Can we talk about food?
Yeah, I know we all love to talk about what we eat, but I want to discuss what we waste.
Some 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is not eaten. That's obscene. Look at it another way: We Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food each year. For the average family, it's as much as $2,300 a year. Wasted.CartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: Green Acres MallCommentSubmit your letterReader essaysGet published in Newsday
At a time when 1 in 6 of us struggles with hunger. How did we get to this point?
It's largely about the value we assign to things, and we don't assign value to food. It's pretty plentiful, relatively cheap, and most of us are disconnected from its production.
Once, we were in intimate contact with the food chain. We hunted and gathered, little went to waste. The same was true on the small farms that dotted our country. During the Great Depression, families rarely threw anything out, and the children of that era carried that mentality forward as parents. As kids in the 1960s and '70s, my siblings and I knew the leftover protein from dinner would be tomorrow's lunch -- sandwiches of meat loaf, meatballs, whatever. The bones from the chicken made soup.
Along the way, we lost that. We started prizing quickness, convenience, disposability and bigness in everything. Food was no exception. Freshness became a fetish. And now we get waste at every step.
Huge refrigerators encourage us to buy too much, and it spoils out of sight on the back of the shelf. Restaurants give portions too large for human consumption, and many of us send half of it to the trash. Grocery stores display only shiny, cosmetically perfect produce and throw out the rest. Farms toss "flawed" fruits and vegetables before they're sent to stores and restaurants in the first place.
The consequences are serious, beyond the financial losses.
Most uneaten food ends up in landfills and decomposes into methane, a nasty greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. And consider the wasted resources: Getting food to our tables eats up 80 percent of the water consumed in the United States, 50 percent of the land, and 10 percent of our energy, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
My wife and I grow fruits and vegetables. That's why this drives me -- and, I suspect, other home gardeners -- batty. We care for our plants from seed to blossom. We know what went into the cultivation. We get frustrated when something spoils before we pick it. We don't toss a bruised or spotted tomato; we slice off the blemish and devour the heavenly goodness. A misshapen eggplant tastes great off the grill.
Societally, changing what we're doing is an economic imperative. It's a moral imperative. It's an environmental imperative. It's a social justice imperative. If we could cut food waste by even 15 percent, that would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans.
There are things happening. Some food banks and other groups are rescuing imperfect produce from farms and food with expiration dates that otherwise would be thrown out. In Europe and Canada -- globally, about one-third of food is wasted -- supermarkets are selling at discount prices misshapen food with creative terms like "naturally imperfect."
But we consumers must play a part, too. Shop more frequently to help buy only what you need. Repurpose leftovers. Realize food sell-by dates are largely about optimal freshness, not safety, and don't be so quick to toss. Donate extra food. Start a compost pile. Do something.
We all love food. But it's a terrible thing to waste.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.