Saturday, April 16, 2011

Weekend Cooking/Book Review: American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and what we can do about it), by Jonathan Bloom

American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and what we can do about it)
by Jonathan Bloom 
Da Capo Press
360 pages

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 (evidenced by his blog, Wasted Food) 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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Beth F said...

What a thought-provoking book. I haven't heard of Bloom or his blog but know that American's are sometimes ridiculously squeamish. I have a friend who won't shop the farmers market because the produce has blemishes. She threw out a bunch of organic basil once because there were holes in some of the leaves made by bugs.

I *think* we do okay but I bet this book would have a lot to teach me. I'll see if I can get it at the library.

Kim said...

That sounds like a book that both my husband and I would enjoy! Adding that to my list. We talk about food issues a lot and try really, really hard to make good choices and not waste.

Carol @ There's Always Thyme to Cook said...

What a great review! The waste is unbelievable, I know that without even reading the book, so I could assume what he uncovers is mindboggling. I'm suggesting this one to my book club, I bet it will bring about a very good discussion, thanks!

Elizabeth said...

The book does sound fascinating -- and cringe-inducing. My husband is Swiss and a chef, to boot. He always tells me that growing up they had this tiny little garbage can in their house that took DAYS to fill up.

Thanks for the review -- I'm going to read it!

Kate said...

I have *got* to get a hold of this book. For one, it sounds absolutely fascinating, in sort of an "oh dear" sort of way, and for another my sister HAS to read this, as she works for a nonprofit dealing with food insecurity.

I always felt proud that my household food waste is cut by doing frequent shopping (thus less spoils and we eat what's in the fridge since we know what's there), but I'm sure there are ways to improve. This book looks like a good way to teach me more.

caite said...

some of these issues..what happens on farms, restaurants and such is harder to deal with but I think a lot of us can start closer to home.
I HATE to waste food and with a little thought and planning it is possible to keep it to a minimum. Expiration dates are not gospel..leftovers are not always fun as some other options, but use them...

Nan said...

Wow! This was an excellent, excellent review of a fascinating book. I think the line that got me most was:
'if we, as a culture, valued our food more' - I think that is so true. I see people literally 'stuffing their faces' with no real regard for what is going in their mouths. People are eating for different reasons than they did when we were an agrarian society. We need so little now. We barely move.
Again, excellent. Thanks. (oh, and our leftovers, which are rare, go to our chickens, or farm animals, or our dog - I know, we are lucky to have them)

Margot said...

Very well done evaluation of this book and the problem. It is a serious, world-wide problem that is just now being looked at on a broader scale. My son-in-law read and recommended this book to me. I have it on reserve at the library. I have to wait my turn which I took as a good sign that many people are interested in this subject.

Melissa said...

Thanks, everyone! I'm glad to see there's so much interest in this one. I'd love to hear what you all think about this after you're finished, if you read it. Definitely a subject with much food (er .. um, pun intended, I guess) for thought.

Trish said...

Wow--sounds fascinating Melissa! I really try to not buy food that will go to waste at home and really try to use left-overs instead of tossing them (doesn't always work as planned due to this or that), but what really bothers me are the HUGE portion sizes in restaurants. Something has got to give. I've heard people say they feel like they're being cheated if they pay a regular price for a smaller meal, but really...!

I'll be keeping my eye out for this one!

TheBookGirl said...

Thanks so much for posting this great review...I am going to see if I can get this one today, it's that interesting to me. I am intrigued by his discussion of the various expiration dates; that's something that has always vexed me as to exactly what how much significance to attach to use one of them.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Wow, this sounds amazing Melissa. It is going on my TBR pile right away.

I know that I don't do a good enough job being careful and not wasteful about food, so I'd like to learn from the book.

Lisa said...

Since our move we've gotten very good at eating everything we buy, or at least cooking it. Very little food spoils before we get to it and I'm shocked at my own creativity at making good meals from odds and ends. It helps SO much that I'm home all day and can really think about it. That said, we waste a lot of food from certain children eating a few bites and then being full or getting distracted. Still, much less waste than we had before, and we're working on the other end.

Chinoiseries said...

I am glad someone wrote a book on food waste. It always pains me to see how much people throw away. What about those parts of the world where food is scarce?
Thanks for sharing your review, I'd love to get my hands on this book.

Joy Weese Moll said...

Really fascinating topic. Thanks for sharing it. This makes my mind go busy to make sure we use the leftovers currently in the fridge.