This week, Two Harbors hosted a Community Food Share Day. For 1.5 hours, we were invited to show up and receive free food, especially produce. Second Harvest Food Bank, with tons (literally) of food that might go bad before it could be distributed, offered to bring food to any of their network members.

This event is noteworthy on several levels. Food insecurity is a seemingly intractable problem in Lake County. I hope that this one-time annual giveaway has eased hunger and stress for many, at least in the short term.

But this food event was not just for people who could use a hand with grocery bills. There was plenty of food for those of us who have food security. This event was also about reducing food waste — 1.3 metric gigatons of edible food goes to waste every year around the globe.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, roughly 5.4 million square miles of our planet is dedicated to food that is wasted. That’s an area equivalent to Central America, Mexico, plus the lower 48 states and a big part of Canada. We have an enormous distribution problem.

Food waste contributes to climate change. Think of the leftover stew that went bad in your fridge. That stew was grown or raised (that took energy) and was then harvested, packaged, transported, distributed, refrigerated, bagged in more plastic, cooked, cooled and then kept cold again in your fridge (lots more energy) — all for naught! Throwing it into a compost pile barely scratches the surface of the footprint that stew has already made on the planet.

The UN has stated that if “Food Waste” was a country, its greenhouse gas emissions would be the third highest in the world, behind only the China and the U.S.

Interesting, all food is not wasted the same around the world. In Third World countries, very little food is wasted by consumers — it’s all higher up in the food chain. In our country, most food waste occurs post-farm during transportation, distribution and consumption.

Enter ReFED: “a multi-stakeholder nonprofit, powered by an influential network of the nation’s leading business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing U.S. food waste.”

Perusing the website to get an idea of where we can harness the most mileage in cleaning up our food system, I got sucked into mountains of fascinating data. Every action on the website — and there are many — can be measured for its effect on reduced emissions, money savings, water savings, meals recovered, waste diverted and jobs created. Sounds like a win-win-win-win-win-win to me!

Because all the solutions mentioned saved money in the long run, the question must be asked: Why isn’t the free market taking care of all of this? The answer, so familiar to those of us asking questions about climate, is foursome: awareness, habit, delayed gratification and infrastructure.

We are unaware of the numbers. We are creatures of habit. We resist solutions that do not reveal themselves immediately. Finally, we need to create new infrastructure to support a world with less waste.

Guess what the most potent food-waste solutions are for saving money? Standardizing and updating “use by” expiration dates. The current system has, inadvertently, laid to waste thousands of pounds of food and given rise to confusion about food. Corporations and food service providers can re-label foods “best if used by” for the vast majority of foods for which expiration dates do not establish safety risks, only quality control. (Think of the stale cracker or the withered pepper).

“Use by” labels can be restricted to just those foods that pose health risks when eaten after the date. Food providers operating under mandates or misunderstandings about the difference between the two are trapped into throwing out food, ultimately costing them — and us.

Some more examples, for the cuisine-curious readers.

What food-waste-reduction measure works best for reducing emissions? Large-scale composting.

How about the “meals recovered” category, for those whose primary concern is food insecurity? “Donation transportation,” otherwise known as “providing small-scale transportation infrastructure for local recovery as well as long-haul transport capabilities.”

Hey, that sounds like what happened this past Thursday!

A huge "thank you" to the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, the Two Harbors Area Food Shelf, Coop Light and Power, Arrowhead Transit and all contributing bodies for working to make this event reality. The Community Food Share is not just for those of us who are food insecure, but for all of us eager to reduce food waste and malnutrition around the world.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.