Updated on May 16, 2011
After working as a food-service volunteer at a homeless shelter, Jonathan Bloom became passionately aware about all the food we waste in this country.
An average American throws away nearly 200 pounds a year. The good news is, once you’re looking for it “you see food waste everywhere,” says Bloom, and that awareness can help change your wasteful ways.
Bloom’s book, “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)” is chock-full of hard facts about food waste. By literally going through garbage, Bloom uses humor and fascinating stories to help readers understand this stinky issue. We caught up with Bloom and did a little trash talking ourselves.
1. Food-saving bags
Earth911: What are some of the best containers or storage devices that you came across during your research? Does the food saving that a plastic Ziploc bag does outweigh the fact that that plastic bag ends up in a landfill? Do any of those bags that claim to extend the life of produce actually work?
Jonathan Bloom: This is a thorny subject, as most people have strong opinions on what works best. I haven’t used green bags much, but the feedback I get on them is that they don’t work miracles.
Sometimes my goal of reducing food waste is at odds with that other worthy objective of reducing packaging. That’s true mostly at supermarkets. But to avoid sending yet more stuff to the landfill from your home, I’d recommend reusable containers (plastic or, if possible, glass) over bags. But if you have storage strategies that help you reduce waste–by all means, stick with them!
Two other tips: Using clear containers is vital – so you can see what’s inside. Also, some things – potatoes and onions come to mind – don’t need any kind of container.
2. At the grocery store
Earth911: What are some simple food shopping tips you could give to our readers?
JB: 1. Plan meals. Create a menu in advance and make a corresponding shopping list. (If this doesn’t appeal, make smaller, more frequent shopping trips)
2. Stick to your list! Avoid impulse buys, especially with perishable foods.
3. Be realistic. If you work late, don’t shop like you have time to make meals from scratch.
4. Plan for a leftover night or two. Can you say smorgasbord?! It saves time and money!
5. Shop for perishable items last. They won’t start breaking down in your cart and you’re less likely to make impulse buys because you’ll be ready to finish and leave.
6. Don’t hit the store hungry – you’ll buy way too much.
3. Getting the kids on board
Earth911: Remember when our parents said, “Finish your dinner! There are children starving in the world.”? That certainly curbed our food waste. Do you have a personal mantra that you say or would recommend to say to kids to remind them of how food waste affects the world?
JB: I don’t love the “starving children” mantra because it invites guilt to the dinner table. I’d steer clear of any kind of mantra until you learn about your kids eating habits and they can communicate what they want or don’t. Then, I think teaching the clean-your-plate ethic is fine, as long as it’s in a low-pressure way and the portions are reasonably sized. But with children, it’s always best to add the disclaimer: No two kids are alike!
When young people are old enough to serve themselves, I like this one: Take what you’ll eat and eat what you take.
4. Outside the kitchen
Earth911: Both hunger and extreme food waste exist in this country. Is there anything an average citizen can do to help with these issues outside of their own kitchen?
JB: Domestically, you can make an effort to stop wasting food, keep track of how much money you’re saving and donate those savings to a local food bank. Or if that’s too abstract, find non-perishables to donate from your cupboard.
But, as your question implies, there are macro factors at work here. Outside of your home, you can support politicians who support hunger relief. You can volunteer at a soup kitchen or food recovery operation. Most educational and fun, perhaps, go gleaning or participate in tree fruit collection!
5. Favorite low-waste recipes
Earth911: Are there any unique meals you make at home using leftovers?
JB: Everyone needs a “use-it-up” meal or two. It can be a simple pasta dish, frittata [see recipe], pizza, chili, quiche, or a whole range of options. For me, it’s burritos. I end up adding whatever vegetables or meat extras remain to the pot.
6. Expiration dates
Earth911: What’s the deal with sell-by dates? Is your food still good after the date has passed?
JB: Almost always. The “sell-by” date tells retailers when they should stop displaying goods. The item should remain perfectly edible for about a week after that date, so, by all means, don’t throw something out just because it’s reached its sell-by!
With all expiration dates, I’d say: approach them with a bit of skepticism and trust your senses.
[Editor’s Note: Growing up we would use our cat to detect if the milk had gone bad. If she turned her nose up at her saucer we weren’t having cereal that morning.]