Waste Not, Want Not

November 19, 2010

Jonathan Bloom has spent the last several years becoming an expert on food waste. He has written about the issue extensively on his blog and in his new book, American Wasteland. In the latter, Bloom chronicles time spent investigating our waste habits — on farms and at supermarkets, kitchens, and landfills — and makes some astute recommendations about the best way forward.

CUESA: Why focus on food waste? And why do it now?sites/default/files/American_Wasteland_bookcover_6.jpg

Jonathan Bloom: I’ve been working on this book for five years, and it’s felt like a timely and appropriate message all along. But the idea of using our food more wisely will be strengthened by the fact that more of us are starting to think about sustainable food choices. I think eating as much as we can of what we grow is the epitome of sustainability.

CUESA: As you point out in your book, Americans waste 40% of the food we produce. Can you break that down a little? How much is occurring in restaurants and grocery stores versus in individuals’ homes?

JB: There isn’t great data on the topic because for so long people weren’t really thinking about it. It’s also tricky to measure something that disappears so quickly. But the 40% number comes from a National Institutes of Health–funded study that came out last year; it’s the most reliable data out there. The study I know of that looked at all levels of the food chain studied the waste produced in one county in New York. They found that households produced the most food waste, around 40% of the total. I was surprised by that number, but there are so many households, so it really adds up.

So the bad news is that we’re pretty darn wasteful; the good news is that there’s really an opportunity for individual action around reducing that waste.

CUESA: Do you want to say anything about the generational shifts that have occurred around valuing and saving and using food?

JB: The generation that grew up experiencing either the Great Depression or World War II certainly valued their food more. And some of the folks who had to suffer through those shortages reacted against having to scrimp and save and wanted to celebrate the abundance of cheap food that started appearing [in the middle of the last century]. Part of that reaction was not wanting to pressure their families to eat all their food. For those of us who have known nothing but abundance, it’s difficult  to have the same value for food that the older generations do.sites/default/files/Jonathan_bloom_0.jpg

CUESA: What is the connection – as you see it – between food cost and food waste?

JB: I think one of the reasons we waste food is because it’s so cheap. It’s pretty clear that it’s artificially cheap, due to subsidies and how the USDA goes about setting farm policy. People complain about rising food costs, but we only spend around 10% of our disposable income on food. That’s not only a historic low, but it’s less than any other nation spends.

You’re just going to treat a chicken you buy at the farmers market that costs 20 dollars very differently than you might treat one that costs you five dollars at a supermarket. It’s a tricky position to be in to argue that food should cost more; I’d obviously just as soon see people value it more. But one of the mechanisms to do that is to have food cost reflect its true value.

CUESA: Do you want to talk about the role that appearance plays?

JB: There’s what I call a cult of perfection in this country. We’ve come to expect our food items to look beautiful. That has disastrous impacts when you look at all the produce that doesn’t make it to market — starting at the farm, where things that don’t look quite right aren’t picked, and including packing plants, where some of what is harvested is weeded out.

The positive side of the story is that more and more people are shopping at farmers markets or growing food in their backyards (or rooftops, or wherever they can) and will naturally be exposed to the idea that ugly food is beautiful on the inside! That sounds cheesy, but taste should really trump appearance.

CUESA: How are you working to reach people who have never been bothered by wasting food? 

JB: I recently had someone say to me, “It’s my food. If I buy it, what do you care?” The answer is that it’s not just your food. A tremendous amount of resources went into growing it, shipping it, and getting it from farm to fork. And if you’re just going to throw it in the trash where it’ll release methane, you’ll be contributing to climate change, which impacts us all.

It can be tough to convince people that reducing food waste isn’t just this reactionary movement that will force us to live like peasants from years past. But I spend a lot of time reinforcing the fact that eating wisely has tremendous environmental benefits, as well as economic ones. The hardest thing to communicate — but the easiest thing to understand — is that it just doesn’t make sense to throw away food while there are people struggling to get enough to eat.sites/default/files/jonathan_bloom_video.jpg

Watch a related video of Bloom from Cooking up a Story.

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