On Food Waste in America

From left to right: Spinach left to rot because some grass grew within the crop, surplus oranges in California, imperfect bananas left in a ditch in Costa Rica, surplus tomatoes.

By Diane Daniel

Just as Jonathan Bloom and I settle in to talk, a piece of freshly baked chocolate cookie falls out of my hand and onto the floor.

We’re sitting on the outside deck at Foster’s Market, an upscale down-home deli and retail shop in Durham, North Carolina, where Bloom lives.

“I’m eating that!” I declare, bending to scoop it up within seconds of its landing.

“That is what always happens to me,” says Bloom, author of the recently released treatise on food waste, American Wasteland, published by Da Capo. “People feel guilty around me. They always feel the need to explain or apologize.”

I have to convince Bloom that his presence has no bearing on my retrieval of dropped food—especially anything chocolate. But it isn’t hard to see how I might feel the need to stay on guard. The book’s subtitle, after all, is How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It).

“If I’m at dinner and people don’t clean their plates, they’re looking at me to see if I noticed,” says Bloom, a tall, lanky and freshly scrubbed 33-year-old. “Chances are I do notice, because I’m obsessed with food. But, really, I’m not the food police.”

Wasteful consumers are but some of the culprits at whom Bloom points a finger. Farms, supermarkets, the food-service industry and government all play a role. All told, America is one gargantuan waste machine, trashing between a quarter and a half of the 590 billion pounds of food grown and raised here yearly. Given the enormous popularity of cooking and eating (if the proliferation of TV shows featuring celebrity chefs is anything to go by) and the easy availability of even the most exotic cuisine, it’s ironic—as well as tragic—that so much food goes to waste. But there’s a lot we can do, individually and communally, to ensure we make the most of our meals.

While food waste is not solely an American problem, the country is a leading perpetrator. To put the problem into perspective, Bloom points out that the country squanders enough food every day to fill the Rose Bowl, the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California. And that’s using the conservative estimate of 160 billion pounds of wasted food a year; the higher estimate would fill it twice over.

In the recent past (waste has grown 50 percent since the mid-1970s), food waste mostly translated into ethics or economics, handed down by our parents and grandparents. “Clean your plate; children in China are starving,” we were told, or “When I was your age, we went to bed hungry.”

While hunger remains a factor, albeit not always a direct one, other consequences of food waste have more recently come to the fore, especially the environmental and energy costs. Landfills encroach on open space and ooze methane gas, a contributor to climate change. Food scraps take up 18 percent of American landfills, second only to paper. On the energy front, billions of barrels of oil are consumed in producing, processing and transporting food; when that food is wasted, the oil is wasted, too. You would think an issue with all these ramifications, one as big as a football stadium, would be more exactingly quantified, but that’s yet another problem.

The most recent report on the topic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was in 1997, using research from 1995. A long-awaited update is due out by the end of this year, says USDA economist Jean Buzby, who is not at liberty even to hint at its findings. The existing report, which addresses “food loss” from retail outlets and consumers, not from farms, says 5.4 billion pounds of food were lost at the retail level, mostly supermarkets. Another whopping 91 billion pounds were lost in restaurants, institutional cafeterias and right in Americans’ homes, putting a heaping serving of responsibility on us.

A recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) waste study, from last year, didn’t start out to be a food study at all, but an examination of increased food intake and the rise in obesity, explains Kevin Hall, the study’s lead scientist. Hall and his team discovered that if Americans were eating the increased supply of food, they’d be a lot fatter than they already are. From there, the scientists determined that Americans waste at least 40 percent of all edible food raised, grown, bought or sold in the country. “We tied our study to environmental concerns,” says Hall of the report.

Crunching numbers, researchers concluded that 300 million barrels of oil a year—4 percent of all oil consumed in America—was used to produce and ­transport food that wasn’t eaten. They also saw that food waste accounts for over a quarter of the consumption of freshwater. Another study, published this past summer by the University of Texas at Austin, says that each year more energy is wasted in food discarded by Americans than is extracted from U.S. coastal oil and gas reserves…

In 2006, Bloom, who stayed in North Carolina after graduating, started the advocacy blog wastedfood.com, all the while doing on-the-ground research. He worked at a chain supermarket, a McDonald’s, an organic farm and a catering company, as well as volunteering at a community kitchen and with the Society of St. Andrew, a non-profit group that organizes farm gleaning, or harvesting and donating crops that would otherwise be turned back into the soil. Bloom now supervises gleaning projects for St. Andrew and assists a Durham food recovery project that takes donated leftovers from the local farmers’ market.

“On medium and large farms, when prices are so low that it doesn’t justify harvesting something, or if the produce doesn’t look as good or as big as it needs to for the supermarket, they just plow it under,” Bloom says. “At least the nutrients are going back to the soil.”

“Food beauty” is something that particularly galls Bloom. “We expect each item of food to look perfect. There’s a winnowing process starting on the farm, off the trucks, at the supermarket. We need to get back to how food tastes.”

This point was driven home during his stint at a chain supermarket in Chapel Hill that caters to low- and middle-income shoppers. “The amount we threw out was really eye-opening,” Bloom says. “I was expecting a bruised apple here, a blemished avocado there, but it was more like cratefuls. They used to have a sale produce rack for older or blemished produce, but they got rid of it because they didn’t want anything that wasn’t the epitome of fresh.”

Like all opponents of food waste, Bloom takes issue with “sell by,” “use by” and “best by” dates on produce and processed foods, which even the USDA concedes are approximate and often refer to quality and not safety. Markets toss food after those dates, and sometimes just before.

In the food service industry, Bloom points to chain restaurants with big menus, along with salad bars and buffets, as waste makers. “Buffets, ugh; they’re painful,” he says. “In the U.S., if food is served by someone else, it can be donated. But if it’s self serve, you can’t. Buffets are a killer.”

And caterers? Don’t get him started. “The rule is you make 15 to 20 percent more food than the number of people, so you’ll never run out of food.”

This article was excerpted from Ode Magazine.

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