Fresh Read: American Wasteland

If you’ve been to my recently added CF Weebly site, you know that Charlotte Fresh has a little bookshelf where I rotate in neat reads.  I’ve been going through American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food by Jonathan Bloom (who happens to live in Durham).  This book steers away from my normal local, fresh topics, but I felt a little stab in the heart as I was reading it and thought it was worth sharing.  Most of us who prioritize fresh, local food and who have the resources to make our own food choices are very fortunate.

I am going to try to be more educationally informative and not overwhelmingly preachy and depressing in this post, but food waste is a disturbing issue when you look at the extent of the problem. Not only because of the environmental impact of decaying waste producing landfill gases; waste highlights the larger issue of widespread hunger, especially in our own backyard.

In his book, Bloom calculated that in 2007, we produced 591.4 billion pounds of food in the U.S.  Using a conservative 27% percent waste estimate from his sources, he figures we waste about 160 billion pounds of food annually. At an estimate of $1 per pound wasted, that’s $160 billion lost per year.  With all that wasted food and money available, you would think we would not have a hunger issue in Charlotte, this country, or anywhere in the world, for that matter.  And it’s a vicious cycle because as food producers count on households to waste a percentage of their food, the producers put extra food in the chain, and the cycle goes on and on….

Bloom researched supermarkets and found they send some items to soup kitchens and food pantries, but in general the majority of edible items ends up in the dumpster daily – this includes slightly wilted produce, salad bar items replenished throughout the day and in-store prepared food like rotisserie chickens that can only be on display for a few hours before being thrown away.  Buffet restaurants are not allowed to donate food that has been on the buffet and not touched or finished due to health code reasons.

I hate to waste food.  When I was little, I was brought up in a household where we ate family-style and saved leftovers.  If you took too much or didn’t want to eat that night’s meal choice, it would be explained that there were consequences to some unidentified poor child in whatever unidentified global location. Well, in those instances I was one of those obedient plate-cleaners because I wasn’t exactly sure what the consequences were.  As an adult, I have been conscious of my own portion control, and I have seen first-hand how hungry our neighbors can be.  Hubby, I and many other citizens support a local food pantry so those in need can have something to eat.  But collective efforts never seem to be enough to meet the growing demand for food.

Bloom says we waste because we have learned to devalue food, partly due to our disconnect with knowing where it comes from and how it is produced.  I believe it’s time to get back in touch with local farms, farming education and Depression-era sensibilities.  My grandmother never threw out leftovers; they became dinner for another day or lunch.  She even saved string from bakery boxes and other sources and tied pieces end-to-end to produce a huge multi-colored ball.  Not sure what she used it for (maybe her makeshift veggie garden trellis), but it was the saving of a resource.  Another late elderly family member (who shall go unnamed) saved the excess sesame seeds from hamburger bun bags – you know, the ones that fall off the buns and accumulate in the bottom of the bag – in a small jar so she wouldn’t have to buy them; to her, they were perfectly usable.  When I was offered the jar while making a meal, the seeds were stale; ok, maybe that is an extreme example, but the frugal spirit to reduce waste was there.

Why do we see hunger in such an overall “wealthy” country as ours?  It’s mind-boggling how excess food in the supply chain can’t get to the folks who need it. Especially terrible is hunger in children.  Did you know that as a society we value food so little that we have taught our children to waste it?  Bloom says that even in the poorest counties in America where school food is subsidized or free, children are throwing away much of their school lunch due to the fact they don’t like what’s being served or to scheduling issues (the lunch periods are scheduled too early in the day, for too short a time, or before recess).

Bloom cites statistics that say:

Today, more than 49 million Americans don’t get enough to eat.

In 2008, 15 percent of Americans didn’t have enough to eat at some point during the year.  Even worse, 22 percent of American children live in food-insecure homes.

And a 2009 study found that half of American youth will live in a household that uses food stamps at some point during their childhood.

Mind-blowing.  With the economy being depressed the past few years, it’s no wonder that folks are going hungry or resorting to ever-tighter budgets to feed themselves and their families.  Trying to make more out of less causes households to eat more packaged goods vs. fresh foods like produce, because the fresh food is perceived as expensive.  But what many folks don’t realize is that you can find very reasonably priced, sustainably grown fresh vegetables at our local farmers’ markets.  And some markets like Davidson allow customers to redeem government benefits through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by swiping EBT cards in exchange for tokens that can be used at farmers’ market vendors.  Hopefully we’ll see a trend in more local farmers’ markets supporting programs like these soon.

So what can local food supporters (and anyone for that matter) do to alleviate food waste and hunger in Charlotte?

  • Donate time, resources or some farmers’ market food to good causes.  Markets like Matthews have a seasonal program to deliver fresh food and monetary donations (from customers and farmers) to a local food pantry.  Here are some local organizations that could use some assistance; send CF a comment if you know of others that should be added to the list:
  • Think hard about food choices and quantities.  Yes, it’s tempting to buy that big box of salad greens from a national warehouse because it’s perceived to be such a deal even if we throw half of it out.  (In full disclosure I have a warehouse membership, but mostly use it to buy the occasional dry and household good in bulk.)  If we’re conscious about waste and don’t buy more than we can eat (only to throw food away), we will see that buying carefully raised local protein, produce and dairy direct from farmers weekly won’t break the budget. Additionally, most local protein from the farmers’ markets comes frozen, so it stores well in your freezer, and you don’t have to throw it out.
  • Teach our children where food comes from and to value it and the effort that goes into producing it.  Grow a veggie garden. Take your children to farmers’ markets, on farm tours and to cooking demonstrations geared especially toward kids.
  • Bloom mentions an organization called the Small Plate Movement which helps people pledge to reduce portion sizes.  Plate sizes have escalated over the years. Switching from a 12-inch plate to a 10-inch plate reduces calories by 22%.  Their study shows that with the average dinner caloric intake at 800 calories, a two-inch plate reduction would lead to 18 pounds in weight loss annually for the average-sized adult.  (What dieter wouldn’t want that?) The same portion on the larger plate looks smaller, and part of our satiation is based on what our eyes read. Take the one-month challenge to eat your largest meal of the day off a 10-inch plate, and see how full you actually feel.  Ask your restaurants to reduce their plate size.  I believe this practice can lead to healthier eating portions, more homemade leftovers that you can repurpose and overall less restaurant waste.
  • Be open to leftovers.  Plan ahead for your meals and be creative with leftovers so you use every morsel. It’s amazing what you can do with a single whole chicken: roast chicken, chicken salad, chicken tacos, chicken broth and chicken noodle soup are just examples. (Once, I called my mom to tell her how proud I was to figure out five different meals for two people from just one chicken.  Yes, call me weird for needing validation.)  I have an aunt who lives in Europe, and it’s cultural there to reuse items from last night’s dinner to make the next day’s breakfast or lunch. Protein is not the star of the meal; fresh veggies are equally important. For example, she roasted a five pound filet of beef and sliced it thinly (to serve about 15 people!) for a dinner buffet.  One of the accompanying dishes was endive leaves stuffed with a little soft cheese and veggies.  The next day, she cut up the leftover stuffed endive and beef (among other items from the buffet), added diced apple and a few more greens, and we had a chopped salad for lunch with a piece of baguette.  Watching her cook really inspired me.
  • Review your pantry before food expires.  Keep a rotation of your dry and canned goods and note the expiration dates.  Instead of wasting food by letting it go past expiration, give it to those in need.  Some smaller food pantries will be happy to accept your dry foods with a short expiration.
  • Compost food waste and use it in your veggie garden instead of throwing the food in the landfill.  It will make your plants healthy and help to reduce the amount of environmental gases emitted by rotting food.  Learn how to compost here.

I’m sure you can think of some other things to do to help alleviate local hunger and waste. So I’ll get off my soapbox now, let you check out the book and form your own opinions. Thanks so much for listening.

Links for those interested in more info on our domestic hunger issue:

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About charlottefresh

Helping Charlotte find fresh local food. Spread the word.
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