When you go to the grocery store, do you think about where that package of pasta came from? Do you know what it took to put that package of mushrooms in the produce section. And do you think about how much waste was incurred to make sure that package of perfect-looking mushrooms is there?
I had the opportunity to spend an hour interviewing British author Tristram Stuart about his new book “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal”. It was eye-opening to say the least. Farmers, manufacturers, supermarkets and consumers throw away enough food every year to feed the world’s starving masses three times over. The problem is overwhelmingly large. As I read this book, I felt dwarfed and powerless in comparison to the sheer gargantuan size of this issue. The waste at every level of the food production pyramid and the ripple effect of this problem on social and environmental concerns is simply astounding.
Tristram Stuart first noticed this problem as a teenager when he started raising pigs. He found he could feed his pigs completely from the leftovers and throw-away food he could procure from his school. He started asking around at local shops and restaurants and found the rubbish bins overflowing with perfectly good food. The more he foraged, the more he found. And the more curious he became, the more wasteful behavior he discovered.
Tristram is a freegan, which means he lives as much as possible on what he can find, forage and grow himself, without spending money on food. I find this practice to be admirable. One man is making a difference in his own corner of the world. And that made me feel so much less powerless and insignificant.
You might not realize this, but every grocery store has standards for the produce they put out. Carrots have to be perfectly straight, peas have to be perfectly sweet and cabbages cannot have any visible blemishes. Anything that doesn’t meet the standards gets chucked. Some farmers are smart and find a way to sell their ugly yields to manufacturers of commercial feed or plow them back into the soil. But grocery stores also chuck a lot of perfectly edible food items based on these standards. These are not federal regulations, these are store policies imposed by corporate owners. And they are there because we as consumers shop with our eyes more than our wallets or our stomachs. Somehow we have communicated to these grocery store corporate owners that we want to see piles and piles of perfect produce, that we somehow feel more comfortable when we see fully stocked grocery stores shelves overflowing with the best of the best.
Sell by dates are based on idiotic behavior. The stores make all kinds of calculations about how we will treat our food, how long we’ll let it sit in the car in the heat of summer, how we’ll freeze, then thaw, then let our meat sit on the counter for hours and hours before we cook it. If there is one lawsuit, manufacturers and grocery stores stand to lose more than money. They sacrifice the loyalty of their customers. One can hardly blame them for wanting to be safe. But for god sakes, what happened to common sense? Can’t we tell with our hands, eyes and noses when our food as gone off?
The day before I interviewed Tristram, I went to the grocery store. I struggled with every decision and thought very carefully about every item I threw into my cart. And I wonder if we as consumers really have the power to tell our grocery stores that we don’t mind if our carrots are curved or our cabbages have a couple of blemishes. This experience has completely changed the way I think about my food supply. I’m not sure you’d find me scrounging in the dumpster behind Shaws, but I will certainly be considering the source of my foodstuff from now and I will be taking measures to insure that my own personal food waste is as little as possible. Like Tristram, I can make a difference in my own small corner of the world.