Friday, April 1, 2011
American Wasteland – How America Wastes Nearly Half of Its Food - Part I
Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland is an engaging book on a topic which is finally garnering some much-deserved attention: food waste. I’ve wanted to learn more about the back-story from field to my refrigerator, at which point waste is my personal responsibility, and Bloom is the perfect tour guide. Because of the declining cost of food relative to American incomes, food has become devalued. Hence food waste is no longer considered sinful or just plain stupid, but rather a problem solver of what to do with our excess.
Be warned, despite Bloom’s droll wit, amusing anecdotes, and endearing asides, his story is not pretty. From production to plate, Americans waste almost half of our food supply. He takes us through our country’s food system, from farm to restaurant or supermarket, and ultimately into the home of the consumer. Us. Much is wasted at each juncture, until in the end, we toss perfectly good food for reasons that might make sense at the time, but when analyzed, seem entirely avoidable.
Industrial farming is a high risk, low profit margin business. Imperfect produce is increasingly rejected by marketers in an attempt to match the elegant abundance of Whole Foods. The upscaling of expectation results in vast quantities of perfectly edible harvested food going straight to dumpsters. Some farms plow crops under rather than investing in harvesting them if they are subpar. Or sometimes, the migrant labor we depend on for harvesting is simply not available, and the crops rot.
Because such a large volume of our produce is grown in ginormous farms in Watsonville, California, it is hard to find enough local demand for so much food. Factory rejects overwhelm the local food recovery non-profits. While a small percentage is composted, most processing mistakes are junked. Produce is too perishable to be sold as factory seconds, and brand-consciousness would preclude companies from allowing “flawed” merchandise to be marketed, anyway. Bloom emphasizes that these flaws have nothing to do with food quality, just with appearance. Sad indeed.
Bloom is a storyteller at heart, and working undercover in a supermarket produce section provided him with vivid insider observations. I cheered for the subversive produce pro who, offended by instructions to toss perfectly good tomatoes, sorted the perfect from the imperfect, combining two dumpster-destined clamshell boxfuls into one attractive batch. Thus he only threw out bruised vegetables. If a supervisor knew, that employee could have been in big trouble, even though common sense would suggest that it’s good for the grocery store to sell more, right? The saddest of Bloom’s observations is how even he, a crusader against wanton food waste, eventually stopped perceiving the imperfect produce they threw out as food. Throwing it away became normal.
Supermarket food is marked with dates. If the Sell By date is approaching, some stores toss is before. These dates might also say “Best By” or “Eat By”, thoroughly confusing. No one knows what the hell these mean. Most consumers imagine something dangerous will happen if they don’t abide by these somewhat arbitrary dates. Hence food is discarded rather than upsetting the customers, even though its quality is still fine. No discounting of such product at chain groceries – same concern with degrading brand quality. And no letting employees take it. Nope, to the dumpster it goes.
Next time you eat in a chain restaurant you might want to repress Bloom’s reporting, since it’s mighty depressing. Eating establishments throw out immense amounts of prepared foods each night. Some restaurants discard them out more frequently than that. The worst wasters are buffet spreads, because their business model is based on extensive choice available the entire time the restaurant is open for business. Employees are not allowed to eat the leftovers, nor are customers allowed to take theirs home. Smaller locally-owned restaurants are more food frugal, often using leftover prepared foods in new, creative ways, just like home cooks. Waste, after all, represents the bottom line, and well-run restaurants attempt to minimize the amount of money they throw away.
Weavers Way [here in Philly], happily, gets exemplary marks for minimizing food waste. We sell or give away food with expiration dates close at hand. We have a discount produce bin which shoppers check out, inspiration for many a soup or banana bread, I’m sure. Kim Spellman-Hall, our Chestnut Hill manager, outlines our protocols:
This nearly zero-waste policy is something for Weavers Way shoppers take great pride and comfort in, knowing that our coop values food and makes every possible effort to avoid destroying it. I am thrilled to learn of this virtue-added benefit of membership.
One of the chief take-aways from Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff is how much waste occurs in the supply chain, something about which the end consumer is entirely (and happily) oblivious. Jonathan Bloom does a great job of spotlighting the food chain. He includes a lot of data, but it’s his stories which will stick with you.
This is one of a three-part review. Bloom also lays out encouraging examples of waste reduction and food recovery, which I will feature in Part II. The third installment will focus on our home-based waste along with strategies for avoiding all the accumulation with which we are all intimately familiar. Send me your stories!