Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland: Why Food Waste Deserves Attention

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Jonathan Bloom recently discussed his book, American Wasteland at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, MD. The book highlights the economic and environmental costs of food waste, and how consumers and policymakers can play their part in reducing waste to protect the environment, fight hunger, and save money.

Why We Waste

Bloom estimates that as much as 25 percent of all the food Americans bring into their homes goes to waste. Why? In the United States food is inexpensive—thanks largely to government subsidies—and abundant for most consumers. And it is often served in large portion sizes that can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be consumed in one sitting. As a result, Americans tend to value food less than they did before food was so readily available and inexpensive, and throw it away more frequently. In addition, they judge the quality of their food based on aesthetics. “Appearance trumps taste,” according to Bloom, so many perfectly edible foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, are discarded because they aren’t the right size, shape, or color.

Bloom also cites the loss of food knowledge as a primary contributor to food waste. “People don’t know when something’s good or not,” he says, explaining why people throw away food at home. Expiration and sell-by dates are used to fill this knowledge gap, but tend to be loose and often inaccurate indicators of how quickly a food should be eaten. Consequently, Americans discard a large amount of food that is completely fine for consumption.

Why Should We Care?

So why is any of this actually a problem? Bloom gives three primary reasons: ethics, the environment, and economics. At the heart of the ethical dilemma of food waste is the injustice that so many people can be going hungry while such vast amounts of food are going to waste. Currently, more than 48 million Americans live in households that struggle to get enough to eat, while the amount of food thrown out in the United States every year could fill the Rose Bowl to its brim. Bloom highlighted this discrepancy between need and waste, stating, “Redistributing only 2 percent of food waste would end hunger [in the United States].”

In addition to this ethical dimension, food waste has negative implications for the environment. As Bloom points out, many resources are intensively used in food production—including water and gas—and are wasted when we produce vast amounts of food that will never be eaten. Also, when food decomposes it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the third largest human-related source of methane in the United States.

Economics is the third reason to care about food waste, and is probably the issue most felt at home. Billions of dollars are spent by agricultural producers, consumers, restaurants and stores on foods that will never be eaten. This represents a significant expense: the average family of four in the U.S. discards an estimated US$1,350 worth of food annually.

What Do We Do About It?

Bloom laid out several ways both consumers and policymakers can address the problem of food waste. According to Bloom, the most effective way to prevent food waste is by banning organic waste from landfills. He explains that this would make people think twice about how much food to buy and better ways of using food purchases. It would also force more civic engagement around the issue, and has been successfully implemented in other countries. In fact, Nova Scotia’s landfill ban has been shown to increase composting in the province, create jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Bloom also suggests setting waste-reduction goals, streamlining tax deductions for donating food, and funding gleaning programs. And Bloom would like to see more data collected on food waste, and an increase in public awareness about the issue.

Bloom also provided some quick tips for the average consumer to help prevent food waste, including shopping smarter by planning meals and making lists, thinking about portion sizes, increasing food knowledge, and volunteering with gleaning and food recovery programs. He ended with a challenge for the audience: to buy 25 percent less food than usual at their next trip to the grocery store.

With an ever-growing population and the lingering question of how to feed everyone, consumers and policymakers alike must address the issue of food waste. This will eventually require bigger institutional shifts, but also hinges on the actions of individuals. As Bloom points out, everyone can do their part to reduce food waste, to ultimately save resources, protect the environment, fight hunger, and cut unnecessary spending.

To learn more about ways to prevent food waste, read Five Simple Things Consumers Can Do to Prevent Food Waste, and check out Jonathan Bloom’s blog, Wasted Food.

Marlena White is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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