Waste Not, Want Not

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To feed the hungry, researcher looks to crops that aren’t being harvested.

There’s a hunger inside Jed Colquhoun PhD’00 that just won’t go away. It’s not because he’s starving. It’s because, according to Colquhoun, nearly 20 percent of households with children in the United States are food insecure — they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. He is on a mission to eliminate that fear.

During a very productive lunch in December 2009, Colquhoun came up with an idea to do just that.

On one side sat a frustrated vegetable grower who wasn’t able to harvest a carrot crop because processing plants were already running at capacity. On the other sat a colleague from Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin who is always in need of food supplies.

“What that lunch [conversation] really drove home is, how do we put these two types of organizations together in a situation that can provide nutrition to our children in particular?” says Colquhoun, an associate professor in UW–Madison’s Department of Horticulture.

He started by looking at products being processed in oversupply. “The food processors have been very generous in donating excess canned vegetables into the food bank system,” he says. “It’s like a mega canned-food drive.”

The more difficult problem became how to deal with perfectly good crops that weren’t being harvested due to factors such as overloaded processing facilities, limited numbers of harvesting crews, and unpredictable growing seasons.

He turned to Wisconsin for solutions. “We have enormous strength in Wisconsin with the diversity of our agriculture,” Colquhoun says. “We have an opportunity to demonstrate success here on a local level that could be used as a case study nationally.”

That success requires opening up the lines of communication among the farmers, the processors, and the food banks to figure out details, including who will provide the trucking or the multi-ton containers used to transport the vegetables.

“We need to develop a plan that won’t be a burden on the entire system,” Colquhoun says, adding that such a plan is about a year away from implementation. In the meantime, his team is busy collecting information on the complexity of the situation and developing models to test.

“Given the rather desperate situation for those in need of food,” he says, “failure is not an option.”

Published in the Winter 2010 issue

Tags: Faculty, Food, Public service, Research

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