Sunday, September 30, 2012


I grew up in a time and a place where wasting food was a serious sin. I was a Parisian kid in post-war France, and my family served a few repulsive dishes at least once a week. My least favorite—it still makes me shudder to think of it—was bouillie , a vile concoction of week-old bread boiled in salted water and seasoned with whatever might be in the kitchen on any given day. The dish had the consistency of watery oatmeal and, truly, it was foul beyond belief.  I do not know a single French person who has less than disturbing memories of such meals. Other delicacies included cow brains, pig intestines and other offal I am too delicate top mention here. Nothing was ever thrown away.

Yesterday night, I microwaved a bag of popcorn that Orville Redenbacher claimed should have been eaten before October 2010. As I munched on the perfectly edible snack, my thought was, Orville died in September, 1995, so what does he know?

I have a friend who, whenever he looks into my fridge or pantry, tut tuts the fact that I have not disposed of cans of diet soda dating from the late 90s. Those solid chicken tenders way in the back of the freezer? The hunk of equally hard filet mignon that has survived the ice age?  All perfectly comestible. As are the frozen string beans, the pasta I cooked a few months ago and decided to save for a wintry day, and the samosas with ice crystals on them. My position is that unless the food smells, looks or is otherwise guilty of unfortunate behavior, I’ll thaw it and eat it.

I have serious issues with expiration dates on pretty much anything, but on food in particular, I’m adamant. I think the giant concerns that manufacture and market the stuff we eat have found a nifty way of maximizing profits. They’ve instilled in us a knee-jerk reaction simply by printing faint dates on the packaging. We throw stuff away because we’re told to.

According to a May, 2011 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted.”  Key findings include:
        Industrialized and developing countries dissipate roughly the same quantities of food — respectively 670 and 630 million tons.
        Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).
        Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food.
        The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world's annual cereals crop (2.3 billion tons in 2009/2010).

Obviously there’s a lot more involved here than the average American family’s disposal of a sac-full of half-eaten burritos.
Last week on NPR, a show was dedicated to examining food waste in America alone, and the discussion included some alarming statistics.

Americans annually throw out $165 billion—that’s billions with a b—of food. A lot of this ends up in landfills where it decays and becomes methane, everyone’s favorite greenhouse gas. This is 50 percent more food than was thrown away in the 70s.  So what happened?

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About it), noted that we have taken the expiration date as gospel, when in reality it has little to do with food safety and relates to the peak quality of what’s about to be eaten—or thrown away.  Additionaly, he says, there’s a lot of wiggle room built into these dates.

Dana Gunders, a food and agricultural scientist, added that, “over half the land area in the U.S. is dedicated to food production, and over 80 percent of the water that we consume goes into growing (and) producing our food. So when we throw out, say, half a hamburger, according to an estimate by the Water Footprint Network, that's equivalent to taking over an hour shower, in the water use that was required for that half hamburger you just tossed.” And just to drive home the point, she added, “in terms of the water embedded in the food that we throw out. Well, annually, we are wasting the equivalent of two times the volume of Crater Lake...

Institutions—schools, hospitals, cafeterias and self-serve buffets restaurants and such—are probably responsible for a lot of food wastage, but families are guilty as well. We search the stores for two-for-the-price-of-one bargains and we habitually overbuy. We don’t freeze enough. We don’t like leftovers, and we recycle only three percent of the food we waste.

There are, however, a couple of interesting trends. A couple of large cities on the West Coast, notably San Francisco and Seattle, have begun curbside composting where the end products—fertilizer—is used in city parks and recreation areas.  Starbucks has promised to recycle its coffee grounds and unsold pastries so they can be transformed into usable plastic’s and laundry detergent.

Me, I’m going to try to eat down my fridge and not buy food before I have eaten what I already have. Which, unfortunately, includes about a dozen bags of sweet potato fries.  So I know what’s for dinner for the entire week.



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