Over the last few months I’ve been reading a book called “American Wasteland” by Jonathan Bloom, subtitled “How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food.” It’s taken me a while to get through it because I find myself reading a few pages, getting pissed off, raging through my kitchen trying to find a way to save food, failing, and finally putting the book on a shelf for a week.
So it took me a while to read 300 pages at that rate.
In short, it’s a frustrating book to read, but one that I think many people could benefit from reading. It’s frustrating to think that while there are people in the world (and in this country) starving every single day, half of the food that’s produced and grown in this country is literally trashed.
That’s a frightening figure.
Politicians always talk about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse from budgets and after thinking about it, I realized the same three items can be applied to this problem. So let’s break it down and look at the waste, fraud and abuse that’s going on in our food production system these days.
Food waste is impossible to eliminate. That’s one thing that Mr. Bloom makes very clear. You’re going to have spoilage. You’re going to have unused pieces of ingredients. There will be accidents. Inevitably, food will be thrown out that at one point, could have been eaten.
The problem, of course, is the levels of waste. As the author uncovers in his research, some of the largest waste comes before the groceries even get to the store shelves. At the very beginning of his book, he visits a lettuce farm where he guessed that “one out of every five” heads of perfectly edible lettuce is left to rot. The pickers have incentives to pick only the absolute best heads so if there’s even a doubt about it, they leave it behind.
For sake of calculations, he uses a much more conservative estimate that 90% of the lettuce is harvested.
“Since growers in the Salinas Valley produced 153,495 acres of lettuce in 2007, that’s the equivalent of not harvesting 15,350 acres, or leaving more than 13 million pounds of lettuce in the field. And that’s just lettuce.”
It gets worse. Once produce makes it out of the field it goes through a huge array of production and processing lines from cooling units to trucks to warehouses to, ultimately, grocery stores. At every single stage, produce is inspected and in many cases if it doesn’t meet quality standards, the entire shipment will be thrown out.
Sometimes if the produce facility or driver is particularly mindful, they will try to arrange for this perfectly edible (but not perfect) produce to be donated, but if it can’t be arranged quickly, it’s generally just trashed. Sometimes by the truckload.
So when you see produce on the shelves at the stores or in a restaurant, it seems almost miraculous that it ever got there after reading the labyrinth that food goes through. It’s hard to know what percentage of food gets wasted before it even gets to our homes, but it seems like this might be the most obvious example of waste in our current system.
When you think of the word fraud you probably think of lying. But I don’t think it needs to be that severe. Fraud can also be through deception and it turns out that there’s some pretty serious deception/confusion happening when it comes to food.
The best example of this involves food labeling. I’m sure you’ve seen the dates that are frequently stamped on dairy, meat, and some produce in stores. The problem is that there’s a huge variety of date displays on food and it’s almost impossible to wade through them. As Mr. Bloom sums up:
“In American retailing, our complex status quo includes terms such as ‘sell by,’ ‘sell or freeze by,’ ‘display until,’ ‘use by,’ ‘use or freeze by,’ ‘enjoy by,’ ‘best by,’ and ‘best before.’ I study food waste and it even confuses me from time to time.
The problem, of course, is that when people see a date on a package they immediately assume that the product is no longer good after that date. But those above terms mean a wide range of things. The result is that these dates end up baffling not only consumers, but store workers.
Both employees and shoppers aren’t always sure what all the dates mean so, as they say, when it doubt throw it out.
While this deception might not be purposeful, it’s happening. More importantly, it seems like by standardizing our labeling system and providing consumers with some basic information, this could be easily fixed.
After I realized all the work and waste that happened before food even got to me, abuse was the best word I could think of to describe when I throw something out now that used to be edible.
Abuse, in the food world, is the stuff that consumers throw away without a thought. This could be the half plate of enchiladas that you didn’t finish at the Mexican restaurant or the full head of butter lettuce that I let go bad in my fridge.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve had my abusive moments. Why do I have half a dozen tiny cubes of cheese, two of which are completely molded? Why do I have three different bags of baby carrots? Herbs. Don’t even get me started on herbs.
It’s pretty hard to measure how much food is thrown out by individuals once it gets into the home, but my guess is that it could be less.
Some of my favorite parts of this book were the solutions that Mr. Bloom offers. Some of them are probably never going to happen, but some of them are incredibly simple to implement on the personal level. At the end of the day, even if we can’t get farms to harvest more produce or change the way food is labeled, some changes might be more simple.
Here’s three ideas he gives that I thought were particularly simple and effective.
Encourage supermarkets to discount soon-to-expire goods. I’ve actually seen this, but it’s really rare. Supermarkets just don’t like to have non-perfect produce on the shelves, but it’s been shown that people will pay less for less-than-perfect produce if it’s available. They will buy it though which means it won’t go to waste. I have no idea why this isn’t in every store.
Get Doggy Bags. A lot of waste happens in the restaurant world. This is largely because restaurants serve ridiculous portions these days. For some reason there’s a stigma against the doggy bag, but try to make an effort to take your leftovers and actually eat them.
Track your food. Get a white board. Hang it on your fridge. Write down everything that goes in and comes out. This is the best way to cut down on your personal waste. Betsy and I have been doing this for a few months now and while we still make mistakes, I think our food waste is way down.
I have a feeling that over the next decade or two, food waste is going to become a pretty big issue.
What do you think? Do you have any tips on how to reduce food waste? Leave a comment on how to stop waste, fraud, and abuse!
Photo by hipsxxhearts.