Last night, several blog readers joined me over at the RRG Facebook page for a live chat during the Food Network’s presentation of a new special, “The Big Waste.” It was, as you’d expect, a show about the appalling amount of edible food that is just wasted in America every day — the billions of pounds, annually, of perfectly good produce, meat, dairy, and other foodstuffs that are thrown in the trash and forgotten about entirely. The show was great, but the conversation on the RRG page was even better. This is a topic that seems to arouse a lot of passions in everyone, and having watched the show, I can tell you that it’s inspired more than a momentary reaction in me — it’s gotten me itching for something I can DO about it.
I won’t be a spoiler, and I won’t rehash the whole show here, because I KNOW you’ll want to watch it if you didn’t catch last night’s airing, and it’s going to be rerun on Food Network at 4 p.m. on January 14. So you’ve still got time. But I will say this: There is a level of shock and dismay that I expected to feel upon watching a show devoted to uncovering wasteful food-handling in America…and then there’s a whole other level of distress, one that borders on nausea, and THAT is the level of distress I felt while watching this show. Still feel, as a matter of fact. When we live in a so-called privileged nation, and 1 in 4 of our children still doesn’t get enough to eat, sobering statistics like “Americans waste about 200 pounds of edible food per person each year” are nothing short of sickening.
The worst part, I think, is that I wanted to believe that all that food waste was happening on one of two fronts: either the sort of household crisper-drawer malaise we’re all guilty of from time to time, or somehow, as a byproduct of the great Food Industrial Complex — probably because, hey, I admit that I’d really like to be able to blame Big Food and Big Ag for just about everything. Childhood obesity? Big Food’s fault. High taxes? Big Food’s fault. Broken water heater? Big Food’s fault. Stubbed toe? Totally gonna blame that on Big Food. Unfortunately, it appears that I can NOT blame this ridiculously egregious amount of wasted food on the nefarious food industry. Darn it.
No, it’s not entirely the fault of corporate greed or HFCS-peddling men in double-breasted suits, drumming their fingers together with anticipation behind the doors of board rooms while workers pump artificial colors into something that was formerly food. It’s actually — at least according to the Food Network’s special — the fault, largely, of the American consumer. That’s right, guys. It’s US. We are the problem.
You know how sometimes, when you go grocery shopping, you’ll see a tiny little imperfection on the outside of a pea pod and you’ll reject it outright, only choosing and purchasing the very most beautiful of all the pea pods in the land? Yeah, me neither. But apparently, there are many, many shoppers out there who do, in fact, insist upon having spotless, shiny, impossibly perfect produce…and meat…and seafood…and when those barely-spotted pea pods get chucked time and again to the bottom of the bin, the produce managers get wise and remove them. Not because there’s anything wrong with them. Because they just won’t sell.
Now, maybe it’s just me — I’ve always been the girl who, watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” each Christmas, wonders what in the heck is wrong with a spotted elephant, and wants to take that cute little pachyderm home for a cuddle — but I don’t mind a little imperfection on my food. No, I don’t want anything that smells bad, or looks like it may have been used as a chew toy at the pound before hitting the butcher case, but I’m not a stickler for appearances. I’ll buy the brussels sprouts with the aphid damage, the pea pods that are scratched and dented, the slightly splotchy bananas. I may not seek those items out, don’t get me wrong; but I don’t mind if they find their way into my shopping bag. If the bananas turn before we eat them, they’ll make great banana bread; I’m only after the peas INSIDE the pea pods anyway; and you can always cut around the aphid spots if they bother you so much. It’s not a huge deal. (I’m aware, by the way, that almost a decade of avid farmer’s market shopping has probably cultivated this laissez-faire attitude in me — local, pesticide-free produce does not tend to look like it came from a showroom.)
But back to the Big Waste. Apparently I am in a serious minority as far as my threshold for attractiveness in vegetables goes; the program showed several farmers, grocers, and distributors who were throwing away literally dozens of pounds (or more) of food every single day because it was “irregular.” From scratched-up pea pods to eggs that were too small or too large, from cabbage that looked a little mangy on the outside layers to a whole FIELD of tomatoes that had fallen from the plants and were therefore deemed unsalable, there were just. Mountains. Of. Good. Wholesome. Food. Rotting.
I’m dismayed and angry and troubled about the whole thing, especially the meat — oh, God, the meat. I’m a meat-eater myself, though I try to be moderate about it, and I don’t try to sugarcoat the reality of where that meat comes from — not to myself or to my family. But if an animal’s life is sacrificed for us to eat, then I want that animal to be USED, not discarded. Whole chickens, wasted because a single wing bone broke during the plucking process or a piece of skin was torn? It’s horrifying to think that we’re wasting life at an alarming rate. But even worse than the chickens is knowing that we’re allowing all of this wastefulness to go on with serious, deleterious consequences to HUMAN life as well.
It’s been a long-standing lament, not just of mine but of pretty much every conscious food writer/advocate in the world, that people who are living in poverty and food insecurity seem much more able to afford — and to access — utterly crapulous food. I’m not going to do a whole review of the issues with food deserts and SNAP benefits and shelf stability and lack of proper cooking facilities, but it’s a basic fact that most food-insecure families in America are much more likely to have Kraft Mac n Cheese on their tables than they are to have brussels sprouts. And I think if I had seen this special and found that the wasted food was mainly sweets and crackers and processed items that were past their shelf lives, I’d have been bothered, but not highly distressed. However, knowing that it’s FOOD — honest, real, good, wholesome, healthy FOOD that’s being purposely tossed in the garbage bins and compost heaps without being offered to those hungry families first — really gets me.
No, I don’t know what the right answers are; I can’t tell you right now how to get those “irregular” eggs and tomatoes and cabbages and the broken-winged chickens and the barely bruised fresh filets of halibut from their farms and markets to, say, little Billy and Tommy at their inner-city apartment where their mom gives them a few bucks to buy dinner at the bodega because there’s not a whole lot of choice where they live. (I have thoughts, though. I always have thoughts.) But I can tell you that we’re shamefully overfeeding our population, especially our low-income population, on junk that makes us all fat…and in the meantime, there’s healthy food nobody wants laying in a field somewhere, or being thrown into a dumpster, and there has GOT to be a way to reverse those trends so that the less-than-perfect fresh food gets into the hands and mouths of people who need it, and the Lucky Charms are the thing that consistently end up in the trash. Then maybe we’d actually have a shot at reversing a whole bunch of terrible trends that are destroying the health of our nation — industrialized shelf-stable food products, childhood obesity, and the coexistence of both overweight and malnutrition in our citizens, just to name a few.
I can’t, at the moment, wrap my brain around just what li’l ol’ me can do to make a substantive difference in so large and complex a problem. But I CAN at least hold myself accountable, and I can invite the rest of you to join me in this endeavor. Today on the Facebook page I broached the subject of possibly — just possibly — doing a weekly accounting of the food waste in my household, so I can be aware of it (and you can wag your disapproving fingers at me, collectively). One of my readers offered to join in, and I hope some others will as well. So here’s what we’re going to do:
Each week from now until March 21 (my birthday!), I’ll post a list of the sheer food waste that I’ve observed in our house. To qualify as “waste,” it has to be — as a reader so astutely phrased it — “something you’ve just let get away from you.” In other words, an inedible trimming from meat or produce doesn’t count, nor does the remnant of beaten egg from a recipe; but that shriveled-up beet that has been hanging out in the crisper drawer is absolute waste. I don’t care if you compost it — composting is better than the trash, certainly, but it’s still a beet that didn’t go into the mouth of sometone who may have needed it.
As I post, I’ll invite each of you to comment with your own food waste tallies. Over time, the hope is that our average amount of waste will decline; and as we learn to do better, each of us can share our tips and ideas until we’ve compiled a good resource guide to eating only what we need, and needing only what we eat. I have no illusions that this is going to be easy, folks, but if just not wasting food were easy, the Food Network wouldn’t have had to air a special about it in the first place. Sometimes big changes and big ideas come from small places. Let’s see if we can’t be one of those places, shall we?