Earth911: Your book chronicles how we waste food from farm to fork and examines the impact. Why was this a story you wanted to tell?
Jonathan Bloom: I’d always been a food lover and someone who appreciated food as an eater, but when I came to learn how much food wasn’t being used, that was a story that I felt really needed to be told.
It seemed like the topic of food waste was one that was hiding in plain sight. It was happening at all steps of the food chain and even in our own lives — in our homes, in restaurants and behind the scenes at supermarkets, but it wasn’t something that the average person was aware of or thinking about.
E911: In your book you trace food waste at all stages of the supply chain. Can you describe the research involved in telling America’s food waste story?
JB: I called upon the statistics that were out there — what data was available from the USDA, the EPA and a few other sources. But one of the conclusions in the book was that there’s a desperate need for better numbers on food waste in America and in particular a bit more granular information on where that food is being wasted in our food chain.
The book features a whole bunch of interviews and on-the-scene reporting in the traditional sense, but also some immersive journalism where I went and worked a series of jobs to try to get a better perspective on what’s happening at a supermarket, in a restaurant, at a catering company and on a farm.
E911: What insights did you gain into America’s food waste problem by working those jobs?
JB: The main thing I picked up from working at a supermarket was that after a certain amount of time you become numb to the waste, and food becomes something other than a nourishing commodity. It’s just stuff that you need to get out onto the shelf.
I can see how if you worked there for a year or five years you would have this entirely different view of food, and it would be much easier to throw it out. Now apply that to just about anyone working in the food industry and you have one of the root causes of food waste.
E911: Your book talks a lot about how food is wasted in America, but you also touch on the why. Why do you feel we waste so much food in the United States?
JB: I point to three main factors: abundance, beauty and cost. From an abundance standpoint, we’re producing about twice the amount of food that we eat per-person from a calorie perspective. So, put simply, we can afford to squander some of that food because there’s so much of it.
From the beauty standpoint, we’ve reached this point where we expect our food to look perfect. If there’s a small blemish or if it’s the wrong shape, size or color, that food item will be cast aside at some point in the food chain. That’s happening at stores and in our homes, but also our demands — and our perceived demands — are impacting what does and doesn’t leave the farm. So, you’ll have a tremendous amount of on-farm waste because there’s no market for many of those fresh products that don’t look just so.
The third factor is cost, and no other nation spends as little as we do on our food. Less than 10 percent of household spending goes toward food. That data point has a major impact. We don’t tend to value things we don’t spend much on, and as a result we lack that impetus to fully use our food because it’s just not that dear to us.
E911: In your book, you provide insights on how we — as a nation and as individuals — can trim our waste. Why should Americans care about wasted food?
JB: Reducing your food waste is one of the easiest ways to have a dramatic impact on climate change. The UN FAO [United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization] recently calculated the global food waste footprint, and they found that if food waste were a country, it would be the No. 3 carbon emitter after the United States and China. And food waste also represents a massive waste of the fresh water used to grow that food. The U.S. is squandering a Great Salt Lake’s worth of water annually through the food not used.
Everyone in the food chain has a role to play here, including us. In the U.S., households are responsible for more food waste than any other sector of the food chain. To me, that’s further impetus for you and me to do our part to reduce food waste in our homes. Because, if we all pitch in, we can have a major impact.
Want to shrink your impact? Go to the next page for some of Bloom’s top tips on reducing food waste.
Feature photo used in American Wasteland book cover, courtesy of Jonathan Bloom