November 8, 2010 - I’ve been waiting for this one, and Jonathan Bloom has finally written it - a new book called American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food. Don’t worry: no one’s going to lecture you about children in Haiti starving. This might be a very good time, though, to give thoughtful attention to the adage “Waste not, want not.” It all has to do with the human tendency to disregard that which is plentiful.
Funny, isn’t it? We worry constantly about the lack of time, but steadfastly believe that food will always be there when we’re hungry – or even if we’re not. To all appearances, we have the food to waste, if that’s what we want to do with it. There’s a vague sensation that this might be wrong, but with each meal relentlessly pressing down on us, who has the time to worry about matters like portion sizes, buying unusable quantities in the name of variety, and forgetting what we still have back home in the fridge? If the head cook works outside the home, that goes double.
Then there are the differing tastes of family members to take into consideration.
Long gone are the days when children were told, “If it’s on your plate, you eat it.” Pint-sized preferences are now just as important, if not more so, than Mom’s and Dad’s. Even if both adult eaters are fairly easy to please, fussy or allergic eaters can make mealtime less than convivial by the time the food makes its way to the table.
Just getting through supper can become a major undertaking; food that gets thrown out afterward is the merest footnote.
So we’ve managed to make eating pretty complicated. Add to that the fact that, truth be told, we’re not really all that hungry much of the time. The lack of physical exertion which is emblematic of our modern way of life causes many adults to eat from habit, not hunger. Our couch potato offspring view meals as an interruption that takes them away from something else they’d much rather be doing. Is it any wonder we waste food?
According to Bloom, waste it we do. Not just once it gets inside the doors of our homes. Food goes unharvested, spoils in transport, or gets thrown out at the grocery store. That said, 93 percent of respondents to a Cornell University survey acknowledged buying food they never used. Another study revealed a high level of fussiness amongst American food shoppers. Fresh foods that display any hard use or brown edges generally get left on the shelf. Once food makes its way into our homes, Bloom was able to ascertain that as much as 25 percent of it ends up as waste.
He hastens, however, to make an excellent point. During an interview, he agreed that “… we’re extremely wasteful. The positive side of it is that we have a real role to play here, and we can effect change.” Taking the time to plan meals (write those lists, shoppers!), thereby eliminating waste, pays off big. A family that spends $175 per week on food, but wastes 25% of what was purchased, winds up paying $2,275 a year for food that went unconsumed.
Food that’s been thrown into the garbage, rather than onto a compost heap (no meat, please), proceeds to spoil in landfill, producing methane as a by-product. By now we all know that methane is a greenhouse gas. What about food that never even gets as far as the oven? Bloom believes refrigerator clutter is the villain in many cases. Out of sight, out of mind. Finding that fresh ginger you purchased in order to wow your family with a new recipe that never got made six weeks after the fact probably sounds familiar to everybody. We’ve all done it. If what you’re hiding from yourself is organic, you might find setting stacks of dollar bills on fire more profitable.
As with any change you make in your basic way of life, take it one step at a time. A good first step would be purchasing Jonathan Bloom’s new book. Tell your family what you want to accomplish so that you can ALL be proud of the waste you’ve eliminated, and the money you’ve saved. Then you can all decide how to spend it!