Food for Thought

“Clean your plate! Don’t you know there are people starving in (fill in the blank)?” To generations of Americans, this admonition was a familiar part of growing up. Whether spoken by your parents, grandparents, first-grade teacher, or Aunt Martha, you probably heard that phrase at some point in your childhood. It wasn’t meant to encourage overeating. Rather, it was an attempt to instill some sense of the value of the food placed before you. Reading Jonathan Bloom’s book, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It), may be a better way to accomplish that goal than Aunt Martha’s, or anyone else’s, scolding.

Of course, failure to clean our plate is not the only source of food waste. And, while it may not surprise you to learn that food is wasted at every step from farm to fork, the scope of the problem will. By Bloom’s own calculation, America’s food waste would fill the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, between one and two times EACH DAY! As Bloom’s tale unfolds, he reveals not only the astonishing magnitude of the problem, but its significant economic, environmental, and ethical impacts as well. He also outlines the many causes of food waste and offers more than a few practical suggestions for positive change. Through a combination of in-depth interviews and actual work experience, Bloom takes you inside many of the businesses involved in bringing food from fields to your table. He also gives you an insider’s perspective on the charities that divert some of that food to the needy. Because, with all due respect to Aunt Martha, you don’t have to look across an ocean to find hunger—you just need to look across town.

The author whets our appetite with the story of iceberg lettuce and other produce grown in Salinas, CA, and then shipped to a distribution center in Georgia and on to supermarkets throughout the Southeast. While that distribution chain is long, it is not unusual. The average distance produce travels from farm to consumer is 1,500 miles. At each step, some of the lettuce goes to waste. Some lies unharvested in the field. If a head is among the 85-90% chosen by the pickers, it has a 17-day shelf life, provided that it is kept cool. However, some heads are deemed imperfect and rejected before and after shipment to the distribution center, as well as before and after shipment to the supermarket. In the produce section at the store, some are damaged or spoiled before purchase. And, finally, we all know that more than a few heads of lettuce go bad in the bottom of the family fridge.

Bloom goes on to discuss the environmental impact of methane from landfills, as well as soil erosion and depletion and wasted water, energy, and resources involved in producing the 25-50% of food that never gets eaten. In terms of the family budget, as much as 25% of the food consumers purchase will eventually be thrown away, meaning that a family of four may be wasting about $2,275 per year on unneeded or unwanted food. While common sense should encourage people to value something they’ve actually paid for, there is also an ethical question. Aunt Martha was right about one thing—when some people go hungry, wasting food does seem wrong. In 2008, 15% of all Americans (including 22% of  American children) didn’t have enough to eat at some point during the year. By age 18, half of all American children will have lived in a household that  used public or private programs, such as food stamps or food pantries, at  some point.

Bloom explores the causes of food waste in our culture, on our farms, and in our grocery stores, restaurants, and homes. The book does not present problems without offering solutions, however. You’ll find suggestions for policy-makers, institutions, and consumers on how to reduce waste at every level. For weeks after reading it, you will think about food and food waste as you plan your family meals, make your shopping lists, go to the grocery, or order from a restaurant menu. Who knows, maybe some of those new behaviors will become good habits!

Read more about things that are being done to reduce food waste at http://earth911.com/news/2013/02/22/fighting-food-waste-worldwide/.

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