"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Plate Waste–Not Just Yucky Food

When I was growing up my mother insisted that I eat everything on my plate.  She did not believe in leftovers – a scar of the Depression I later assumed.  If you had money to buy food for each meal, then filling the refrigerator with bits and pieces, scraps, and shards was a sign of penury.  God forbid, you should ever open a refrigerator with all that poverty food in it.  And throwing good food out was an ever worse crime.

There was an Italian aspect to the meals as well.  “Mangia, mangia!” meant, “What? You don’t like what I cooked?” plus a little Jewish crossover with “Eat! You’re too skinny already”.  The very familiar, “Think of all the poor children in China who don’t have enough to eat” made no sense at all, since any half-eaten pork chops would be thrown into the trash and into some New York landfill.  My father never had the patience to explain to me how the world food market worked with all its subsidies, trade, nationalistic food policies, Communist centrally-planned, agriculture-stifling controls, and all the rest.  No one thought of these things anyway in the Fifties.  America was at its apogee, on top of the world, breadbasket for millions, Hercules astride the Colossus, and more.

This insistence on “Mangia, mangia!” added about ten pounds to my weight.  I was not very athletic (I got a strained groin every time I tried to follow Joey Granski up the oak tree), and every extra dollop of unwanted mashed potatoes, buttery beans, or fatty beef meant another inch on the love handles.

When I was in my late twenties, I had an epiphany.  My wife one day said to me, “If you don’t want it, don’t eat it”, and an era of modest portions, Saran Wrapped leftovers, creative lunches, and a new, svelte body ensued.

A few years ago I was invited by a friend to go out to eat at a great Italian restaurant near his home in New Haven.  It was one of those kitschy Neapolitan places with murals of Vesuvius, plastic grape arbors, and la tarantella playing in the background.  The menu was gloppy and predictable – spaghetti with meatballs, lasagna, manicotti, and ravioli.  What I didn’t know was that the portions were enough for a family, and people ate at the restaurant as much to be able to take home tomorrow’s dinner than to eat the food in front of them.  There was so much pasta in each portion that even triple-sized plates couldn’t hold it, and it fell onto the table in sloppy, saucy drippings.  I am sure that half the diners took one look at the congealed, rancid mess the next day and tossed it; but it was the idea of the thing that counted – a great bargain.

Reducing plate waste has always been near the top of the school system agenda, for kids are notoriously picky and school lunches are as notoriously yucky.  Only the hungriest Fourth Graders would tuck into the nasty mess of mac-and-cheese or grisly meat bits over noodles.  I happened to walk in through the back door of the school where my children went one day, and passed the refuse bins, piled high with scrambled food, paper plates, and disgusting plate waste.  To increase school lunch uptake, administrators reconfigured the lunch menu to include chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and pizza.  This was wildly successful until the Nutrition Nazis came to power and insisted that we had an obesity problem and that we needed to start serving more nutritious food. 

The result? More plate waste than ever, for no kid worth his playground creds would scarf up the raw carrot sticks, undercooked spinach, and rock-hard pear slices.  Not only that, in the interest of promoting moderate eating, the Nutrition Nazis vastly underestimated the number of calories it takes to fill a growing kid.  Rather than encourage better eating, the policy simply increased plate waste.

A new UK-based report stated that half of all food produced in the country was wasted:

As much as half of the world's food, amounting to two billion tons worth, is wasted, a UK-based report has claimed. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers said the waste was being caused by poor storage, strict sell-by dates, bulk offers and consumer fussiness. The study also found that up to 30% of vegetables in the UK were not harvested because of their physical appearance. (BBC News Online 1.10.13)

The situation in the United States is no different.  There is inefficiency and gross wastage at every level of the food chain; and yet there is no real incentive to do anything about it because consumers are willing to pay.  If farmers throw out a third of all vegetables because they look a little off, they simply factor that loss into the price.  Supermarkets throw tons of perishable foods out because they feel they need to offer a variety to the customer.  If a lot of cauliflower is thrown out because it gets spotty and soft, managers fiddle with supply and demand, and try to optimize their purchases; but this is never an exact science and food will always be thrown out.  Besides, Whole Food customers are happy to pay a premium for a wide variety of super-fresh produce, so if the store throws out half of what is on the shelves, then so be it. The broccoli rabe will always be dark green, firm, and fresh. Piggly Wiggly prices are kept low thanks to restricted supply – 100 lb. sacks of corn meal will never go bad, nor fatback or pork belly.

So, with rising incomes, it is no surprise that the food chain is geared to the waste cycle – people can afford the 50 percent waste and do not complain.  Direct and indirect subsidies on farm commodities, water, and transportation help to keep food costs down regardless of waste.

Ironically, the old nostrum about the starving children in China is back again:

Dr. Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: "The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering. This is food that could be used to feed the world's growing population - as well as those in hunger today.

Why does this food waste continue?

"The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one-free offers."

Eventually, say experts, resource demands will take their toll:

Dr. Fox added: "As water, land and energy resources come under increasing pressure from competing human demands, engineers have a crucial role to play in preventing food loss and waste by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods.

The time for belt-tightening and behavior modification has yet to arrive because food prices are still low.  Although British officials associated with this study look to UN global intervention, massive public information campaigns, and retraining of supermarket managers, supply-and-demand will always win the day.

I have to take out the trash only a few times a week in our household.  I have become really good at estimating the amount of food that my wife and I eat, including leftovers in my calculations.  By week’s end we will have had a variety of dinners of fish, meat, and pasta accompanied by vegetables from Chile, Argentina, and Mexico; and fruit from Israel and Morocco. Lunches are even more interesting because I combine the many ramekins of dinner bits into mixed salads, or in unusual grills.  I don’t do this to eat efficiently or to save the planet, but because of the taste and the enjoyment.  For the time being I am happy that the cost of shipping produce from 5000 miles away, jetting Pacific swordfish fresh from the Pacific, or producing locally-grown kale is still modest and the resource crunch hasn’t hit.  Food waste is something I and millions of Americans can live with.

1 comment:

  1. I don’t do this to eat efficiently or to save the planet, found this website but because of the taste and the enjoyment.

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