Boing Boing Responses

Yesterday’s Times article has prompted some spirited discussion in this Boing Boing forum, which is wonderful. And healthy.

I contemplated commenting in that forum, but had waaay too much to say. Instead, I’ve compiled some of my reactions to the comments here, with reference to the order of their appearance in the thread:

(19) People really want to blame ‘the lawyers’ for everything from hindering food donations to ruining this country. I won’t comment on the latter, but the former is simply outdated. The Times article even mentioned “A Good Samaritan law,” (The Bill Emerson Food Donation Act) which protects food donors from liability when they give food. I guess if people want to believe something, they’re going to believe it.Don't throw me away!

(29) If I was king for the day, or Food Waste Czar (a guy can dream, right?), all stores would have sale produce racks. One store I go to has one, and I routinely buy tasty apples with one bad spot and potatoes that require a tiny bit of trimming.

(54) The ‘Why should I care?’ question is a persistent one. ‘My actions don’t affect others,’ many folks say. Well, like it or not, our fates are intertwined on this planet. Unless you grow your own food using no machinery or petro-fertilizers and compost what you don’t eat, your food wasting affects others in many ways. As commenter 29 mentioned, the waste of fossil fuels is a key reason why food waste matters.

To squander food is to waste the oil used to plant, fertilize, harvest and transport that food (from farm to processor to store to home). Simply tossing food because it’s ‘your right’ means that the carbon footprint (the fuel use, freight emissions, energy from processing it) only went to the cause of feeding landfills. There, rotting food emits methane, a greenhouse gas more harmful than carbon dioxide. But yeah, it’s a free country; go ahead and throw out your own food simply because you bought it.

(100) I would emphasize that the 27 percent number is out of date. It comes from a study released in 1997, which means the research was done in 1995. It’s probably closer to one-half than one-quarter. We’ll see when the USDA finally gets around to updating their numbers, although I’m skeptical about how rigorous that update will be.

(23, 65) Convenience is a real culprit. Avoiding food waste can take some time and effort. Whether it’s planning your week’s meals ahead or canning fruits and vegetables. But I just don’t see how the alternative–throwing away almost half of our food–is sustainable.

And yes, the loss of food knowledge is another factor in waste. For example, fewer people today think to make stale bread into croutons, panzanella or bread pudding. Or to simply slice off the moldy part of cheese.

(28) In looking at the reasons for waste, the technology vs. convenience question fascinates me. As technology improvements–effective storage, refrigerated transport and protective packaging–have made it possible to avoid the majority of food waste, we haven’t.

To generalize, First World food waste mostly comes from indifference, laziness, lack of knowledge, etc. In developing nations, it’s often poor storage and distribution that cause the high levels of waste.

(37) From my experience working at a supermarket and talking to store and produce managers, they didn’t really mind the waste. While I’m sure that varies, it’s seen as a cost of doing business. They didn’t want to see it happen too much, like any business would want to cut inefficiency, but they weren’t too too put off by it.

The people most upset by food waste seem to be farmers, who often have an abundance of waste. Frequently, they’ll choose not to harvest an entire field if the price for that crop goes south. But given their investment of time, money and labor in growing that food, they almost universally express regret. Fortunately, they often donate unsold crops through the food recovery network or invite gleaners to harvest them.

(58) To a certain extent, it’s true that capitalism encourages waste. But my response to supermarket waste is: If restaurants can use software to (somewhat) accurately predict demand and make ordering more precise, why can’t grocery stores? And when they do have to bump perfectly good produce, donate it!

We not be able to completely avoid food waste, but we can do a whole heck of a lot better.

This entry was posted in Composting, Farm, Food Recovery, General, Supermarket, Technology, Waste Stream. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

16 Comments

  1. Robert
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Stores that have sale produce racks should advertise that fact more. I always look over the sale produce racks and also look for deals such as “reduced for quick sale.” There is a store near me that offers “meat ends,” as they call them. They are the ends of the salamis and other sausages sold at the deli counter. They put all of these into a shrink wrapped meat pack along with a sausage link or some cheese ends that couldn’t be sold and sell these at a deep discount. The store is a European market that caters to immigrants from Eastern Europe and the sausages are made in an old world way and even the “ends” are great!

  2. janes'_kid
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    >”…My actions don’t affect others, many folks say. Well, like it or not, our fates are intertwined on this planet. ”

    But, are they SIGNIFICANTLY intertwined?

    The quarter can of beer I poured down the kitchen sink last evening did not, nor will it ever, affect anyone, anywhere, any time. There is some threshold number of tomatoes or grams of stale bread that must be saved before that affects anyone, anywhere at any time. When I was an undergraduate we had a lecture on “significant figures”, a math concept to explain this. I would not attempt to explain it.

  3. Posted May 19, 2008 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Obviously we need to start paying attention to the amount of wasted food. We as individuals do not realize how much the waste adds up.

    “Every Waterfall Starts With A Drop.”

    Great Post!

    Mark Salinas, MN

  4. Posted May 19, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good question, janes’_kid. I couldn’t say where such a threshold for statistical significance would begin. But looking at it from another angle, I’m not sure there is one. Your actions affect those of others around you (peers, family, etc.) in a way that would be difficult to quantify. Just as recycling is contagious, so is wasting. In that way, your actions can multiply, which is quite significant.

    I’ve poured beer down the drain before (even recently). I’m not perfect; nobody is. My point here is that there are consequences to your actions. Where those consequences begin, maybe that’s a question for the Freakonomics crew.

  5. Lauren Faucheux
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Recently my husband and I have been able to recycle again (Post Katrina New Orleans obviously has recycling issues) and in our new recycling habits we began composting our food waste. We were AMAZED at how much less garbage we create on a daily basis, AND our plants are oh so much happier with our home made compost. Looking forward to discussing this more next week when you are in town.
    Lauren Faucheux
    NOLA

  6. Posted May 20, 2008 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Jonathan,

    I was thrilled to discover your website from the NYTimes article. I’ve been thinking a lot out composting, sustainablity and other “green” issues, especially as they relate to restaurants.

    I’m probably the queen of food wasting, but as I read about the expense of hauling trash vs. compost, and the effects of rotting food in land fills, I’ve begun to compost in my own urban garden, and also more conscious about all the food I throw out.

    To the ‘Why should I care?’ question, and it’s auxiliary question ‘Why should I bother?’ Michael Polan argued an interesting point in the NYTimes Sunday magazine (April 20, 2008). As individuals, we probably can’t make a huge difference — but as we do more, the people around us (our neighbors, friends and family) do more, and all this action lets our statespeople know we care. As a result, the statespeople take more “impactful” actions. And on a personal level doing more aligns our beliefs with our actions.

  7. Jonathan
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Lauren, isn’t it wild how little trash there is without food scraps, paper, newspapers or bottles? Food waste alone is 12 percent of the waste stream…Looking forward to discussing further, meeting your happy plants and efficiently enjoying New Orleans’ cuisine.

    Julia, that’s encouraging to hear about your changed ways, and you make a great point about our ability to impact others. Indeed, avoiding food waste and composting what you do toss is contagious. I’m curious, why were you the “queen of food wasting” and how have you changed your ways?

  8. Sara - Chicago
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Jonathan,
    Thank you for your good work and ideas and for the time you spend making them public. I’ve worked in restaurants for years and have been appalled by the massive amounts of food people waste. While working in a steakhouse in Madison, WI. I would personally throw several pounds of steak into the trash every night. When asked if they might like to take their uneaten 10 ounces of beef home with them, many people would look at me as if I were crazy to suggest such a thing. Perhaps there was no room for the leftovers because they were packed cheek to jowl carpooling with their friends in Hummers?? I see food waste as another blindly consumptive, me-first, capitalism-is-king American blight.
    Can you suggest any organizations to link up with here in Chicago?

  9. Posted May 20, 2008 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Jon, nice site. Saw the Times article and just came across it. And thanks for the link to my shrimp post.

    Wanted to mention I heard about a program in CT where food is bought at the end of day at the farmer’s market for half-price. (Farmers prefer this rather than taking it back to the farm or composting it). Then a non-profit doubles the value of WIC coupons for low-income people to buy this food, so effectively they are getting fresh farm produce for 1/4 the regular market price. Needless to say, it goes quickly, creating a viable market for end-of-day produce and raising access to food. A win all around. (I’ll explain more in a post soon.)

    It’s ironic we waste so much food when there are so many food deserts in our midst….

  10. Sara Steinbroner
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I have been doing alot of the things you mentioned for years. My family is a great bunch of recyclers, the grandchildren think it’s great because they get money for the cans they recycle, but I tell them there is a more important thing to think about, the planet! I have always cut off the the moldy parts of the cheese, my husband tinks that is just to rediculous, wait till I show him your article. One of my families favorite things to eat is what I learned from my father, his family was very poor during the depression, so his mom used stale bread and made a mixture of onions and chicken broth and poured it over the stale bread with a little romano cheese on it, this may not sound good to some, but it is truly delicious, and as I said the kids think it is great, and when I do have stale italian bread I grate it up for bread crumbs.

    One thing I think is a waste is the little juice boxes, what is the matter with putting a little juice in a glass, the “easy way” is another thing that gets the land fills fuller. We are a spoiled nation if it isn’t easy don’t do it, some people should read up on the depression days and learn a few facts on conserving. We only have one planet, let’s take care of it for our children and teach them.

  11. Posted May 20, 2008 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Sara in Chicago, how dare you suggest that people take home leftovers! They paid for it, and they want it in the trash. (j.k.) I don’t have firsthand knowledge on the group, but the Resource Center seems to be recovering food.

    Thanks, Sam. I’m looking forward to reading your post about the CT Farmer’s market double discount. That’s a superb idea. Where I live, a shelter gives vendors at the farmer’s market a box to donate unsold items. Toward the end of the market, the shelter picks up the boxes of donated local, fresh produce. I would guess that the currency involved in the Connecticut model yields more donations.

    Sara S., so I take it your husband doesn’t like blue cheese. I see what you mean on the little juice boxes–I try to avoid packaged goods at home. But that goes for all packaged goods. The small juices help avoid waste with the wee ones (with wee needs).

  12. Posted May 21, 2008 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    One of the themes I noticed in the BoingBoing discussion was the idea that “once I’ve bought it, there’s no reason why it should matter to anyone else what I do with it.” But entirely aside from the moral repugnance of waste in the face of need, basic supply-and-demand economics shows how first-world waste connects to third-world hunger: when we buy more than we can eat, we increase demand for food, which drives up prices, pricing food out of reach for the poor and driving growers in poor countries to shift their production to cash crops for export.

  13. Michael
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Last fall at an up-market supermarket in St. Paul, Minnesota I saw a produce worker replacing one batch of B+to A- pomegranates with A to A- fruit. I asked him if they were going to throw those away (knowing damn well that they wouldn’t give me so much as a pomegranate peeling let alone a blemished whole fruit). He said they were going to be donated to Second Harvest. Fine. But what was the matter with them, I asked. He held out a B+ and an A grade pomegranate and asked me which one I would prefer to pay for. Well, no contest – the A grade looked better at that price than the B+.

    It still doesn’t make economic sense, though.

    The store has paid for the fruit, and even if it isn’t quite as good as the best, its still pretty high quality. Giving it away is a good thing to do (if they really are) but it is at a loss. If they discounted the B+ fruit, couldn’t they still make a profit without making the A to A- fruit sit idle until it was spoiled? Wouldn’t their volume of sales go up until the cheaper fruit was sold off, along with the better looking and more expensive fruit?

    Or is it an image issue: It is better to lose money on slightly less attractive produce than to degrade our image of only having top drawer (and expensive) produce for sale?

    The high volume inner city supermarkets don’t seem to have that problem. They let the ratty produce intermingle with the better stuff; the customer does the sorting, and at the end of the day what is left doesn’t need much reflection about whether its worth keeping around.

  14. Jonathan
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Michael, you’ve hit on a few important questions. Wouldn’t supermarkets be better off ordering less produce so they don’t throw away/donate the B+ items? Why don’t more stores have discounted produce? And how important is the image of ultimate freshness?

    I’m afraid the answer to the last question (very important) overrides common sense and the other two questions. From what I’ve heard, most stores yearn to be thought of as temples of freshness. They’ll happily lose money to maintain that image.

    The supermarkets whose image is based on low prices aren’t quite as bad on this front, but they still want to present their “A game” if they can.

    But we all choose the A fruit over the B+ every time if they’re the same price. Does that make us complicit??

  15. Posted May 23, 2008 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    My queen of waste moniker is a confluence of many factors — mainly that I’m single and a professional chef. That means I am overly ambitious when I’m at the market thinking about what I’ll cook during the upcoming week, and then I get distracted by last minute social invitations. Just this week, a friend tried to distract me from the meal I had already planned to cook at home, but I instead suggested we just eat at my house. One point in the no-waste column!

    By the way, did you used to freelance write for the Boston Business Journal? I think you interviewed me for an article on corporate team building.

  16. Jonathan
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    One point for you! Something always seems to come up during the week. That’s why when I’m planning meals, I try to leave one night open.

    On the BBJ: Guilty as charged. Small world. Are you still using cooking to build camaraderie?

  • Buy the Book