• Jonathan Bloom writes about why we waste food, why it matters and what we can do about it. This is his blog.

Survey Says…

There has been plenty of attention on wasted food in America recently, but very few assessments of how Americans feel about the topic. That changed yesterday with the publishing of the first national consumer survey on wasted food in the US.

There’s an abundance of findings to be gleaned from the Johns Hopkins report, which surveyed 1,000-people. Let’s start with the good news: Americans have a decent sense that we waste a whole lot of food. A sizable portion (45 percent) of respondents knew that 40 percent of American food is wasted.

Even better, participants are keen to do something about the problem, said study leader Roni Neff, PhD. “Americans are ready to address wasted food. They are relatively aware, concerned, and want to do more,” Neff said. “43 percent said it would be easy to reduce the amount of food their household wastes. So we have a real opportunity to build on that interest.”

It’s worth noting, though, that such survey talk is cheap (and prone to exaggeration). Anyone can underestimate their wasteful habits or pledge change to minimize wasted food. The report did not seek to correlate words and deeds.

While Americans are aware of food waste in general, they don’t think they are particularly wasteful. A hefty 73 percent of respondents felt that they waste less than the average American. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure that’s not statistically possible.

When it comes to motivations for reducing food waste “saving money” and “setting an example for children” were the two leading factors. Much less of a motivator: “greenhouse gases, energy, and water,” which came in dead last, after choices like “managing household efficiently” and “guilt about waste in general.” As Neff noted, we now know that the environmental impact of food waste is a weak spot in public awareness.

The survey also asked what changes supermarkets and restaurants could make to help them minimize wasted waste (Listen up, Food Waste Reduction Alliance). Packaging topped respondents’ minds, with “more resealable packages” and “more variety in product sizes” the top two responses for retailers. As for helpful restaurant changes, the runaway winners were “offer half portions” (paging Dr. Halfsies) and “routinely offer containers for leftovers.”

One somewhat disturbing finding was that composting can undercut the food waste reduction. Of respondents who compost, 41 percent said wasting food doesn’t bother them because they compost. Here’s proof that composting can be a hindrance to reducing wasted food, a widely accepted higher priority.  “I expected this to be an issue but did not expect this magnitude of a response,” Neff said. “This finding has real implications for composting programs and how they communicate with participants.”

But let’s close on a positive note: when it comes to food waste, we’re all in this together. Neff’s research found that attitudes and stated behavior around wasted food remained steady across gender, race, generation, income and educational lines. So in effect, we’re one nation, indivisible, with food waste progress needed for all.

June 11, 2015 | Posted in Composting, Household, Restaurant, Stats, Supermarket | Comments closed

But How Do You *Feel* About It?

How the heck do Americans feel about all of this wasted food? Until now, we didn’t really know. Fortunately, researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health asked that question (and many more) in the first nationally representative consumer survey focused on wasted food in America.

Today marks the long-anticipated (at least in this neck of the woods) release date for the study, led by Roni Neff, PhD. The survey had some surprising findings, and I’ll have a full write up tomorrow. In the meantime, here are a few highlights:

  • Americans don’t think they’re particularly wasteful. 73 percent of respondents felt that they waste less than the average American. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure that’s not statistically possible.
  • Saving money is by far the top motivation for avoiding waste.
  • By contrast, the environmental impact of food waste is the least valued motivation.
  • Composting can undercut the food waste reduction. 41 percent of respondents who composted said wasting food doesn’t bother them.
  • We’re all in this together–attitudes and stated behavior around wasted food remained steady across gender, age, income and education.
June 10, 2015 | Posted in Household, Stats | Comments closed

It’s Your Day, Environment!

Today is World Environment Day. So buy the environment a drink. Or better yet, don’t waste any food.

I’m not a huge fan of these kinds of days–except for National Ice Cream Day (July 19), of course–but they do force us to take stock. And for me, that means reflecting on the significant environmental impact of wasted food. Both in the terms of the energy, water and land used in vain to create food that is squandered and the methane emissions from food being landfilled. Given all of that, wasted food has a rather large carbon footprint. How large? Well…

image courtesy of Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition

Thanks for that, Barilla and for your Milan Protocol, pushing to halve global food waste by 2020. Also, I love how the garbage bag in the above graphic represents the 1/3 of food wasted globally, but the Foodwasteland flag needs a little work.

Back to the matter at hand, how many people know about wasted food’s carbon footprint? And how many of those people care? A soon-to-be-released survey out of Johns Hopkins (check back here Wednesday for more on it) gauged US consumer attitudes and awareness on food waste issues. In response to the question ‘what motivates you to reduce food discards,’ the ‘greenhouse gases, energy and water’ choice came in dead last.

Only about 40 percent of respondents found that environmental motivation to be a ‘very important’ or ‘important’ reason to avoid wasting food. It finished beneath these choices:

  • Saving money
  • Setting an example for children
  • Managing household efficiently
  • Thinking about hungry people
  • Guilt about waste in general
  • Making a difference through my actions
  • Regret about time/money spent

And this is where our work lies. On #WED2016, will the environmental factors rank higher? Let’s hope so. Let’s make it so.

June 5, 2015 | Posted in Environment | Comments closed

Not-So-Stale Ideas for Bread

Got stale bread? You probably will at some point. Courtesy of Sustainable America, here are 10 helpful tips on how to use your old bread.

June 3, 2015 | Posted in Household, Infographic, Repurposing | Comments closed

‘Every Bit of the Animal’ — A Maria Finn Q&A

Maria Finn is an author, journalist and artist. While she was an Autodesk Artist in Residence in late 2014, she set out to change our perception of food and food waste. Following an evening spent shucking oysters, she found herself faced with a mountain of shells. Instead of discarding them, she created beautiful oyster shell tiles that now line the backsplash of her kitchen.

Her philosophy of ‘waste not, want not,’ extends to her work foraging and wildcrafting in the San Francisco Bay and holistic food preparation using every bit of the animal. Finn recently completed a novel, “Sea Legs & Fish Nets” based loosely on her experience working on an all-female fishing boat in Alaska and has written five books, including “The Whole Fish” and “Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home.” She writes for FERN and other outlets.

How did you get the idea to make tiles out of oyster shells? Had you seen other interesting uses for oyster shells?

I have used oyster shell tiles in my container garden; I use them as mulch that holds in moisture, looks good, and has a slow release fertilizer for Mediterranean plants. I’ve also used them ground up in the medium in my wall hanging indoor mushroom boxes. But I think the shells are so beautiful. To me, this is part of the pleasure of opening and eating oysters. I love their fractal texture and mother of pearl glimmer. For the tiles, I started off using ground up oyster shell with the cement, then saved the flattest pieces, or shattered them for the top of the tile. I worried about the strength with the ground up oyster shells, as handmade tiles are a lot of work, so I then went with just cement and the oysters for finishing them.

I hope to start a native oyster colony on the hull of my houseboat. Not so much to eat, but because each oyster cleans 50 gallons of water a day. And their colonies are so beautiful. Mussels are also great filters, and I just learned that the pace at which they open indicates the water quality/pollution in a bay. So I’m talking with some people at Autodesk about a future project of hooking up an LED light sculpture that connects to the mussels/oysters on my houseboat and the lights will indicate the bay’s water quality.

I see your work through the lens of using the whole animal or plant, often called ‘tail-to-snout’ eating. How much does avoiding waste play into your art, both practically and philosophically?

I’m author of the TED book, The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Will Make You Happier, Healthier and Help Save the Ocean. Much of this was inspired by the two years I worked monitoring the salmon run on the Yukon Delta for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. I spent a lot of time with Yupik women at their fish drying camps. They use every part of the salmon—even turn the male’s milt into a sort of Popsicle dipped in seal oil. Traditionally, they make lamps, bags, and other items out of salmon skin. I met the artist Emily Johnson at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is Yupik, from Alaska, and also does this.

While an Artist-In-Residence (AIR) at Autodesk, I wrote an Instructables post on how to catch a salmon, and then break down a whole salmon. I created recipes on using the skin, head, bones, trim and every part of it—including salmon SPAM from the collar and belly. At the time, I was also making items for the renovation of my houseboat, so I thought I’d give the salmon skin lamp a try. Another artist there, Jennifer Berry, has been doing an art project on road kill, and is an experienced leather tanner. Eric Forman, a fellow AIR, was making light boxes. I collaborated with those two, and now have a very modern version of the Yupik salmon skin lamp. One of my neighbors is so excited by my salmon lamp; we are going to make more this salmon season. Hoping we catch them.

Read More »

May 18, 2015 | Posted in Environment, Seafood | Comments closed

Love Food, Hate Wasting Money

You know what’s weird? We pay such close attention to saving a buck or two at the supermarket, but rarely consider how much money we’re throwing away through the food we waste.

-Researchers have found that we discard about 25 percent of what we bring into our homes. That adds up to more than $2,000 annually for a family of four. Ponder that figure the next time you’re in the supermarket agonizing over sale items. And then consider the simplest form of waste prevention—buying the right amount. That’s a gentle way of saying ‘Don’t buy too much!’

As the Love Food Hate Waste campaign will illustrate, there are many causes of food waste. Luckily for you, dear reader, one of the main ones is a lack of awareness. So hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you can cross off that one. And with such awareness, you can assess how much food you’re wasting in your home.

How does one do that? You can keep a food waste journal and factor in the dollar values of the food squandered (and for extra credit, the environmental impact). That will prompt you to draw some conclusions about the type and amount of food you’re wasting. Yet, you will achieve nearly identical results simply by composting. Separating out our food waste forces us to notice our patterns. And then it’s on you to—dare I say it—adapt.

The solutions are not difficult, and I’m sure you will come up with your own as long as you’re motivated to do so. On that topic, remember—we’re talking about some significant cash savings here. And I haven’t even mentioned the ethical justness of not throwing away (or even composting) food when so many in our community don’t have enough to eat. Plus, there’s the significant environmental impact—if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter after China and the US.

Now that you’re properly motivated, here are several tips from my own house:

  • Buy less. I tend to shop more often, buying less each time. It’s easier to project food needs for a day or two than for a week.
  • Keep it neat. The times when I waste food are when my fridge is cluttered. Keeping it relatively sparse helps, as does storing food in clear containers. Remember—out of sight is out of mind (is out with the compost).
  • Be realistic. Factor in your busy lives and how much (or little) time you have to cook. It may make sense to not buy as many perishable ingredients.
  • Love your leftovers. I usually plan a leftover smorgasbord meal once a week, or plan to have one dinner twice during the week (“planned-overs”). Alternately, the best lunch is last night’s dinner. But I find that packing up a meal-size portion the night before facilitates the whole process.
  • Strategize. Plan several meals around similar recipe items and avoid those recipe one-timers. I’m much more likely to use parsley on back-to-back nights than I am parsnips. But maybe you’re the opposite. That’s why you should create your own, personalized food waste reduction strategies. I’ll leave you with a final thought: a waste study in one part of New York found that the most food waste came from households. That means we individuals have plenty of room for improvement. But more importantly, we have real agency here. So let’s get to it!

This article is crossposted on Metro Vancouver’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign site.

May 7, 2015 | Posted in General, Household, Supermarket | Comments closed

France Fights Food Waste

The French take their food seriously. And now we know that they don’t look too kindly on it being wasted.

In mid-April, a government-appointed committee released a proposal to tackle food waste in France (PDF in French). The Fight Against Food Waste (Lutte Contre Le Gaspillage Alimentaire – #GaspillageAlimentaire) suggests 36 ways to do just that, and Parliament will likely debate each one separately with the intention of distilling those ideas into a national policy on food waste. If that happens, it will be historic.

“It’s the first proposition for a comprehensive national policy on food waste that brings together a lot of different potential measures to reduce food waste throughout the whole food chain,” said Marie Mourad, a PhD student at Sciences Po in Paris writing her dissertation on initiatives around food waste.

MP Guillaume Garot, who isn’t afraid of mixing it up at Disco Soupe events, led the committee in proposing a variety of measures. One of their most powerful ideas is the suggested ban on supermarkets throwing away food, which comes after a related 200,000-signature petition. That idea, together with mandatory donations to charities that request the food and extended tax deductions for donations could change the excess food equation in retail. With the inedible excess, one far-reaching policy would be legislating a food waste hierarchy of feeding animals, creating energy and then composting.

There may not be anything available for dumpster divers if all of the above policies happen, but they would have legal protections thanks to a proposal that would essentially make dumpster diving legal. Following a recent, high-profile case in France, this idea would offer “clemency” to dumpster divers under a proposed “recovering is not stealing” ordinance.

Meanwhile, building on Intermarché’s popular Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, the report also pushes for more markets for nontraditional produce. And at the farm level, there are several proposals to promote and sustain the gleaning of unharvested crops.

The report suggests adapting the size of restaurant portions to consumers’ needs and encouraging a pay-by-weight option, two ideas that seem as un-French as they are interesting. Meanwhile, the committee seeks better data on how much food is wasted, more public education on the issue and even a public agency to fight food waste, a la Britain’s WRAP to potentially do both. Only time will tell what ideas gain traction, though. Mourad expects the supermarket food waste ban and dumpster diving protections to be among the least controversial.

The annual cost of food waste in France, according to the report, is as much as €20 Billion annually and €400 for the average family. In that context and with a strong tradition of gleaning—and celebrating it in art and film—France is exhibiting an appetite for curbing food waste. To which, I say, ‘Bon appétit!’

How much change is French culture willing to stomach? The best indicator may come from an unlikely source—a proposal to mainstream “le doggy-bag.” As in most of Europe, taking leftovers home from restaurants tends to be viewed as a bit…gauche. The practice faces a “cultural obstacle,” Garot told the press, but 75 percent of those polled recently said they’d like to take food home from restaurants. In that changed milieu, the main question may be whether to use the French “sac-à-emporter” (literally, ‘to-go bag’) or a hybrid term like “le doggy-bag” or “le gourmet bag.”

While Americans are miles ahead in loving restaurant leftovers—or at least taking them home—US policy makers would do well to emulate both the ideas and ‘esprit’ of this new French food waste movement. And then, on both sides of the Atlantic, we may soon be bonding over the shared values of “Liberté, Egalité, le Doggy.”

This piece is cross-posted on Food Tank. Visit those fine folks for all of your sustainable food needs.

May 1, 2015 | Posted in International, Leftovers | Comments closed

Reclaimed Gourmet: 5 Takeaways from WastED

Dan Barber’s wasted food pop-up/restaurant scene disrupter/edible think-piece ended its run last week. Here’s are five takeaways on the phenomenon that was WastED (#WastEDny):

1. It was a true phenomenon! At least in the New York restaurant—and, hence—media scene. Everyone from The New Yorker to the New Republic raved about the idea and especially the execution. While I didn’t see as much buzz on social media from those without megaphones, Alan Richman, writing in GQ, captured the mood thusly: “I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a Manhattan restaurant where so many people appeared so enthralled, so thrilled.”

It felt like two weeks of non-stop conversation about America’s wasted food problem. More specifically, WastED brought a focus on food items people rarely consider food. This comes as no surprise, as serving an offal meatloaf called “dog food” and setting the table with beef tallow candles (for dipping bread) tends to capture folks’ attention. While I would’ve loved to see more take-home lessons on the problem of food wasted on the farm and especially household levels…

2. …WastED was exceptional. You can’t blame WastED for not being all things, and most of all it was wonderful. The creativity and camaraderie seemed palpable (and visible on Twitter), as visiting chefs worked together to find interesting uses for often-discarded items. For example, that category’s poster child, carrot tops, became a marmalade, and the more esoteric pineapple core was charred, draped with candied mango skin and served with lime ice cream.

WastED customers undoubtedly went home having had their food assumptions challenged. The question I have is whether they brought home any usable ideas. Will it inspire people avoid waste in their own kitchens or just intimidate them because they don’t work in Dan Barber’s? Judging from this follow-up piece, I’d guess most people will at least be on the lookout for new ways to use kitchen castoffs, as Barber advised in this interview.  One helpful way to encourage that is to avoid calling these food items ‘garbage,’ as Money did. They are not that.  And on the topic of money…

3. …Was WastED Too Costly? What to make of paying first class prices for dishes using “second class grains and seeds?” In other words, should the price reflect the low cost of the ingredients or the creativity and skill required to carry them out? I would have loved more of the former, enabling a variety of folks to enjoy and learn from this virtuous experiment. The cost veered away from populism with all of the small plate dishes priced at $15. That is not outrageous for a fine (and norm-challenging) dining experience in Manhattan, especially at a place like Blue Hill, but I think the restaurant missed an opportunity to reach a broader audience.

4. What’s in a name? I appreciate the education implied in the name WastED, even though there were a few complaints of pedantism (to which I’d respond, what did people expect?). But on a lighter note, every time I see ‘WastED,’ my mind’s editor hopes that it was helmed by a guy named Ed. I would settle for Ted or a chef nicknamed ‘D.’ As in, ‘man, it’s impossible to get a table at WasteD.’ Something to chew on for next time, D. Barber!

5. And looking ahead, let’s hope there is a next time! By any name, an annual exercise of cooking with foods often wasted would be useful in a restaurant industry that too often leans in the opposite direction. Whatever happens next, it will likely be a bit different. Maybe it’s held at a different restaurant, hosted by another chef. Maybe it tours the country, landing at other restaurants like an edible art exhibit.

Even more radical—a pop-up that attempts to eliminate prep waste. A major hurdle for any restaurant is predicting demand to know how much to order and prepare beforehand. There will always be excess unless a) you’re comfortable or even aspiring to run out of everything by the end of the night or b) demand is known in advance. With the latter, how about a restaurant where you commit to your meal the day before, so the restaurant knows exactly how much to order? That kind of operation would be similar to catering, but minus the mindset that running out = death. Sure, this order-in-advance restaurant wouldn’t allow for walk-ins, but for a popular spot where reservations are made months in advance, this idea could conceivably happen…and with just one click! I mean, what’s more exclusive than an eatery that makes you order in advance?

More realistic and better still, maybe the restaurant industry will gradually adopt some of the notions, if not the tactics, behind WastED. Subtle, lasting changes—now that would be truly radical.

This piece also ran on Food Tank. Visit those fine folks for all of your sustainable food needs.

April 8, 2015 | Posted in Restaurant | Comments closed

Public Service Reminder

Don’t forget: it’s what’s inside that counts!

March 31, 2015 | Posted in Household | Comments closed

Unique Lessons

I saw this beauty this weekend at the farmers’ market and fell in love. You say ugly, I say gorgeous. 

Is it a V? Maybe a U? Perhaps an N or a C? Yes.

The best part of this saga is that my son needed to bring in two sweet potatoes for a class soup yesterday. Instead, he got to bring one giant, unique one. On the way to school, he seemed a bit unsure whether this awesome ugly would count as two, but excited to show it to his peers. Apparently it was a hit. Now that’s my kind of learning!

And in a postscript that will please all Tar Heels–especially those behind the UNC-Chapel Hill Feeding the 5K–my boy delighted in the ability to spell U-N-C with a sweet potato!

March 10, 2015 | Posted in Alphabet Produce, School | Comments closed
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