If you’re like most people, you were probably shocked by a report released earlier this year that found that up to half of the world’s food is wasted. When hundreds of millions of people go hungry every day, how is this possible?
This is just one of many questions that journalist Jonathan Bloom explores in his book American Wasteland. Every day, Americans waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif. Bloom opens American Wasteland with this sobering statistic, and it just gets more depressing from there.
Depending on whom you ask, we squander between one quarter and one half of all the food produced in this country (40 percent is the figure that’s often used). Fruits and vegetables are allowed to rot on farms when the price for a particular crop would be less than the cost of harvesting it. Grocery stores throw out perfectly edible food that has reached its “sell-by” date (which is not the same as an “eat-by” date). Consumers let food go bad in the fridge—on average, we each waste 25 percent of the food that we bring into our homes—or leave half-eaten entrées behind at restaurants. Much of this wasted food ends up decaying in landfills, spewing out methane gas.
Before I continue, a disclosure: As a longtime vegan, I believe that no food-waste discussion is complete if it doesn’t include the waste inherent in meat production. It takes 4.5 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of chicken meat and 7.3 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of pork—grain that could be fed directly to hungry people. Every year, the commercial fishing industry dumps millions of tons of “bycatch,” or unwanted fish—most of them dead or dying—back into the oceans. In fish farming, fish must still be caught in the wild in order to feed farmed carnivorous species. It is estimated that it can take 3 pounds or more of wild ocean fish to produce a single pound of farmed salmon or sea bass.
While Bloom doesn’t specifically address these issues, there’s still plenty of food for thought for meat-eaters in his book. For example, we’ve all read about the predicted meat “shortages” because of sequestration and high prices stemming from last summer’s drought.
According to Bloom, during a previous meat shortage in the 1970s, researchers found that Americans actually wasted three times as much meat as they had before the shortage began. William Rathje, head of the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, explains it like this: “When confronted with the widespread and sometimes alarmist coverage of the beef shortage … many people may have responded by buying up all the beef they could get their hands on.” But because those same consumers didn’t necessarily know how to properly store large quantities of meat, it went bad—and was thrown out.
Bloom also points out that milk has the second-highest “loss rate” of any food item. After all the suffering that cows endure on dairy farms—a PETA undercover investigation at a New York dairy farm documented that workers struck cows with poles and canes and that calves bellowed and thrashed in unrelieved pain as workers removed their horn buds—we end up pouring one-third of our milk supply down the drain. (When the public radio program Marketplace did the math, it found that this equals the milk from some 800,000 cows, tossed away without a thought.)
While (some) supermarkets do make an effort to donate unsellable items to food-recovery groups (many don’t), meat and dairy products, which are highly perishable, are often simply dumped because retailers would rather throw food away than risk being sued if someone gets sick from a donated product. Says Bloom, “If you want to learn about food waste, ask the guy at a supermarket deli about his store’s rotisserie chicken policy.” Unsold rotisserie chickens are usually tossed out after a few hours, even though they are still edible. Many prepared foods also get tossed.
There are some promising developments, though. Many college cafeterias are starting to go “trayless” after an experiment at Saint Joseph’s College in Maine revealed that eliminating trays in all-you-can-eat cafeterias means that students take—and therefore waste—less food. Some restaurants are now using software to track and reduce their waste.
Bloom also includes an extensive appendix with easy food- and money-saving tips for consumers, such as planning weekly menus around meals that use the same ingredients and repurposing foods that are about to go bad (use overripe bananas in banana bread or freeze them for smoothies). And he gives a shout-out to dumpster-diving “freegans” who salvage food that would otherwise end up in a landfill. But the enormity of the problem will require that all sectors of society—the government, farmers, retailers, restaurateurs, and consumers—take steps to substantially reduce waste.
When millions of people go hungry every day and billions of animals are abused on factory farms, wasting food is, ultimately, a moral issue. As Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics in Atlanta, eloquently reminds us in American Wasteland, “To treat food cavalierly leads to a lack of appreciation of the importance of food, of the fact that some go without it, of the suffering of animals that the carnivores among us are willing to tolerate to eat our food. It shows such a profound lack of appreciation for all that eating food represents.” If you’re ready to reduce your food waste, pick up a copy of Bloom’s insightful book, and visit PETA’s website for free vegan recipes.
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