Wellness: And Gluttons Become Poor

The amount of food we discard tells us a lot about the culture we've created.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010
Cover Image from Jonathan Bloom's American Wasteland

Under my kitchen sink sits an unassuming (if overpriced) green plastic bin that represents my salvation from years of guilt.

Really, I'd always had the best of intentions to set up some kind of composting operation in my back yard. I'd hear friends talk about how easy it was. I'd get one of those lovely home-and-garden catalogs in the mail, with page after page of high-end compost bins and barrels. Then I'd Google "composting," start reading about how to do it & and quickly abandon my plan, overwhelmed at the thought of having to balance my browns and my greens, and get a pitchfork to periodically stir up the muck, and figure out how to keep the neighborhood bears and raccoons from feasting on all my discarded corn cobs and lettuce leaves. Then there was the fact that I don't garden—what would I do with all that precious black soil I was creating?—and that no one else in my house was eager to join me in my muck stirring.

The city of Northampton came to my rescue: last summer, the city started a pilot municipal composting system. Forget the hard work; all I had to do was fork out about 50 bucks for a large under-sink composting bin with an odor-eating charcoal insert (the free bin, provided by the city, was pitifully small, and had no stink-control measures), then once a week bring it to the transfer station to dump out, along with all my trash and recycling (a domestic chore that, thankfully, rarely falls to me). From there, the fine folks at the Northampton DPW take over, shepherding my household's (and more than 200 other households') food waste to a composting facility in Belchertown, where someone else will do the stirring and greens-and-browns balancing work necessary to make some gardeners very happy down the road. Gone is the guilt about contributing to the landfill bagsful of rejected sandwich crusts and apple cores; don't ask me how tiny my weekly trash bags are unless you can bear to listen to me brag.

I'm feeling even more grateful for Northampton's composting assistance since I've read American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It), written by journalist Jonathan Bloom and published this fall by Da Capo Press.

Americans, Bloom writes, waste a staggering amount of food, at every link on the food chain, from the field to the supermarket to the home fridge, with "harmful environmental, economic, and ethical consequences." And—lest I get too smug—Bloom makes it clear that, the benefits of composting aside, we need to make deeper changes to the way to produce, consume and think about food in our society to end this shameful situation.

*

Like any good advocacy journalist, Bloom marshals plenty of jaw-dropping statistics to make his case. While the figure cited in his book's subtitle—placing the amount of our food that we throw away at around half—is not universally accepted, a more conservative figure, from the USDA, is still breathtaking: Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food a year—about one-quarter of the nation's total food production.

The sobering stats don't end there: food makes up 12 percent of our total trash output. Every day, we generate about half a pound of food waste per person—that comes to almost 200 pounds per person. That's double the amount wasted in 1974. The average family in the U.S. spends about $2,200 a year on food that it will throw away.

And what happens to all that tossed-away food? It's not pretty—and I'm not just talking about mold growth and feasting rats. While Americans have become increasingly uncomfortable about sending plastic ziplocs and take-out coffee cups to our overfilled landfills, we tend to think of food waste as somehow more benign, Bloom notes. Styrofoam may be forever, but bruised peaches and those bread ends that no one will eat will just decompose, peacefully returning to the earth from whence they came, right?

Think again. Food waste, Bloom writes, is the leading cause of methane production in landfills. (Composted food, by contrast, does not create methane, thanks to all that stirring.) And in case you've missed the news, methane, in the words of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for approximately 9-15 years. Methane is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide ... over a 100-year period and is emitted from a variety of natural and human-influenced sources."

And that's not the only environmental cost, Bloom writes. Food waste contributes to groundwater contamination, especially in older landfills that lack effective liners. And, further back in the production chain, there are the resources wasted to produce food that will never end up in someone's belly: the soil and water used up for no good end; the energy used to operate farm equipment, to create the chemical fertilizers that large-scale growers depend on, to fuel the trucks that carry the destined-to-be-wasted food to distribution centers and supermarkets.

"In sum, we're wasting resources by growing too much stuff, which causes soil depletion, which in turn requires us to use more fertilizers (using fossil-fuel resources) to maintain yields. Meanwhile, we're speeding up erosion and using up our precious aquifers," Bloom writes.

Then there are the economic effects. "On a macroeconomic level, our waste throughout the food chain spurs price increases," Bloom notes. "If less food were wasted, we wouldn't need to grow as much, which would lower input costs. To keep up with the anticipated waste, we've had to grow more crops, depleting the soil at a faster rate, requiring more fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, all of which come at a price, making food more expensive (and doing a number on the environment).

"Someone has to pay for these increased costs, and it isn't the farmer, the processor, or the retailer," he adds. "It's you and me."

And we don't just pay with our wallets—we pay other, less tangible but still crucial, costs as a culture. Is wasting food immoral? Bloom asks. Perhaps not in the cause-and-effect, finish-your-stew-there-are-kids-starving-in-China/Ethiopia/Haiti way many of us were raised to believe, he writes. But the amount of food we so casually discard does serve as a powerful symbol of the wasteful, throwaway culture we've created.

Wasting food, Emory University ethicist Paul Root Wolpe tells Bloom, is "morally wrong." (Most major religions would agree; Bloom quotes a range of religious texts—the Old and New Testaments, the Koran—on the immorality of wasting food.)

"To treat food cavalierly leads to a lack of appreciation of the importance of food, of the fact that some go without it, of the suffering of animals that the carnivores among us are willing to tolerate to eat our food," Wolpe says. "It shows such a profound lack of appreciation for all that eating food represents."

That cavalier attitude toward food is a fairly new phenomenon. Bloom interviews elderly people who grew up during the Depression, or the period of war-time rationing (when thrift took on a patriotic quality), who are appalled by the casual way we leave food on our plates and toss our leftovers. Certainly, the author points out, our ancestors—the struggling Pilgrims, the starving settlers at Jamestown, the pioneers who headed west with minimal provisions—would be flabbergasted by what we waste. (And let's not forget the earliest Americans, who—as every schoolchild learns—found a use for every part of the animals they hunted.)

Of course, despite what our culture of abundance might suggest, hunger is not just a thing of the past. According to a report released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 50 million Americans—about 17 million of them children—are "food insecure," defined as "lack[ing] consistent access to a nutritious, well-balanced diet." And "Hunger in America 2010," a comprehensive study by the non-profit Feeding America, reported that every week, 5.7 million U.S. households turn to one of the group's affiliated food banks and other agencies for emergency food assistance—a 27 percent increase from 2006.

At the same time, we are tossing away perfectly good food at ever-increasing rates. Bloom cites a National Institute of Health report that estimated that 43 million people could be fed with just one-fourth of the food we waste. Talk about sinful.

*

Given these costs—financial, environmental, psychic—why, then, do we continue to waste so much food?

Perhaps, Bloom suggests, it's because of our "dysfunctional" relationship with food. "We produce nearly twice the amount of calories we need, yet more than 10 percent of Americans don't get enough to eat. We waste nearly half of what we produce, and we're dangerously overweight," he writes. "Our excessive waste is both an indicator and a symptom of this unhealthy relationship. There's an uneven distribution of food, and it's due in part to our affinity for abundance."

That love of abundance, Bloom writes, causes us to stuff our refrigerators with items that very likely will never make it to a plate. It prompts supermarkets to keep its produce shelves and salad bars fully stocked—half-empty displays, apparently, are a turn-off for customers—even though much of it will be tossed at the end of the day. It makes caterers prepare much more food than they'll ever need, so mothers of the bride and party planners never have to worry that there won't be enough bacon-wrapped scallops to go around. It inspires restaurants to offer super-sized meals with enough calories to fuel a person for an entire day, leaving diners to either stuff themselves, abandon half their food on their plate, or take the remainder home in doggie bags that will languish on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

And it's not just abundance we crave—we also demand perfection in our food. Bloom—who did much of his reporting in the field, observing pickers on farms and working in a fast food restaurant and a supermarket—offers first-hand accounts of how that desire for perfection plays out. Farmers, he writes, won't bother to pick produce that looks anything less that perfect, for fear that by the time it reaches store shelves, often weeks down the road, it will look even worse, and no one will buy it.

"All produce companies want to ensure that a vegetable picked today will not just be edible, but enticing, on vendors' shelves," Bloom writes. "Hence, a head of lettuce that is perfectly good now—but shows signs that it could be less than ideal in two weeks—won't be picked." (That's yet another argument for moving toward local food systems and away from the current practice of shipping food across the country and even the globe). That inclination to toss the imperfect continues through the food production chain, down to produce managers who send workers to the dumpster with every slightly bruised peach and funny-shaped potato.

Where does this mania for food perfection come from? Bloom attributes it to our lack of connection to our food sources, which has been replaced with the sort of air-brushed food information we get from the Food Network and its ilk. People who grew up in agricultural societies knew both the value and reality of food; weirdly curved cucumbers didn't faze them, and they knew just how long fresh food would last, rather than relying on a date stamped on the bottom.

Today, Bloom writes, "Flawless fruits and vegetables are now expected. If we are going to bother to cook, we want it to look like it does on TV or in the magazines. And the displays at high-end retailers like Whole Foods and Wegman's— what many call 'food porn'—raise our expectations. We've come to believe that perfect, uniform produce is normal."

That's not the only shopping error we make. We buy items in bulk, so excited by the savings that we don't really question whether we'll use up all that bargain apple sauce before it begins to grow a fuzzy blue beard. We impulse-buy, sucked in by the alluring displays and piped-in fresh bread smells carefully engineered by supermarkets. We engage in a sort of aspirational shopping, buying piles of kale and fresh berries with the best of healthy-eating intentions then letting it all rot in the produce bin, or purchasing all the ingredients for some fancy recipe we saw Martha Stewart prepare, only to use a small portion and leave the rest to go bad. (Bloom calls these forsaken items "recipe one-timers.")

Ironically, our society's fetishization of food goes hand in hand with a devaluing of food.

*

By the time I reached the end of American Wasteland, I was beginning to wonder just how much good my proud little compost bin is really accomplishing in the fight against food waste.

But Bloom refuses to be pessimistic. His book highlights the many ways Americans are fighting against the loss of so much of this precious resource. They include formal "food-rescue" operations, like gleaners who collect the good stuff left in the field, and supermarkets and restaurants that donate safe, unused food items to shelters and food banks. While these donations typically are heavy on canned and boxed goods, and light on desirable products like fresh produce and meat, they still play a significant role in feeding the hungry: for instance, of the almost 3.3 million pounds of food distributed by the Food Bank of Western Mass. in fiscal 2009, 41 percent was "rescued food" donated by supermarkets, local farms and food distributors, spokeswoman Robin Claremont told the Advocate. (The rest came from federal and state government programs, food drives and the Food Bank Farm.)

And while some potential donors shy away from the practice for fear that they could be sued if they unwittingly pass on food that ends up causing recipients to get sick, that's a misconception, Bloom notes. The 1996 federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects those who give food "in good faith" from legal liability. (Of course, as Bloom notes, some companies use the liability excuse simply because they don't want to deal with the hassle of donating food.)

While some food waste is inevitable, Bloom offers his own wish list of changes we could make as a society to dramatically cut down on the amount. They include creating a national "food-waste czar" position, throwing the support of the federal government behind the effort. (Such a position did exist during the Clinton administration, Bloom reports, but was eliminated during the Bush administration.) Bloom also calls for a national public service campaign focused on reducing food waste, akin to the Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl campaigns that got Americans thinking about fire safety and littering.

Finally, he'd like to see municipalities ban food waste in landfills and mandate curbside composting programs—something the cities of San Francisco and Seattle both did last year. Currently, composting rates in the U.S. are "pitiful," Bloom writes: in 2000, we composted just 2.5 percent of our food waste; by 2007 it had risen to a whopping 2.7 percent. But he's confident that the trend could take off just like household recycling did, and that before long, separating our food waste from the rest of our trash will be as commonplace as bundling our newspapers and setting aside our bottles and cans for recycling.

Indeed, despite the horrifying waste he witnessed through his reporting, Bloom remains impressively optimistic about our ability to change our food habits. "[I]nstead of being discouraged by the status quo, we can view our national food-waste habit as an opportunity," he writes. "By trimming our waste and recovering the low-hanging fruit (literally and figuratively!), we can help feed hungry Americans, bolster our economy, combat global warming, and make our society a bit more ethical."

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