On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
American farms, ranches and processing plants produce nearly 600 billion pounds of food every year. But almost half of that bounty ends up being thrown out, uneaten. It’s left in the fields, spoiled in transport, thrown out in the grocery store or simply forgotten as it wilts in the back our refrigerator. We examine the practical and ethical impact of food waste in America, and consider how farmers, businesses and home cooks can make better use of nature’s bounty.
- Jonathan Bloom Writer, WastedFood.com; Author, "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food" (De Capo)
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. You know, American farms and processing plants produce nearly 600 billion pounds of food every year, but almost half of that amount ends up being thrown out uneaten. Somewhere along the winding road from field to fork to garbage can, it's left in the fields, discarded if it doesn't look or feel right. It spoils in transport. It's discarded before it hits the grocery aisle. It's tossed out after closing time at all-you-can-eat buffets. And even when it makes its way into our refrigerators, it often ends up wilting, forgotten behind a jar of pickles or condiments.
MR. MARC FISHERJonathan Bloom is a journalist with unusual beat. He has spent years crisscrossing America, documenting how and why we end up throwing away food that is perfectly edible. Jonathan Bloom writes the blog WastedFood.com and he's the author of "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food." He joins us now from the studios of WNCU in Durham, N.C. Welcome.
MR. JONATHAN BLOOMThanks for having me.
FISHERThe book you've written presents us with a variety of very disturbing images of all this waste, but one comes from the salad bowl of the world, Salinas Valley in Monterey County, Calif., where you describe walking on a huge mound of perfectly, delicious-looking, crunchy lettuce that ended up being tossed out into a landfill. What happened there?
BLOOMWell, what happened there happens every day and that there's just a tremendous amount of excess that comes from these shipper growers. And these are the big operations who make the bagged salads that you'll see in your supermarket, but essentially, anything that isn't perfect, and I mean perfect because it has to make sometimes a cross-country journey, so anything that doesn't meet those strict requirements meets the landfill.
FISHEROh. You can join our conversation about wasted food by calling us at 1-800-433-8850 or e-mail at email@example.com. And Jonathan Bloom, this is obviously the disturbing image to have fully half of our food being thrown away. Isn't it in the economic interest of everyone from farmers to markets to make maximum use of the food we produce?
BLOOMWell, it certainly is, but I should stop you for a second. I mean, it's not exactly half, it's more -- it's 40 percent. Some estimates have said it's up to half. But, yeah, it would seem that it is in our best interest to use all that we grow. The problem is we grow so much, so we produce about twice the amount of calories that we need, and so we're faced with this abundance at every turn. And it takes a little bit of the priority of eating all that we have.
FISHERAnd why has the system been allowed to be built in this fashion? You know, we live in a capitalist society where we like to think that we put a great premium on efficiency, and certainly in many parts of the economy we have so streamlined everything that goods are not manufactured until essentially the moment they've been ordered online. Why is food so different?
BLOOMWell, it goes back to the '70s. There was a policy put in place to grow from fencerow to fencerow to really maximize production. And that stems from the Cold War ideology of we are going to outgrow the Soviets in terms of food production. So, as a result -- that hasn't changed today, so as a result, we have all this food that we just don't know what to do with. And the reason it's different is because unlike with consumer goods, food is perishable. So, we see this in particular with fruits and vegetables and meats and seafood. But even with commodity crops, we're storing them in silos and just letting it sit there, but there's only so long it can stay.
FISHERAnd the average food product in this country, you write, is touched by about 20 people and travels more than 1,500 miles. And at each step along that way, food that is perfectly usable and nutritious is weeded out of the pipeline. Is that an accident or is that a plan, part of the process?
BLOOMI don't think that anyone sat down and decided that we should have this tremendous winnowing process, but what's happened is there's a cult of perfection in terms of how our food looks in this country. So, over the years, we've become pickier and pickier, and we're at the point where we expect our food to look beautiful. So not just to have it taste good, but to actually have it look visually appealing. And as a result of that, anything that has a minor defect, isn't the right shape or size, gets thrown away somewhere along that food chain.
FISHERIf this rings a bell to you, you might join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Clearly, this comes down to consumers and to people who cook at home. Do you find yourself throwing away good food? Have you come up with any strategies for cutting down on waste? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. And Jonathan Bloom, why does this amount of waste -- even though it's kind of startling to hear these numbers, what ultimately matters about this? Are we any different from other countries or it's just -- is this just the way it is around the world?
BLOOMWell, sadly we are among the league's leader, so to speak, in producing food waste. Not exactly something to be proud of, but certainly other countries are doing their share of wasting. But the reason it matters is because tremendous environmental impacts come from our food waste. And you think about all the resources that go into growing our food, well, there's a whole amount of oil that we use and then a tremendous amount of water. So, when we then throw the food out, all those resources go for naught. And there was a recent study that found that 2 percent of U.S. energy consumption went in to growing food that was ultimately thrown away or not used. And I've looked at the study and it's actually fairly conservative and I'd put it at more like 5 percent. So there's certainly a whole amount of resources that we could better use, and it's not the wisest of policies.
FISHERLet's talk to Jeremy in Washington. Jeremy, it's your turn.
MR. JEREMY BROSOWSKYHi. This is Jeremy Brosowsky. How are you today?
FISHEROkay. What's your question?
BROSOWSKYGood. I'm calling -- well, it's more of a comment, and that is that there are all sorts of solutions available today in the world of composting. And municipal composting is coming. We're seeing it in San Francisco and Portland and other cities around the country. It's in Europe. And it is an extraordinarily productive way of dealing with food waste. And here in Washington, D.C., we don't have it yet. And so I started a small company called Compost Cab, which is compostcab.com. And basically what we do is we pick up food waste from residences, from office buildings, from restaurants. And then, instead of trucking it to some far away composting facility, we work with local not-for-profit urban farms to give them the valuable organic material they need in order to grow new soil, which is what composting is all about. And so I'd be curious to know from your guest what their thoughts are on the future of composting in America and here in the District in particular.
BLOOMWell, it's good to hear from you Jeremy. I've heard of Compost Cab, and certainly part of the solution to food waste, we need to get better at creating an infrastructure for composting. The most important goal is to keep food out of the landfill. And the reason that it's difficult to get the composting infrastructure up and running is because it's so cheap to landfill food, or landfill anything, really. So I would imagine that as the price of throwing away stuff rises, that it'll be easier to compost. But I should say that the -- before we anoint composting as the be-all, end-all, there is a higher goal here, and that's reducing the amount of food that gets wasted in the first place.
FISHERRight. And, Jonathan Bloom, when you volunteered here in Washington at the DC Central Kitchen, this was -- apparently, you learned a lot there about what's done right and what's done wrong. And here's a place that's dedicated to food recovery, and yet you say that this kind of work shows what's wrong with our approach to food.
BLOOMYeah. I had a real experience there, where this journey started, and I owe a lot to DC Central Kitchen for kind of showing me how much food could be recovered. The flipside of that is that there are many cities and towns that don't have this kind of food recovery group, which is what DC Central Kitchen is. And they basically go around to supermarkets and restaurants, and they'll take anything that they're not gonna use. So there's a tremendous amount of edible but unsellable food in this country. And the food recovery groups out there do a fabulous job of recovering it and getting it to those who need it.
FISHERLet's talk to Randall in Washington. Randall, it's your turn.
RANDALLYes. What happens -- I was at the DC Central Kitchen with a group I volunteered with during the summer, about a couple of summers ago. Can you hear me?
FISHERYes, go ahead.
RANDALLAnd I discovered that there was wasted food in the sense that growers grow, like sometimes, oversized zucchinis and squash and other foods which they do not put into market. These things, I guess, are sold to the Central Kitchen or maybe discarded, like you are talking about. But what I discovered was the result was with that less food into the food chain, who cares about how, you know, everything being one perfect size and look the same? Then let the consumers decide. And that way, you have an abundance of food for people to choose from, might drive down the prices a little, that you wouldn't need maybe DC Central Kitchen to feed people if they're able to feed themselves.
BLOOMYeah. I mean, I'm sure DC Central Kitchen would love to be put out of business, in a sense, not having to recover all this food and having people have enough to eat. I don't really see that happening, but the caller raises a great point in that there is so much food out there that gets cast aside just because it doesn't quite look right. And the example I always talk about is the idea of cucumber that's just slightly curved, that won't fit perfectly in the box. So, as a result, it just gets disked under or plowed back into the soil. And that's happening with almost every kind of produce that we grow. And especially at the supermarket level, if it does make it off the farm and get to the supermarket, they are very stringent on what stays in the shelf and what gets on the shelf in the first place.
FISHERSo how -- what would be the strategy for moving beyond that and getting people to be a little bit more open to stuff that doesn't quite look TV-ready?
BLOOMWell, I always advise that if people take a trip to their farmer's market and look at actually -- look at what makes the cut there, as opposed to what's at the supermarket, that's gonna be a hugely educational trip for people who've never been. And at the supermarket level, I think that they overestimate the amount of pickiness that shoppers have. So they have the sense that anything imperfect is going to give shoppers this negative view of the store. And while it's true that if there's an apple that has a little blemish next to one that's perfect, you're probably going to take the perfect one. But at the same time, if there's a discount produce rack, for example, as there is at some stores near me and some stores across the country, then you're probably -- well, I'm certainly going to take the one that's a little bit dinged-up if it's a better deal.
FISHERWe have a caller who works for a local produce distributor. Sam in Potomac, it's your turn.
SAMYeah. I work for Potomac Farm Market. We have stands all over the Potomac and Bethesda, to the Northern Virginia area. And we get all our produce daily from Upper Montgomery County, mainly Poolesville. And when people come to the stands, they mostly aren't too picky about what they'd get because they know it was just picked that day or the day before. And they're happy to -- it's a level of freshness that they're really concerned about. Now, what we do is if there is something slightly blemished, we will either give it away for free because we're concerned about our customer base, but we'll also sell many things at a discount as well as composting what people won't take and getting in touch with different organizations that will come pick up the produce. But just like you said, people will gladly take a half-priced tomato that has, you know, a slight blemish and is 95 percent good as opposed to a more expensive per pound tomato that honestly looks beautiful. But I think it's more the quality of freshness and knowing that it's literally from 20 miles away every day that really gets people to buy the produce regardless of how unblemished it may be.
BLOOMYeah. Well, I think the caller raises a great point in that eating local is a solution for a lot of these issues. If the lettuce in Salinas wasn't going to be shipped 1,500 or 2,000 miles or what have you, then a lot more of the heads would be picked. Anything that has a slight defect that they know isn't gonna last that two or three weeks in the food chain, they just leave it in the field. So that would certainly help. And I think what this raises on a larger level is in terms of looking at food that's slightly imperfect. We've gotten away from having that food knowledge and the savvy to deal with food that isn't perfect and that might have a tiny bit of mold on it. I think people are a bit more squeamish about that now. And they might not know -- they might not have those food ways that have been passed down from generation to generation because they haven't spent as much time in the kitchen based on our busy lifestyles.
FISHERThere are a lot of bad guys in this tale of waste. But here's one that might not be quite so obvious that stands out in your book, and that is the cookbook. If I'm trying out a new dish from my favorite cookbook and it calls for something different or unfamiliar, I might buy that and then just use a small portion of it. Is there a way around that?
BLOOMYeah. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily blame the cookbook. I would say that's an opportunity for you to plan out how you're gonna use your ingredients. So if you're gonna have an unfamiliar ingredient -- I call them recipe one timers -- then maybe see if you can find another recipe that uses that kind of thing. And you can go online. There are a number of sites that suggest meals based on having two or three ingredients. So what I find is it's a real chance to be creative and to try and use up all the food that you have. And sometimes I look at it as a little bit of a game to see if I can create a meal out of what I have left in the refrigerator.
FISHERGarret (sp?) is a bread vendor in Washington. Garret, it's your turn.
FISHERYou're on the air.
FISHERYes, go ahead.
GARRETHi, how you doing? My name is Garret. I'm a bread vendor, independent operator in Washington area, Northern Virginia. And the comment I wanted to make was in regard to food waste. A lot of the stores that I service around these areas, they want me to over pack their shelves on a regular basis with products and -- simply to make them look more appealing to the customer and increase their own bottom line. And what -- you know, bread only has a shelf life of six to seven days, these prepackaged breads that we distribute. And on a weekly basis, it's an easy estimate to say that I end up, in the end, throwing thousands upon thousands of dollars on a weekly basis into a dumpster, simply so that these local grocery stores, the big-chain grocery stores can increase their bottom line just by making their store look more appealing to the customer.
FISHERIs there a solution to that kind of dilemma, Jonathan?
GARRETWell, the -- oh, I'm sorry.
BLOOMWell, what the caller points to is in particular with bread. It's one of the most wasted foods out there. And the idea of having these stock shelves is really a strange thing from my perspective. You have the sense of abundance and you have the visual abundance, but that comes at a cost. So it's almost like a cost of doing business for many of these supermarkets. But certainly, I think a wiser policy would be to come to the conclusion that you're not gonna have stock shelves at the end of the day and to just keep your production slowing down as the day goes along if you're baking fresh bread. And with Garret and the kind of packaged breads that he's stocking, then the idea that you have to have this brimming shelf just doesn't make sense. So how about putting a little less there?
FISHERJonathan Bloom writes the blog WastedFood.com. He's also the author of "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food." He will be appearing at Borders Books at 1801 K Street Northwest, Washington on Friday, Nov. 12. The event is free and begins at 6:30 p.m. For information, call 202-466-4999. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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