American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and what we can do about it)
by Jonathan Bloom
Da Capo Press
You wouldn’t expect a book about food waste to be all that interesting, much less utterly fascinating, would you? Completely understandable. And you would be wrong. Let me tell you this: Jonathan Bloom has written one hell of an eye-opening and life-changing book. American Wasteland will be one of my favorite non-fiction reads of the year.
The jacket cover promises this: “After reading American Wasteland, you will never look at your grocery list, dinner plate or refrigerator the same way again.”
That is the God’s absolute truth. I finished this almost a month ago, and I am still thinking about much of what Bloom shares in this book.
Like this, his first sentence: “Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. Yes, THAT Rose Bowl – the 90,000 seat football stadium in Pasadena, California.”
That’s a visual that gets your attention, and like taking candy from a baby, Bloom snatches your attention and runs with it through this entire book. He gives more statistics and backs up his meticulous research with an engaging and oftentimes very funny narrative, making this a really interesting (and sobering) read.
Bloom didn’t just research the facts that he presents here. He went into lettuce fields, where he saw countless heads of lettuce being tossed for minor blemishes and imperfections. He writes about the long shipping distances for produce, and how any fruits or vegetables even slightly marred will be discarded because there’s no chance that they will survive the journey from field to truck to distribution to store to fridge to plate.
He enlightens his readers on what happens in buffet-style all-you-can-eat restaurants and the amount of perfectly good food that is just thrown out, night after night. He worked entry-level jobs at a supermarket, where part of his job responsibilities were to cull produce and toss it in the Dumpster. He worked at McDonalds and reports on the waste inherent in the fast food industry. He’s been in college cafeterias that have gone “trayless” and examines how much less food is wasted as a result.
He sheds some light on the confusion of “sell by,” “enjoy by” “best by” and “use by” dates on products and makes a compelling case for why what we are conditioned to accept as expiration dates for all of these items are really just a guideline. In fact, these nebulous dates are causing more food to be thrown away than is necessary.
When it comes to food waste, Jonathan Bloom clearly knows his stuff. He is absolutely passionate about this subject and his passion makes you think differently about the amount of food wasted in our own kitchens. I know that since finishing American Wasteland, I have been more conscious of using up our leftovers and trying to reduce our food waste.
There are solutions to the issue, and Bloom articulately suggests some recommendations – many of them simple, many of them very doable. Some are already in place right now. Bloom accompanies “gleaners” and food recovery volunteers as they travel to supermarkets to collect donations for food banks and shelters – and the amount of food that these teams of food are able to rescue and redistribute is absolutely staggering. He calls for the renewal of a commitment from the highest level – The White House – which was once in place but has since been discontinued. It’s a complex and multi-faceted issue, but Bloom has the ability to boil it down to its essence.
“Collectively, Americans have an unhealthy – some might even call it dysfunctional – relationship with food. We produce nearly twice the amount of calories we need, yet millions of Americans don’t get enough to eat. We waste nearly half of what we produce, and we’re dangerously overweight. Our excessive waste is both an indicator and a symptom of this unhealthy relationship. There’s an uneven distribution of food, and it’s due in part to our affinity for abundance.
If we, as a culture, valued our food more, it would yield less unused food, reducing our excess, and by extension, our hunger. And it would go a long way toward reforming our problematic approach to food. While making lasting changes is harder than doing nothing, what’s the alternative? The status quo isn’t quite cutting it. We have an embarrassing level of hunger for such a wealthy nation, an obesity crisis that threatens to drain our capital and human resources, and a habit of squandering food that is severe enough to harm our already fragile environment.
As our population grows, food will become scarcer. With the United Nations projecting that the world population will exceed 9 billion by 2050, economists, agricultural planners, and politicians are busy arguing about how we’ll feed ourselves. Making better use of the food we already produce has to be part of the solution. Yet, I seldom hear this mentioned in the dialogue. If we as a species – all 9 billion of us – plan to survive, we’ll have to be more prudent with our food. Fortunately, there’s evidence that this cultural shift has begun.” (pg. 57-58)
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