When I was little, my siblings and I always enjoyed watching the kids' game show Double Dare on television. We'd laugh at the ridiculous stunts, which often involved kids (and their hapless parents) performing feats like catching tossed pies in a pair of clown pants or navigating obstacles like a slide coated in hot fudge and whipped cream. This seemed like harmless fun to me, but I still remember the look of horror on my grandmother's face the first time she watched the show with us. "That's just disgusting," she proclaimed, and left the room, unable to watch. She wasn't talking about the messes they were making; instead, she was revolted by the amount of food the show wasted on a daily basis, all in the name of fun. After reading Jonathan Bloom's new study of the pervasiveness of waste in the American food system, many readers may feel like walking away in disgust as well - disgust with ourselves, and with the horrifyingly wasteful processes in which we all participate.
Bloom, a journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and New York Times, vividly illustrates how waste is built into our whole way of eating, from farm to table to trashcan. Industrial agriculture and harvesting practices encourage produce to be left on the tree or in the field. Grocers that prize gargantuan apples, perfectly round oranges, and blemish-free zucchini routinely toss items that are less than flawless or that have gone a minute past their sell-by dates. Restaurants and caterers order and prepare far more food than they could serve in a single shift - you wouldn't want to run out of the daily special, after all - and then toss the leftovers in dumpsters at the end of the night.
Individuals are far from blameless, too. How many of us have left half or more of a restaurant meal on our plate to be thrown away instead of taking the leftovers home for the next day's lunch? How many of us have overbought items at the grocery store just because they were on sale, only to have them rot in the crisper drawer before we did anything with them? How many of us have thrown out whole loaves of bread, pieces of fruit, blocks of cheese, just because they've started to go a little bad around the edges? And almost all of us have thoughtlessly pitched banana peels, potato and carrot peelings, coffee grounds, and more food waste - about half a pound per person per day - sending them to landfills where they'll produce the harmful greenhouse gas methane.
Bloom got his hands dirty - literally - as he researched this book, working in fast food restaurants, on farms, and in grocery stores, trying to understand food waste first-hand. He also got to know the enterprising - and often frustrated - individuals and nonprofits who are trying to take a different approach to reusing and repurposing food. Like many books of its kind American Wasteland can seem to profile more problems than solutions.
He does, however, tell the stories of many creative individuals who have stopped taking food waste for granted and often saved others' lives at the same time that they're saving themselves money. Small grocery stores reuse "expired" carrots and celery in the salad bar and at the deli counter; independent restaurants reuse day-old ingredients in surprising (and surprisingly tasty) ways; nonprofits scour bakeries, restaurants, and grocery stores for nutritious but "imperfect" food that could fill the bellies of hungry children. He also provides plenty of practical solutions - from explaining produce storage to really understanding issues of spoilage and portion size - that inspired readers can use at home.
As he traces the problem of waste into grocery stores, buffet restaurants, school lunchrooms, and convenience stores, Bloom argues that waste was understandable (if not forgivable) during the rampant consumerism and excess that characterized the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Nowadays, however, as Americans increasingly seek to reduce their carbon footprint, to eat and shop locally, to return to a simpler, less consumption-centered way of life, it's time we all stopped to consider not just the food that goes into our mouths but the millions of tons that bypasses our plates entirely. And, as hunger in the United States continues to persist, finding better solutions for our leftovers is not just an economic or environmental issue, Bloom suggests. It's a powerfully moral one.
The author's website
This review was originally published in October 2010, and has been updated for the August 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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