On Earth Day this past week, MSNBC aired Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. I knew that a lot of food was wasted in our society, but I had no idea about the scope of the problem. According to this documentary, we waste 30%-40% of our food, and that means we also waste 30%-40% of our water, land, pesticides, fertilizers, and energy we use to grow it.
I think what most surprised me was how much fresh produce is wasted before it even gets to the grocery store. It never occurred to me to think of why exactly all those fruits and vegetables look so uniform and perfect at the grocery store, while the ones I grow are much more irregular in shape and size. I guess I assumed that the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, machines, and other industrial growing techniques had something to do with it.
I never realized it was because they just throw away all the fruits and vegetables that don't meet their beauty standards! A banana that doesn't curve just right, a carrot that's not perfectly straight, a peach with a cosmetic blemish, they all get rejected.
I knew there must be some rejects. Bruised fruit, broken vegetables, etc. I assumed they would get processed into things like jams or canned soups, but no. The peach grower said he offers his ugly peaches to jam companies, but he has so many they can only take a small fraction. Another segment had a celery farmer standing on piles of celery that was trimmed off to make the bunches of celery fit in the bags they're packaged in. He said it was perfectly good celery, but nobody wants it, so it gets plowed back under.
Speaking of fresh vegetables, they really gave me a lot of guilt over that moldy bell pepper I threw away last week! The most memorable part of the movie followed a bell pepper from a sprouting plant, to being picked over and getting past the culling stage, to being shipped in a truck cross-country, to being bought in a grocery store, to being put in the drawer of a refrigerator, and then... molding and rotting away.
All to the tune of "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds.
"When you walk on by... will you call my name? Or will you walk away?"
Yes, little bell pepper, I FORGOT ABOUT YOU! I'm so sorry!
But actually, I think I'm pretty good for the most part. One thing I wondered about watching this documentary is, "Is eating leftovers a weird thing that most people don't do?" They talk about restaurant portions, they talk about catering events where you have food left over, they talk about serving too much food at dinner parties, and I kept wondering how that wastes food, unless nobody eats leftovers.
When I take a doggy bag home from a restaurant, that's lunch for the next day. When I throw a party or host a holiday dinner, my husband and I spend the next week eating the leftovers, but they don't get wasted. I sometimes plan for leftovers on purpose by choosing foods I know reheat well or are good to incorporate into new dishes.
Maybe it's just how I was raised, but I was raised to not waste food. My mom might have gone too far with the penny-pinching so that at times it seemed the stress she went through worrying about every little cent wasn't worth the money she saved, but at least she taught me that throwing food away is the same as throwing dollar bills straight in the trash, and that isn't something anyone would do.
I also knew that the dates on containers are "sell by" or "best by" dates, and not "eat this by this date or else it will kill you" dates. I only throw away food that is noticeably spoiled. If it's moldy or has obviously rotten spots, or has a bad smell, then it goes in the compost. Otherwise, I eat it, and I have never gotten sick from eating food from home.
I'm also a compost heretic. Lots of garden books will give you these rules on what you can and can't put in compost. I don't listen to any of them, and put anything organic in the compost. Yes, including cooked foods, dairy products, meats, and moldy bread. ALL food waste goes in the compost. If it's something that smells bad, I bury it in leaves or grass clippings.
So even when I do waste food, like that poor bell pepper, it goes into my garden as compost, not into a landfill.
Speaking of landfills, one thing they didn't mention is when all those containers of food are thrown away, not only are you wasting the food, but you're wasting the containers the food is in. When that guy found that dumpster full of sealed plastic packages of hummus, I was more concerned about all that plastic going into the landfill than the hummus. All that plastic to package the hummus was wasted as well, and plastic doesn't decompose.
Another thing I wish they had covered is food waste by restaurants. When I was a student I had a part time job at Barnes and Noble, and our store had a coffee shop in it. I helped out at the coffee shop sometimes, and got to see how much food they wasted there. They had a big glass case full of all our baked goods: cookies, muffins, scones, etc. They also had panini sandwiches and had a gelato bar.
Nothing was made from scratch, of course. The baked goods came as frozen hockey pucks of dough that you just took out of the box and put in the oven. The sandwiches were pre-assembled as well and just had to be grilled, and the gelato was a liquid that was poured into the machine to churn and freeze.
Since a case brimming with baked goods looks better than having only a few of everything, they kept that case full all the way up until closing time. And then at the end of the day everything was thrown away. I remember looking at that big wheeled restaurant trash can completely full of food, mostly cookies and muffins and scones baked that day, and thought of what a waste it was. I asked if I could have a few, and I was told absolutely not! That would be considered theft, just like if I shoplifted a book off the shelf.
So then I asked if we could donate the food instead, and the manager said we'd get sued.
So it all went into the dumpster. A locking dumpster to make sure no one gets it out later.
I understand why we wouldn't want to sell day-old cookies or muffins, because they really aren't as good the next day. If you're going to spend the crazy prices we were charging for each muffin, you want one that's freshly baked. But the day-old ones weren't bad. Someone would have loved to have them.
I'm glad the documentary mentioned that you actually can't get sued for donating food. There is an actual law that says you can't, in order to encourage people to donate food without having to worry about things like that. They were talking about it in the context of grocery stores donating extra food, but it would apply to the Barnes and Noble coffee shop too.
But most people either don't know about that, or managers may even lie to their employees and say they could get sued, because they just don't want to go to the trouble of taking the muffins to a charity instead of throwing them in the dumpster.
One last thing I think would help is if people has more ideas about how to handle leftovers. Maybe the Food Network should have a show about that. It would certainly be better than most of the shows they have now. Since Good Eats ended, the only show I like on that channel anymore is Chopped, because it actually gives me ideas on how to cook with what I have on hand that needs to get used up. They sometimes have a theme show where all the mystery ingredients are leftovers.
Maybe they could have a show just about using leftovers creatively, and they could throw in information about freezing food and other ways to store it better, meal planning, shopping smart, and so on. I would totally watch that, but I guess all those food competition shows like Guy's Grocery Games and Cutthroat Kitchen are more exciting.
Well, I would say this documentary was worth watching. We're even more spoiled when it comes to food than I thought. It inspired me to clean out the fridge today and make sure I didn't have any more sad vegetables at the bottom of the crisper drawer singing, "Don't you forget about me..."