Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom

Maybe you're getting old when a 308 page book about food waste gets you excited. Or maybe the book was just that good. The title and subtitle of this book read American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food. That got my attention. Throw in some cover art with a bird's eye view of a trashcan made to look like a plate and I was hooked. And I hadn't even gotten to such compelling chapter titles as "American Farms: Growing Waste, Selling Perfection" or "A Cold Case of Waste."

Jonathan Bloom begins his book with his definition of food waste: food which was once edible, but has been made inedible through our neglect or misuse. It doesn't include rinds, seeds, etc., or food that was just bad to begin with. He then proceeds to tell us just how much of this perfectly edible food we waste. It's a little shocking. And yet, if you've ever eaten at your child's school cafeteria or had a look around at a restaurant or maybe taken a gander into the back of your refrigerator, it starts to seem not so terribly shocking after all.

Bloom estimates that we waste nearly 50% of our food--enough to fill the Rose Bowl each day. Of course that's not just from the leftover pot roast and the bag of cilantro we allowed to go bad. Bloom follows America's food from farm to plate, stopping at a couple grocery stores and restaurants along the way. In his journey he takes note of edible food never harvested, edible food rejected because it doesn't meet industry standards for size, uniformity, and/or beauty, edible food sent away by the truck full from stores because it fails to meet the store manager's standards for loveliness or freshness, edible food culled from our grocery store shelves because it is either blemished in some small way or because it is getting close to a sell by date, edible food discarded by the ton from restaurants and schools because leftovers cannot be used the next day (either by law or per the standards of restaurant chains) or because patrons have wasted much of their over-sized plate-fulls, and finally--of course--edible food wasted by us in our own homes because we failed to use it, failed to save it, or failed to find it in the abyss called refrigeration.

In the course of his journey Bloom makes an excellent--and not too politically one-sided--argument about why we should care about food waste. And throughout the book he gives plenty of ideas about what we can do about it--some already being implemented by stores and restaurants and some that Bloom feels should be implemented (and would be if he were "king of the forest"). These ideas begin with a discussion of the way hunger and excessive food waste co-exist in our country and extends into a discussion of many of the things that are being done and can still be done by charities, farms, and businesses to distribute some of our excess food.

Furthermore, Blooms ideas for how to solve the problem of food waste extend far beyond feeding the hungry. The book includes ideas that range from making sell-by versus use-by dates less confusing to consumers to using the methane gas produced by food in landfills to power stuff that needs powdering. His last-chapter is packed with various ideas about how food-producers, schools, businesses, and governments can make food more, well, usable.

And yet, even with all of that, one of the best things about the book is that Bloom never takes himself too seriously. Come on, if you've ever read a book like this, you totally know what I mean. They can get heavy. And depressing. And a little preachy (or a lot preachy). Don't get me wrong. The man's got a mission. And he cares about food waste. And he really really wants it to improve. And he does a darn good job of making the reader want it to improve too. The book is full up with information, statistics, and ideas. But Bloom isn't afraid of a joke here and there. He's not above a little self-effacement. He's not even above hitting the scroungers table on a college campus and scrounging with the best of them (and by scrounging I do mean eating the free leftovers of the other students). It's kind of refreshing in a book like this.

The one thing I would have liked to have seen more of in American Wasteland is this: more at-home tips for at-home folks. There was plenty about what grocery stores, landfills, and the government could do. I understand why. I understand that these are big venues and that if one of them changes something, then big change is on the horizon. That's not a bad thing. Nor is it a bad thing for us to get involved in changing the businesses and government around us. However. However, I guess I'm inclined towards tips for the little guy. No, it won't save the earth if I in my modest house manage to waste less food. But to my mind, part of the problem with waste in America is a problem in the attitude of average Americans in their average kitchens. We have ceased to reverence our food (and apparently, some of our money as well). Bloom points this out, which is partly why I was so disappointed when the let's-make-some-changes chapter at the end included so very very little time giving to the individual and the changes we can make. I believe that there are plenty of changes we can all make. As respectable cheapskates it is, after all, our sacred duty. Less waste means less money spent. After reading Bloom's American Wasteland I realize that it means less of other problems too.

Which is why I've decided to dedicate some time on this blog to reducing waste, to more carefully using the food we have. It'll be a Week Without Waste (or maybe a month--we'll see how much material I've got). We'll have recipes for leftovers and some tips for how to use as much as we possibly can. For starters check out American Wasteland or Bloom's blog Wasted Food.

American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food by Jonathan Bloom

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