Waste Not, Want Not: Author Explores America's Food Waste Problem
Local and sustainable food is great, as long as it is put to use. But according to food writer Jonathan Bloom, many people are chronic wasters of what they eat, which results in the loss of nutrition (not to mention the effort required to produce it) to a vacuum.
Bloom battles the issue of food waste through his blog, Wasted Food (and a book he wrote, American Wasteland. Seedstock asked Bloom his opinions about numerous aspects of wasted food.
Seedstock: What caused you to become so interested in the issue of food gone to waste?
Bloom: It started from a simple idea: wasting food made no sense. It was and is foolish to squander almost half of our food in a nation (and world) with so much hunger. My interest grew even more when I realized the environmental consequences of our food waste—both the squandered natural resources and the methane emissions from food rotting in landfills.
Seedstock: When was this interest born?
Bloom: I learned to enjoy, appreciate and respect food, in that order. I grew up in a family where no leftover was too small to save—because you never know when you’ll need that little smidge of hoisin sauce—and doggie bagging was de rigueur. With that background, I was easy prey for the food waste bug when I witnessed the simple brilliance of the food recovery at D.C. Central Kitchen while volunteering there in 2005.
Seedstock: Is the issue of food waste a uniquely American problem?
Bloom: Wasting food is by no means specific to the US, but we’re quite adept at it. First, we produce about twice the amount of food that we need, so it’s not shocking that we then waste nearly half. That abundance, combined with generous subsidies on commodity crops, leads to lower prices. And we don’t tend to value what we don’t spend much on. Finally, due to the ubiquitous food shows and glossy magazines, we demand that our food look perfect. Anything blemished, or with the wrong shape, size or color tends to end up in the waste bin.
Seedstock: How do your book, American Wasteland, and your blog, wastedfood.com, address the problem of so much waste?
Bloom: My book details where and why we waste 40 percent of our food, focusing on the underlying causes before identifying the many, many solutions for the problem. My blog discusses—often with a touch of whimsy—the many facets to the issue of food waste, hopping from tree gleaning to restaurant portion sizes and so on.
Seedstock: Describe the relationship between food waste and big agriculture’s focus on yield.
Bloom: Our obsession with growing from fence row to fence row and maximizing the per acre yield leads to a real glut of commodity crops. Some of that excess can be put to good use—or at least in theory it can—via food aid. Yet the majority of it sits for years before being discarded. And that well-intentioned abundance keeps food prices low, leading to less incentive to avoid waste throughout the food chain. Meanwhile, there’s also the issue of entire fields left unharvested because the price of that food may not justify the investment of diesel or human energy.
Seedstock: What can the average person do to reduce food waste?
Bloom: People can make an immediate impact in their own kitchen. We all tend to buy too much fresh food, essentially guaranteeing we’ll waste food. Making more frequent, but smaller shopping trips will probably help. Or if the weekly grocery run is preferred, it’s important to plan meals and make a detailed shopping list. Being wise on portion sizes never hurts, whether in restaurants or at home. And saving leftovers will go a long way toward trimming food waste. Of course, we have to actually eat those leftovers; throwing them out a week later doesn’t do much good. Finally, freezing food is a handy way to lengthen the lifespan of most food items.
Seedstock: How can wasted food be put to good use?
Bloom: There are many nonprofit organizations who rescue edible but unsellable food from wholesalers, supermarkets, restaurants and farmers’ markets to then donate to soup kitchens and food banks. Yet due to logistical and funding limitations, they can only collect a fraction of the available food. It’s worth noting that food recovery is protected from liability by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996. Similarly, gleaning groups harvest and redistribute farm excess to those in need. Yet, that is time-consuming, difficult work. That’s why it’s vital that we try to prevent having excess food in the first place. When we do end up with too much, we can share it with friends, family and neighbors. Building community while avoiding food waste—what could be more beautiful?
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