Tuesday, May 17, 2011

American Wasteland

When I saw my mom in Kansas City in March, she showed me the book she was reading, and I was thrilled to find that our local library had a copy. The book is called American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It).

All areas of stewardship are compelling to me, and since food is something I obviously encounter on a daily basis, this was a subject I was interested to learn more about. Written by a journalist named Jonathan Bloom, the book gives an inside look at the waste prevalent in American agriculture, grocery stores, restaurants, institutions and homes. The statistics in the book are alarming. According to one study, the average American throws away 197 lbs. of food per year. Yikes! "No matter how you slice it," the author writes, "we're sending far too much food to the landfill--and that has dire long-and short-term consequences."

Reading this book is making me think more about what I buy (and how much) because "Creating the meal on our plates is an energy-sapping, environment-impacting process. Wasting that food squanders our supply of water, depletes our soil's nutrients, and wastes the fossil fuels that are used throughout the food chain." I try to be intentional about checking our fridge before I plan meals so that I know what we have and what needs to be used up. I actually really enjoy the challenge, and think we do pretty well in this area overall, but I've definitely allowed some produce like spinach to get past its prime, and I've seen more than one loaf of bread develop fuzz. I'm sure we can keep striving to improve in this regard, thereby decreasing the amount of food wasted by our household.

Contrary to what you might expect him to say, Bloom states that while he hopes people will reduce waste, he doesn't want anyone going to extremes and feeling guilty if they leave a few peas on their plate. Some waste, he says, is inevitable, but we can do our best to avoid it when possible. "We can be mindful of all that went into growing, shipping, and preparing our food and remember that there are those who go without enough to eat. Then we should act accordingly."

One of the issues Bloom identifies that could be easily corrected is to have a standard system (and understanding) for sell by/use by dates on products. Some consumers and grocers are probably too strict with this system (pitching items that are about to "expire"), and others are perhaps too lenient. But as Bloom asserts, we as individuals can use common sense when making decisions about whether a product is still edible or not. For example, I don't mind buying or even eating cheese that's at or just past it's stamped date, but I admit I get kind of squeamish when it comes to milk. (Which I know doesn't make a lot of sense, given that they're similar products!)

The section of the book that most fascinated me was a peek into another family's refrigerator. A couple from North Carolina shared a list of the contents of their fridge, which I found very intriguing. The couple discovered quite a few duplicate products crammed in their fridge, as well as random ingredients they'd bought for one dish and never used again. That's not a common situation for me. I actually often avoid some new recipes that include ingredients I think we're not likely to use regularly, or I make a substitution. To quote the author of a major food waste study, William Rathje, "The more repetitive your diet, the less food you waste." That doesn't mean you have to eat the same menu every week, but using the same ingredients in a variety of ways means you're less likely to have forsaken ingredients in your pantry or fridge.

I counted the number of items the couple listed, and came up with a total of 103 items. That number seemed really high to me, so I immediately opened my fridge and tallied 68 items. Because it was right before my weekly grocery trip, I'm guessing that number is a little lower than our norm. So interesting!

Thinking about the contents of my fridge makes me want to be more intentional with making sure I'm using the ingredients we already have there and in our pantry. I think it's a fun "game" to use up random bits and pieces. I loved one of the resources the book listed--a British campaign called "Love Food Hate Waste." The site is inspirational for increasing awareness about food waste, and has lots of tips and recipes for preparing the right amount, using up leftovers, etc. Brilliant! =)

If you are interested in learning more about food waste in our culture, I definitely encourage you to pick up this book or to look at the site mentioned above. Awareness is key!

What do you think of this topic? Anyone else willing to share the number of items in your own fridge for my entertainment? (I counted every jar and container, but things like a carton of eggs just counted for one item.)


Carmen said...

I think about this a lot because I always "intend" to eat healthy fruits and vegetables and make my grocery store purchases based on that intention. Unfortunately I don't always follow through on my intentions and thos are the thigns I eventually throw away.

May I suggest putting the spinach into your smoothies? I have started making a frozen berry, banana, protein smoothie for breakfast and add 2 cups of spinach. The spinach does not change the taste or the color (the berries overpower) but I know I'm getting added nutrients from it and often if I think the spinach is past it's prime eating stage it still seems okay for a smoothie.

Ginger said...

I haven't counted what's in my fridge, but I do keep and use leftovers a couple of nights later if not the next day. I have been known to put up a tablespoon of peas; even if it's just me eating them. I have a real problem with throwing out food.

Mom said...

Another great book review :)

One of the topics I took from this book was the amount of food waste produced by grocery stores. Monica recently told me that her grocery store throws away bananas after they are past their peak rather than selling them at a discount. Those of us who bake banana bread, muffins, etc. are happy to buy ripe bananas at a discount! My own regular grocery store has only recently begun selling day-old bread, dairy products nearing the expiration date, etc. at reduced prices -- and I'm glad to support that effort! Maybe we need to contact our grocery store managers and encourage them to do this!

Love you! Mom

Anonymous said...

I'm putting this book on my list. Around here grocery prices are going up and the sales have been terrible. Each week when I get ready to shop I clean out my fridge and think "There's got to be at least 2 meals of waste in here." I hate that! That isn't being a good steward.

:) Tracy

Anne Marie@Married to the Empire said...

We have a ton of stuff in the fridge; I don't dare count! BUT, when I'm not pregnant, I like to cook, so we have a ton of condiments and such in there. I don't think you even want to know how many spices I own...

We are bad about wasting food. With only 2 of us, I do often freeze portions of meals, but sometimes I don't because I think we'll eat it all up as leftovers. But then stuff happens where we're not eating at home, or we're just not in the mood for whatever it is. How blessed are we that if we're not feeling a dish, we can just eat something else? Sometimes I think we'd do well to remember that not everyone in this world is so unbelievably privileged.

thehomespunheart said...

As Mom said I've been really discouraged about not being able to get bananas at a discount. Recently, I learned a friend has a husband that works in the produce dept of my fav. groc. store - so I asked if he could save bananas for me. No, he's not allowed to - they just THROW THEM AWAY! Ack! Mom encouraged me to write a letter to the store which I have not done yet - but seriously, this food should not be thrown out!

Debra said...

This book sounds interesting. I counted the contents of my fridge- I had 98 - more than I would have thought but I have a lot of salad dressing and mustard and I just went shopping today. My family will sadly tell you that we eat a lot of leftovers but us moms all know why! I really hate to waste anything.

I don't know if you saw the Oprah episode a while back about 'freegans' - they basically get free food out of grocery store dumpsters- most of the stuff is perfectly fine. They usually have to hit the dumpsters as the store is throwing the stuff out - usually at night. Not something most of us, especially those with kids, would do but it was really interesting.

Today I got a loaf of french bread on the bakery discount cart for 99 cents- it's still in very good condition but I got it for french toast so even if it was a bit stale it would be ok- normally it's about $3 but I am sure it would have ended up in the trash if I hadn't gotten it.

There is just so much waste around us. I agree with you that being aware is so important.

Flower Patch Farmgirl said...

Looks like a fascinating read. Today I made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, which are usually big crowd pleasers, but today none of the kids finished theirs. It irritated me and I ended up sending them up to quiet time early. Later, I saw the remnant sandwiches all piled up in the trash can looking very woeful and it sorta made me mad again! I decided I'm just a total weirdo. But maybe not! Or maybe there are just a lot of weirdos just like me. :)