Dear Wasted Food Dude–Extreme Couponing

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude, which runs on BioCycle‘s site and their e-bulletin, BioCycle Food Recycling News. But fear not, I’ll also crosspost here.

Very related: send questions! Please write in with any food-waste-related query, issue or conundrum. I’m not picky–questions can be big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or Tweet to @wastedfood. On to this month’s question…

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
Just curious: how much does extreme couponing lead to food waste?
Ivo D., London, UK

Yo, Ivo!
Extreme couponing, eh? That reminds me of the expression, ”all things to the extreme.“ Oh that’s right, it’s the opposite — “all things in moderation.“ Along those lines, I’m not a fan of anything done to the extreme other than composting and bathroom cleaning (not necessarily in that order). And that goes double for coupons.

The reason being, coupons are mostly just prompts to buy stuff that we don’t really need (not to mention food ads that many of us willingly seek out). Sometimes they prompt us to buy foods that we don’t even want just because the deal is so tempting. For example, it’s surprising that you could get a 2-liter Mountain Dew Voltage for 25 cents. But now you have a few pounds of magenta-colored sugar water that you probably shouldn’t even know existed (and is not exactly healthy).

Extreme couponing only pushes us to excessively purchase items solely in the name of saving money. And buying food to save a buck is odd at best; some harsher columnists would call it flawed thinking. And when we don’t consume our purchase, it renders any savings moot. I’m continually amazed by this paradox: we’re extremely price-sensitive with our food, yet blissfully unaware of how much food we discard and its cost.

Speaking of unaware, your question required me to do five minutes of Internet research on extreme couponing. In addition to learning about this behavior in general, I also landed on Extreme Couponing, a dreadful “reality” TV show. This show and the behavioral subculture of taking couponing to excessive, er, extreme levels feels slightly harmful. It’s as if they both just provide a way to advertise new, unnecessary products and enable hoarding. In one episode that perhaps represents these shortcomings, a family dumpster dives for a specific coupon, unaware, apparently, that they could simply save a step by looking for that food item in the same dumpster!

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July 11, 2016 | Posted in Household, Wasted Food Dude | Comments closed

Report from Congressional Food Waste Hearing

The following article by Jonathan appeared in BioCycle‘s June 2016 issue. 

On May 25, the House Agriculture Committee held hearings on the issue of food waste. Based on their tone, committee members sounded determined to use government to prompt change in the food waste status quo. Or at the very least, help remove bureaucratic roadblocks to food waste reduction.

images by Jonathan BloomThe Committee invited expert witnesses to essentially educate them on many facets of food waste and discuss potential federal roles for its alleviation. The only witness on Panel I was Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who set the table for the others by laying out the impact of America’s wasted food and reminding the committee of the federal 50 percent food waste reduction goal by 2030. She also plugged her more recent legislative answer: the Food Date Labeling Act introduced in May. That policy initiative received plenty of attention during the two hours of testimony.

Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) established a collegial tone for the proceedings in his opening statement. He praised former Ag Committee colleague Pingree for getting food waste on the Congressional radar. Conaway then reached across the aisle, verbally: “Tackling food waste in this country is, and should be, a nonpartisan issue that will be most successful by engaging everyone in the food chain, from field to table,” Conaway said. “It will take the collaboration of all stakeholders to be successful.”

That cooperative spirit feeling continued throughout the hearings in the Longworth House Office Building. In his opening remarks, ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN) asserted, “This is an area where we can work across party lines.” Given that notion, the strong committee turnout —17 members — on a busy Hill morning, and the amount of time spent discussing the date label issue could mean that Pingree’s labeling bill may just have legs.

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June 17, 2016 | Posted in Legislation | Comments closed

Dear Wasted Food Dude–Table Scraps

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude. It will run on BioCycle‘s website and in BioCycle Food Recycling News, their fledgling e-bulletin, but I’ll also crosspost here.

Very related: send inquiries! Please write in with any food-waste-related question/issue/conundrum. I’m not picky–the query can be big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or Tweet to @wastedfood.

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
I have sliced nitrate free salami in my freezer that must not have been sealed properly (even though I double bagged it). It has turned brown/gray and tastes funny. How bad would it be to feed it to my dog?
—Danielle C., Northern California

Hi Danielle,
Are you sure you didn’t doggie bag it?? Hahahahaha.

While I can’t promise that will be my last joke, I do have the sneaking suspicion that you may have already fed this brown/gray frozen meat mush to your dog and are second guessing yourself. And if that’s the case, at least you’re feeding it nitrate-free spoiled salami. You must really love that pooch!

Whether you’ve actually done the feeding or just pondered it, you’re onto something here. The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy lists “feed animals” above anaerobic digestion and composting because it directly repurposes food’s embedded resources. But the EPA means feeding livestock—think hogs and chickens—who will then create more protein, either through their own flesh or their milk or eggs. What I’m pretty sure the EPA doesn’t have in mind is converting excess food into dog meat. While there is mutual benefit to feeding scraps to dogs, it’s more abstract and less tangible than with livestock (hopefully).

And feeding table scraps (or unwanted food) to dogs certainly isn’t new. That’s a big part of why dogs became domesticated in the first place. And I’m guessing plenty of dogs over the last millennia or so ate some rather rancid meat.

imageBut I doubt many veterinarians would support the practice today — nitrates or not. Dogs have dietary needs like any living creature. Then again, I think many vets and owners are a bit too attuned to what dogs eat. I don’t disagree with this bit of doggy diet satire, courtesy of Will Ferrell (at the 1:40 mark).

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June 14, 2016 | Posted in Food Safety, Household, Wasted Food Dude | Comments closed

5 Things Learned Lobbying Congress on Food Waste

This article by Jonathan originally appeared on Civil Eats on June 8, 2016. 

Photo courtesy of Food Policy ActionWhen I wrote a book about food waste six years ago, I never imagined attending a White House roundtable or lobbying Congress on the issue. But I recently had the chance to do both, with only the latter being somewhat on the record.

I was invited to be part of a team organized by Tom Colicchio’s advocacy group, Food Policy Action Education Fund, and the multistakeholder ReFED collaborative nudging lawmakers to tackle food waste. More specifically, I spent the day drumming up support for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s (D-Maine) Food Date Labeling Act. The bill wouldstandardize date labels, changing what is currently an unregulated mess to a system that clearly distinguishes between food quality and safety dates. It would also allow for the sale or donation of food after its quality date, which is currently restricted or prohibited in 20 states.

With that goal in mind, our merry band of food waste fighters set out to educate and evangelize to members of Congress. In addition to myself, there was Colicchio, Chef Victor Albisu of Del Campo, Chef Kevin Spraga of Spraga and Company, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s Dana Gunders, and Food Policy Action’s Claire Benjamin.

Here’s what we learned:

Have a Game Plan

Before entering our first Congressional office, we came up with a rough plan. Albisu and Spraga would open by explaining their personal connection to the issue. They would emphasize their personal connection to the issue, and share their frustration with the fact that their customers often don’t finish the high-quality, fine-crafted fare they serve, especially when so many Americans are food insecure. Next, Gunders and I would hit them with the impact and opportunity of food waste. And Colicchio was there to close the deal.

In practice, lobbying reminded me of being a kid. We were essentially pleading those in power—our Congressional parents—to do something that was not their first priority. And we had to frame our pitch differently to each party because, like parents, each holds such divergent views.

For that reason, we used a slightly different approach depending on whether we were visiting a Democrat or a Republican. For example, we emphasized food waste’s climate impact in the former and didn’t utter that word in the latter. We focused on the fiscal irresponsibility of food waste in red offices, and the opportunity to help those in need in blue ones. We were on the lookout for Republicans wanting to use redistribution of food currently wasted as an excuse for cutting food assistance. (It came up once—“Can we save money on nutrition programs here?”) And incentives, not regulation, were a key in a few Republican offices.


Yours truly inside the Capitol on official business.

There were several surprises, though. A leading Democrat expressed strong deference to the food industry. One prominent Republican staffer wanted to talk about poverty, and rural poverty in particular. Another Republican said he felt pressure to “get something done” to show that D.C. isn’t totally dysfunctional. Happily, he was hinting that tackling food waste was something quite doable.

For both parties, the feasibility of our “ask” was important. And, fortunately, food waste is anything but divisive. Nearly everyone can support wasting less food. “This sounds bipartisan,” one staffer for a high-profile G.O.P. Congressman told our group. Indeed; nobody is for the status quo of wasting 40 percent of our food.

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June 13, 2016 | Posted in Legislation | Comments closed

Dear Wasted Food Dude–Date Label Hell(p)

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude. The column will run on BioCycle‘s website and in BioCycle Food Recycling News, their fledgling e-bulletin that all “wasted foodies” should sign up for pronto! I will also crosspost the columns here on Wasted Food.

One thing any advice column needs inquiries. That means you need to write in with any food-waste-related question/issue/conundrum. I’m not picky–the query can be big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send your stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or Tweet to @wastedfood. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to do some creative inventing that may or may not include Seinfeld scenarios. Such as…

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
I’m so confused about expiration dates. There are a million different terms and figuring out what they mean is wicked hard. Is there really a difference between any of the terms? Which ones carry the most weight? My husband scoffs at all expiration dates. I really swear he looks forward to eating food after its date. I’m worried he is going to get sick and I’ve started to secretly throw away certain foods so he doesn’t devour them.  Who’s in the right here?


Julie R, Concord, NH

Hi Julie. I hate to quibble over semantics — oh, wait, no I don’t — but let’s stop saying ‘expiration dates.’ Because that’s not what they are. Food doesn’t expire. It doesn’t die at midnight on the date stamped on its package. Instead, it slowly passes from optimal to inedible. And that date stamped on the package — no matter what words precede it — tends to fall much closer to edible.

Second quibble — compost that food instead of throwing it out. I’m sure that’s what you meant when you wrote ‘throw away.’ Organic waste simply does not belong in landfills. If you have any questions there, pick up a copy of BioCycle.

Now, let’s get to the matter at hand: Date labels speak to quality, not food safety.* Manufacturers put that date on their products to indicate when we should eat them before the texture or taste start to wane. And they do so voluntarily — the only item required by federal law to have a date is infant formula. Most foods usually last beyond the date label. But they can also go bad before that date. That’s why it’s best to rely on your senses — of smell, sight and taste.

As you say, the variety of terminology is a major problem here. There are just so many different terms, and I won’t even dignify them by writing their names. All you really need to know is that they all speak to quality and taste. To cut through the clutter, there is now a bill circulating through Washington, D.C. (see “Food Date Labeling Act” below), aimed at standardizing the terminology. But the phrase that really cuts through the noise and that I wish was the norm comes from the Ad Council’s Save The Food public service campaign: “Best If Used.” Given our wasteful ways, we’d be better served by a nudge to actually eat our food than a quality date that prompts many to send it directly to the compost pile.

In each household there’s usually one Date Label Doubter and one Spoiled Food Fretter. You’re both playing your roles perfectly. Who’s in the right? I would never interfere in this kind of marital dispute, but I will say that it’s usually bad to be throwing food away. Also, the Date Label Doubter is totally in the right.

If you want to learn more about this vexing topic, watch this efficient, 5-minute film on the topic called Expired. If you want to become an instant expert, read The Dating Game. And if you want to get a very funny take on the subject, watch this Seinfeld bit on how milk producers really determine the date label.

All the Best (By),

*By reading this article, you consent to not sue this Dude if you get sick from eating something past its date. Seriously, dude — trust your senses.

May 26, 2016 | Posted in Food Safety, Household, Leftovers, Legislation, Wasted Food Dude | Comments closed

Legislating Date Labels

America’s date label status quo has expired.

Lack of a national standard on date labels combined with a jumble of state laws on the subject causes a jumble of confusing terms. A recent Harvard/Hopkins survey (PDF) documented the extent of that confusion. In that haze, we often throw out perfectly good food. That confusion causes at least 8 million pounds of food wasted annually (according to ReFED), which means squandered money, natural resources and nourishing food.

To remedy this situation, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) yesterday introduced the Food Date Labeling Act. The bill aims to create a uniform national date labeling system to simplify terms to either “best if used by” or “expires on.” The bill would also allow for the sale or donation of foods after the quality date (currently prohibited in 20 states).

Rep. Pingree introduced general food waste bill in 2015, but this marks the first national bill on this particular facet of the food waste issue. Remember, the only food item required by federal law to have a date label is infant formula. Let’s hope this bill is brought to a vote in both the House and Senate and passes. It sure is needed.

May 19, 2016 | Posted in Food Safety, Legislation | Comments closed

This Wasted Food Dude!

Yesterday marked the beginning of a new…thing–a food waste advice column! And so I give you the first installment of Dear Wasted Food Dude.

The column will run on BioCycle‘s website and in BioCycle Food Recycling News, their fledgling e-bulletin that all “wasted foodies” should sign up for pronto! I will also crosspost the columns here on Wasted Food.

I’ve been asked many questions on wasted food in many settings. I thought it was time to answer some in a more lasting format. With Judge John Hodgman as my North Star, I hope to pair a bit of serious advice with a humble brand of humor.

One thing any advice column needs inquiries. That means you need to write in with any food-waste-related question/issue/conundrum. I’m not picky–the query can be big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send your stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to do some creative inventing that may or may not include Seinfeld scenarios. Such as…

Dear Wasted Food Dude, Hypothetical situation for you: I’m at a nice social gathering at my future in-laws and, being a gentleman, I volunteer to clear some dishes. As I go to scrape the plates into the trash, I notice an almost untouched éclair right there in the can. Now, this particular pastry has had one tiny bite taken out of it. But it sits atop the can, resting on a magazine and still on its doily. My curiosity piqued, I pick up said éclair and take a bite from the untouched end. Of course, just as I do, my fiancée’s mother enters the room to witness the act. She looks at me horrified, as if I had just killed her cat. Am I a monster? Did I deserve that look? And was what I did really so wrong?Sincerely,
George C., New York, NY

I feel for you, George. You were curious. But you know what they say about curiosity? That’s right—it killed the cat. And you, my friend, are a cat-killing monster! Just kidding. It’s just that what you did was outside our culture’s accepted norms. Unfortunately, throwing away perfectly good food is quite common and individuals recovering discarded food is deemed odd. Most food recovery is done before food hits the trash and on, ahem, a slightly larger scale.

What you did was act out of curiosity and common sense—given how clean and edible that pastry appeared. And I can’t blame you for that. Yet, polite society and your fiancée’s mom will continue to glare at you if you take food from the trash, regardless of its state. It’s just one of those things. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld summed it up well, “Was it in the trash? Then it was trash.”

Still, you’re not alone. Many folks engage in various forms of “dumpster diving.” Some even self-identifiy as freegans. For a variety of motivations—activism, money-saving, etc.— they all pull edible food from the trash. It’s a mix of self-interest and illumination of our culture’s waste. Recovering food before it hits the landfill occupies a higher place in the range of food waste-preventing actions, because that food can then be shared with those in need. And that is where I’d ask you to consider whether the impulse behind your microact might be better applied to an activity like volunteering with a local food recovery organization.

Regardless, if you want to avoid odd looks and potential relationship squabbles, maybe avoid dumpster diving in your future mother-in-law’s house. But what you did was harmless and certainly not wrong. By the way, how’d the éclair taste?

Watch Your Waste,

May 4, 2016 | Posted in Household, Wasted Food Dude | Comments closed

Save the Food!

Save the Food! That’s another way of saying don’t waste it. And that sound advice is the slogan behind the new Ad Council/NRDC anti-food waste campaign launching today.

This public service campaign has been in the works for a long time, but at first glance, it was worth the wait. The PSAs, produced gratis by whizs at SapientNitro, trace the journey of strawberries from farm to fork. The 30-second spot, the one you’ll likely see, isn’t quite as powerful as the one or two-minute sagas in conveying the length of that journey, but they’re all impressive. Especially neat is how much the ads can communicate with little to no dialogue. Here’s the full two-minute spot in all its glory:

It’s encouraging that, in general, the campaign is so positive. It doesn’t admonish people for wasting, it empowers them to love their food. That empowering happens on the Save the Food website, through cooking tips, an in-depth storage guide and–soon–recipes.

As powerful as the PSAs are, the print ads are even better! These materials, which you may soon see on billboards, in magazines or even plastered on bus stops, have an amazing message, ‘Best If Used,’ stamped on food packaging. Simply removing the date label transforms those harmful expiration dates into a useful reminder to actually eat the food that we buy.

Another campaign message, that plays at the end of some ads, is ‘Wasting Food Wastes Everything: Water | Labor | Fuel | Money | Love. That stark wording is effective, and communicates the major impact of our national food waste problem.

At long last, we can say, Save the Food is many things: Modern | Simple | Clean | Poignant | Empowering | Live!


April 20, 2016 | Posted in Campaigns | Comments closed


I’ve done a decent amount of media in my, gulp, 10+ years of writing about food waste. But this Meet the MISFITS feature was among the most fun and introspective interviews I’ve done. The  neat people behind MISFIT Juicery curate these interviews in addition to making beverages out of ‘aesthetically-challenged’ produce.

As an interview bonus, I got to nod at my all-time favorite food-related song, Rufus Thomas’ “Fried Chicken.” I am in love with Thomas’ mix of soul and practicality (i.e. talking about making leftover stew). Because, really, what’s more soulful than using up leftover food?? OK, don’t answer that–I may be a little biased here… But anyway, the song is embedded at the bottom of the MISFIT interview and below. Don’t miss the beauty that begins at the 1:05 mark…

Bonus ethical discussion: If we’re going to eat animals–an entirely separate discussion–the least we can do is use the entire animal. And this song espouses doing just that. #Gizzards

March 21, 2016 | Posted in Household, Life to Leftovers, Repurposing | Comments closed

Wholly Ugly!

Whole Foods just announced that they will pilot selling cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables in several Northern California stores. Well, the retailer didn’t really announce it, USA Today did in a recent article. And then an unnamed Whole Foods spokesperson tentatively confirmed it to NPR. But still, this is both great news and a bit amusing.

It’s great news because Whole Foods is Whole Foods. They are an industry and thought leader and what they do matters. If they do in fact partner with funky produce peddlers Imperfect–the anonymous Whole Foods source told NPR it was a “potential partnership”–it will be a huge deal.

It’s amusing because Whole Foods is Whole Foods. They are the among the leading perpetuators of produce perfection and homogeneity. Through their ‘food porny’ displays and high standards for produce appearance, they’ve helped teach us that our food should look as good as it tastes.

It would be ironic and oddly fitting then if Whole Foods were to lead the charge in knocking down the mental barriers against imperfect produce that it helped erect.  If ‘ugly produce’ can catch on there–and that’s a big if–our superficial norms may just change. So keep your fingers crossed and an eye out (if you live in the Bay Area) for this exciting new development.

No word yet on whether the imperfect fruits and vegetables will cost more than the perfect ones. Kidddding!!

March 8, 2016 | Posted in Supermarket | Comments closed
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