The Food Network aired a pretty impressive program last Sunday: The Big Waste. Four celebrity chefs were in charge of feeding 100 people using only food products that were discarded or earmarked to go into the garbage.
The Food Network should be renamed ESPNFood, because everything is a damn competition these days, and this was no exception. However, the point was well made: about 40% of our food is wasted. The chefs visited butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, farms and supermarkets, where they were confronted with this sad reality.
My heart really hurt while watching this program. I knew things were bad, but not to this extent. The owner of a peach orchard summarized the problem: “We've trained the American consumers to expect perfection”. This is why he was standing in a field with hundreds of good peaches at his feet. Some had a little blemish, or a tiny scar, so they could not be sent out. They would simply be rejected, like the tomatoes below. No big chain supermarket would allow all that scarring and lack of uniformity.
At a poultry farm, a quick walk through the coop showed that eggs are not uniform. What a surprise... There was one as big as an avocado, most likely a double-yolker. Some eggs were tiny, the size of walnuts. Eggs that are too big or too small get destroyed. They cannot be sold, because they do not fit in the standard egg carton.
One of the chefs hooked up with a Freegan, someone who feeds himself for free (my kind of hero). He explained how he doesn’t do this because of need. He had a good job, made enough money. He was a freegan because he was outraged at the vast amounts of food wasted in front of his eyes. He took the chef to the back of a supermarket. When they rummaged through the trash bags, they were able to find all sorts of goodies. There were tons of deli containers, discarded because the “Best by” date was the next day. This is another huge issue: we see the “Best by” date as an expiration date, when it is nothing of the sort. “Best by” is an indication of quality. After that date, quality may not be 100%. That doesn’t mean the food becomes inedible or spoiled, yet to the eyes of the consumer, that’s exactly what that means. Many believe that if the lid says December 28, at 11:59 pm on the 27th that food will start transforming into poison, like the Cinderella pumpkin. Expiration dates are only required for infant formula and baby food. Everything else gets the “Best by” or “Sell by” qualifiers.
I am a thrifty person, so I love shopping at the Grocery Outlet. I can find fancy yogurts, like Stonyfield, Brown Cow, Athenos or Liberté, at 25 or 50 cents a container, because they are very close to the “Best By” date. It never fails that by the time I eat one of them, like the one above, the “Best By” date happened to be two weeks ago. Maybe if I tasted a fresh-off-the-dairy yogurt next to this two-week discard I could tell the difference in quality, but my taste buds are not that well trained. I am getting the same amount of protein and calcium, I spent a fraction of the money, and I helped reduce a little bit of waste. And I didn’t get food poisoning.
I am very familiar with the expectations of the American consumer. Once upon a time I studied Plant Science in college, and I quickly realized that there is a whole bunch of pests and diseases that get treated not because they have a yield impact on the crop, not because they change the nutritional or flavor aspects of it, but because of AESTHETICS. When we walk into the grocery store to buy apples, peaches, potatoes, we inspect every single one before we put it in the bag. They have to be picture perfect. Growers cannot afford not being able to sell their crops due to looks. Nature doesn’t work that way. Anyone who has ever had a fruit tree in the backyard or has grown a vegetable garden should know that. Nature is a constant battleground. Bugs, molds and anything alive have the biological mandate to reproduce, and in order to do that they need to feed. They are going to be on the lookout for tender leaves, sweet fruits and yummy roots, like the raccoon I suspect was in the yard last night, judging from the number of half-eaten persimmons all over the ground. We consumers place an incredible burden on the grower, who in many cases may be forced to treat crops solely to preserve their appearance.
A few nights ago The Food Network aired an episode of Chopped, another food sport competition, where they featured four lunch ladies. One of them explained that she always serves pasta on Mondays, because there are many kids who go through the weekend without a meal. She wants to fill them up when they come back to school. She tries to send those kids off into the weekend with packed lunches, but obviously she can’t help them all. I was thinking of her while watching The Big Waste. I am sure that if she were watching the program, her heart would have been aching, just like mine. I could only think of all the schools, soup kitchens and nursing homes that could benefit from all this food waste. We need to change our ways, urgently. There are people in this country that go to bed hungry, yet 40% of food ends up in the trash. This is immoral.
The Big Waste will air again on January 14. Check your local listings and spread the word!