Serious Reads: American Wasteland, by Jonathan Bloom
There's no easy way to say this: Americans waste a staggering amount of food. Some studies estimate that we discard nearly 50% of available food resources nationwide. Who's to blame for this waste? How have we come to produce so much excess food? What are the solutions? Jonathan Bloom takes on these questions and more in his excellent book, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and what we can do about it).
Bloom worked in all parts of the food industry to get an inside look at how we produce food waste. He logged hours at a national supermarket chain, a fast food restaurant, various food banks and pantries, and even an alternative energy plant looking for solutions to our wasteful lifestyle. This expertise is evident in his excellent blog, Wasted Food, which explores food waste from many different angles and was a precursor to American Wasteland.
So where does all this waste originate? Bloom takes us from field to market to consumer, demonstrating how at each level of the food chain there is significant food chucking. Farmers often cannot reap all that they harvest, letting much produce go fallow in the fields. Once food hits the supermarket, it goes through another round of scrutiny. Our culture demands near-perfect produce—large, round apples, lettuce with no brown spots, unbruised peaches. Any product that does not reach this high cosmetic standard is thrown out.
Supermarkets generate an enormous amount of food waste—Bloom estimates about 800 pounds of food waste per store per day, equalling about 30 million pounds of food nationally. It seems incomprehensible that we would allow so much edible food to head to the landfills. So why do supermarkets let this happen? Good Samaritan laws protect food donors from any liability unless they knowingly donate dangerous goods. But for many, the extra effort necessary to jump through bureaucratic hoops for food donation is simply too much of a deterrent. At the end of a long day, the Dumpster is the most reliable and unassuming recipient of food waste.
While retailers such as supermarkets and restaurants—with overwhelmingly large portions and inefficient kitchen practices—are certainly to blame for food waste, the consumer is held accountable as well. Surely we're all familiar with the image of past-wilted lettuce in the crisper, rank buttermilk in the back of the fridge, stale bread hiding in the cupboard and accumulating scary-looking mold. Bloom estimates that we throw away about 25% of the food that enters our house—thus wasting about $1400 per year.
Overall, Bloom's tone is very optimistic. In fact, the concluding section of his book is titled "Why I'm Not Worried." Despite the depressing facts and figures that litter the pages of American Wasteland, Bloom presents many alternative and entirely realistic solutions to our food waste epidemic. He is of the opinion that sooner rather than later, we will simply be forced to reduce food waste. Our landfills are reaching capacity; the methane gas emitted by rotting food is polluting the atmosphere; rising obesity rates are bringing ever more attention to our overconsumption habits. It is only a matter of time before a solution to this problem is found and implemented.
Until the federal government gets involved on a national scale, there are plenty of ways for the everyday consumer to cut back on waste. Use your leftovers. Don't overstuff your fridge. Reach out to a local food bank, and pressure your supermarket to donate unsellable goods. Bloom's perspective has me investigating the food waste practices of my local businesses, and keeping an eye on my own mini-fridge. Each of us can play a part in reducing the environmental and economic devastation that food waste can create.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.