A healthy food culture values food from farm to table and back to the soil. In this interview with Nourish, journalist Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), explains how food waste squanders ecological resources and money. He also shares how families and food producers can reduce, recycle, and reuse that waste to feed more people and give back to the environment.
How much food do Americans waste, and where does it go?
Jonathan Bloom: Americans waste 40 percent of the food we grow and raise, when you look at the calories produced versus calories consumed. It’s staggering. As for how that happens, the short answer is that a decent chunk is squandered at each step of the food chain. Unfortunately, of the food thrown out, 97 percent goes straight into the landfill. Food rotting in landfills produces methane emissions, which contribute to climate change.
Why should we be concerned about food waste?
Jonathan Bloom: In addition to the issue of methane gas, wasted food represents a real squandering of precious resources. In particular, the large amounts of oil and water used to create our food go for naught when we waste as much as we do. Two percent of all US energy consumption goes to producing the food that we subsequently discard.
Food waste represents a $240 billion annual loss on a national level. Closer to home, trimming your household waste can amount to savings of more than $2,200 for the average of family of four.
It’s shameful to waste nearly half of our food when more Americans than ever before are food insecure. It’s all the more disgraceful considering that we throw out enough food to feed all of the world’s hungry.
Next: Simple tips for reducing food waste
What are some examples of how we might create a less wasteful food system?
Jonathan Bloom: We can find ways to harvest all that we grow, then redistribute our excess to nonprofits that will get the food to those who need it. We can convince restaurants and supermarkets to donate all of their excess, not just the shelf-stable items, to hunger-relief agencies. We can streamline tax deductions and make them available to all farms that donate food, not just the incorporated ones. We can offer more choice in restaurant portion sizes, and work to make doggy bags cool, or at least commonplace.
We can connect kids to their food through gardening programs, communicating that food isn’t something to be squandered. Finally, we can ban food waste from the landfill to prompt waste reduction at all stages of the food chain.
There will always be some food that does not get used. We need to view food waste as the resource that it is, using it to create energy via anaerobic digestion, or returning the nutrients to the soil through composting. We need to encourage businesses and individuals to separate discarded food from the regular waste stream. But that source separation can’t happen without more infrastructure: haulers with dedicated collection routes and destinations for this food waste.
What are a few personal action steps for reducing food waste?
Jonathan Bloom: Buy less food. Plan meals and make a detailed shopping list, or making smaller, more frequent shopping trips.
Serve smaller portions. Give friends and family a bit less food to start, and have them go back for seconds. Using smaller plates helps.
Eat leftovers. Save time and money by keeping the excess from your restaurant and home meals. You can often repurpose them into a new meal.
Curb fridge and freezer clutter. By not overcrowding, you’ll reduce many of those refrigerator casualties. Keep a “use-it-up” shelf, and put newer groceries in the back to push older foods to the front.
What does the food movement mean to you?
Jonathan Bloom: Any kind of food movement must include more sustainable production, hopefully done locally. There is nothing sustainable about producing twice the amount of food that we need, unnecessarily taxing the soil and our precious oil and water supplies in the process. That’s why any food movement must include this simple idea: use what we grow.