others nearby. When water warmed by heat islands flows into local ecosystems, it may be at a temperature that is dangerous for the native species. The environment suffers. This is not just a social justice issue, but an environmental one too.
Still, there are ways to address food deserts and heat islands and transform them into something more equitable and ecological. Often, their solutions overlap. One example? By integrating urban gardens into the cityscape. These public gardens let neighborhood residents cultivate and pick fresh food for free. They eliminate the need to choose between consuming adequate amounts of (unhealthy) calories or eating nutritious fresh food that may not satisfy hunger. In effect, urban gardens lessen the financial burden of healthy food. Eating is made more equitable. The neighboring populations are able to incorporate produce into their diets; this undoubtedly improves their health.
Additionally, community gardens create spaces for the community to enjoy nature. In urban areas—especially those with heat islands—it is far too common for the environment to be absent from the landscape. This only intensifies socioeconomic inequities that persist within specific neighborhoods. By integrating green spaces (such as urban gardens) into the city, we are able to decrease the impact of these heat deserts. Community gardens provide a shady space to escape the sun during dangerous heat waves. Plus, through evapotranspiration, trees and other plants naturally cool the air around them. Aside from just being somewhere to get fresh fruits and vegetables, urban gardens become a safe space during extreme environmental events. And, a positive correlation exists between environmental access and mental health. Urban gardens give us a chance to ameliorate both the physical and the mental health of their surrounding communities.
Of course, urban gardens are not a be-all, end-all solution. Really, they are just a starting point. They bring to mind, however, the interconnectedness of the climate crisis and food insecurity. To combat climate change, food waste must be addressed. If even a quarter of the food wasted every year was saved and redirected, 870 million people could be fed. That is more than the number of hungry people on this planet. By addressing food waste, we can begin to tackle food insecurity. Progress, real progress, will not be made unless the link between the climate and food crises is recognized when treating these issues.
If you are a student at UC San Diego struggling with food insecurity, there are resources available to you. The Triton Food Pantry provides nutritious staples and fresh produce to all students free of charge. In addition, UC San Diego is part of CalFresh, California's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that helps students afford groceries.