Friday, September 30, 2011

Weekend Reading: American Wasteland

American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (And What You Can do About It) by Jonathan Bloom. De Capo Press, 2010.

Much like when I recently read a book about hoarding and kept finding myself hopping up to clean and organize things, so too was I hyperaware while reading this book of the excess of food in my house, what I was going to need to eat next and how long those zucchini had been chilling out in my crisper.  If everyone read just a little bit of this book every morning, kind of like how some people read the bible, I bet food waste in this country would go down significantly.  Either way, this is a fascinating, if depressing, book that actually features a few of my favorite frugality bloggers and manages to make a clear point without being preachy--I like that.

Best Takeaways:

  • In 2009, the average American household wasted $2200  worth of food (24).  That's just depressing.  Add to that the cost to grow, harvest and ship that food and the food waste, and it's just horrifying.
  • Even our produce is getting supersized (100).  Whenever I think of large portions, I think of restaurant food.  When I go out to eat, I typically come out feeling so overstuffed and sick that the notion of going out to eat at all is less attractive to me.  Add to that the fact that I will most likely be eating my leftovers for the next meal, possibly two.  But I also noticed last summer when I was going through a banana phase, how hard it was to finish even a single banana.  I'm not saying this to try to convince you I'm some kind of delicate flower or something, but there is often a finite amount of banana that I want to eat in one sitting, and even though I would purposely grab the smallest bunch I could find--or take smaller bananas off of other bunches and have a bunch of loose, I could usually only eat half and then I would have to come up with a way to make it last until I wanted it again, which is a pain in the ass.  People love baby carrots, give me a baby banana!  Apparently, food retailers think large produce looks better, I assume healthier, but once you open a banana or cut an apple, it just doesn't last as long.  Let's get back to normal sizes, please.
  • Reed College in Portland, OR has a "Scroungers Line" in their cafeteria where students who don't have a meal plan line up and share the unfinished food from the people who do have a meal plan (249).  I'm still a little fuzzy on how this works, but it's reducing food waste and feeding hungry (and thrifty) students, so that can't be a bad thing.  Double bonus, the scroungers believe that their immune systems are strengthened by the constant consumption of different germs.
  • We can harness the power of garbage.  There are facilities in England where people (usually food processing companies) bring their excess food waste for anerobic digestion.  This is where the food waste is put into a machine and allowed to break down releasing methane, which is then captured and re-routed "Methane can power a generator in order to create electricity.  It can be compressed into a natural gas... and it can be cooled and used as a liquid natural gas." (259)  Methane is a natural byproduct of food breakdown, but in US landfills, it's often just vented out of the pile using long, curved pipes.  That keeps the landfill from exploding, but doesn't actually do anything with the methane except release it into the atmosphere.
  • Plate Waste. One restaurant owner in California, in an effort to reduce food waste overall, but plate waste (the food left on the plates of diners that can't be donated or re-used) in particular was very worried that his customers would think he was ripping them off by reducing the amount of homefries that come with breakfast.  He studied how many got consumed, on average, and then reduced the number served to that amount.  Then he put a line in the menu that anyone who wanted more homefries could have unlimited refills.  He said some people request the refill, most don't, and very few diners take advantage and abuse the policy.  Serving people what they can actually eat--makes sense to me.
  • We really do eat with our eyes.  This is something I've heard many times, and agree with completely.  If you serve people more food, they will eat more.  We eat based less on how full we feel, but how much food is gone from the plate.  Studies have shown that people served large tubs of stale popcorn will still consume about half even though they don't like the taste; the author mentions a study where people were eating soup from bowls connected to tubes that automatically refilled them.  Those people ate 30% more soup than people eating from non-refilling bowls.  
All in all, a fascinating (if depressing) read that I would recommend to anyone.  It also, reminded me again, that I need to start composting.  Problem is, I have no yard of any kind and therefore no place to put the compost.  I heard a while ago that there are compost barrels at Whole Foods, but possibly not at all stores... I need to go check that out.


  1. I'd love to compost, too. There's a community compost bin about a 10 minute walk from my house, but somehow the process of carrying a bin of rotten stuff over there just seems like a lot of work. This is silly of me. I totally should get on this before the weather starts to freeze!

    This book sounds good... but I also know it'll make me feel really guilty!

  2. if you have ANY outdoor area at all you can do it (i tried doing it indoors once and ended up with an army of flies, it was awful). i just have a small plastic storage container i got from target and drilled some holes. if you don't have a large space i really recommend composting with red wrigglers because the food is processed soooo much faster. good luck!