Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Big Waste

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!


Kate Pabst said...

Great post. This was really interesting and timely for me. I actually just made my "sustainability resolutions" for the year and reducing food waste was one of them. (http://thechicchickadee.blogspot.com/2012/01/sustainability-resolutions.html)
Even being conscious of it and placing so much importance on food security issues, I still let a gross amount go. I'm thinking about making it a recurring feature as I track what I waste, how that amount decreases, and ways to use food before it becomes waste.

ecokaren said...

Great post. I hear you about food waste. I cringe throwing out bad food; I can't imagine throwing out good food, just because it's bruised. I'm marking my calendar to watch the program on the 14th.


martina said...

Wow what can I say - this is truly shocking 40%!!!!! will spread the word. can not watch it as we are in Australia but I am sure we are not far away from these figures.
thanks for posting this.

Linda said...

Wonderful post Glo. I just purged my kitchen of old food (read: science projects) and felt horrible about all the waste. On a grander scale this is outrageous. I am a victim of the American struggle for perfection, just like anyone, and I pick through fruits and veg at the market, rejecting bruised apples and misshapen celery. I really need to rethink ...

Bonnie said...

Great Post Gloria. I saw the show and was similarly moved. I am working on a post myself on the subject. I was a little annoyed about the competition aspect myself but I bet it brought in the viewers who might not have watched a documentary. I am interested to see how the program develops.

Fia said...

Wow!This post is so interesting and it breaks my heart to hear that there is so much hunger and good food wasted.I always tell my children when they don't want to eat that other kids would like to have their meal...Thank you for sharing this!

claudiascreation1 said...

You have got me on a new misson. I have missed the program. Thank you for sharing and I am going to try discount grocery as well. Thanks again.

alexkeller said...

Our local grocery has manager's specials on items that are going to expire soon. But it would make a heck of a lot of sense to provide nursing homes, schools and such with all of the extra produce. Or instead of throwing it all away, why don't the growers donate it?

Glo said...

Thank you everybody for your comments! Bonnie, you are right: by making it a competition, probably the program reached a larger audience. Claudia, have fun when you visit Grocery Outlet! Most likely you'll still have to visit a regular store, but GO can supplement your shopping and save you some good cash. Alex, the growers could donate some, but the main problem is that grocery stores cull out produce that doesn't "look" right, because they fear (most likely with reason) that shoppers will not buy it. Last week I happened to be in a store when a produce clerk was in the process of culling apples and tomatoes, and believe me, I was horrified. I took a photo of the trash can when he wasn't looking. I should post it here. I couldn't find anything wrong, maybe a tiny spot here and there. I bet those weren't there when the grower put them on the truck. It's just natural senescence, but again, we expect 100% perfection, and our apple cannot have a soft speck on it or else. THANK YOU ALL!

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