Jonathan Bloom And The American Wasteland

● by Colleen Wells

[ED: Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) spoke at Indiana University last month. His book, published in 2010, earned the 2011 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award.]

Pies, pasta and pizza are often better the second time around, but what about the rest of the leftover food in your fridge? If you don’t know what to do with last night’s corn or beans, try mixing them in with a pot of chili. Reallocate on-the-edge bread to feeding ducks, or use it to make breadcrumbs. Fading lemons, oranges, and apples can be used to create potpourri, and coffee grounds can be left in your fridge to neutralize the odor of stale food. These are the types of things we can all do to make a dent in the 160 billion pounds of food Americans waste annually, And, according to Jonathan Bloom’s book, that’s a conservative estimate.

Jonathan Bloom has been researching food waste since 2005 when he had a seminal experience as a volunteer for DC Central Kitchen. While witnessing piles of donated food, the author became overwhelmed and intrigued by the vastness of it. In the introduction to American Wasteland, he writes: “That summer day in our nation’s capital, my task was to man an industrial-sized vat of pasta. This was not a plum assignment in a building without air conditioning. Yet the job’s mindlessness granted me time to look around while I stirred the spaghetti with an oar. I noticed a variety of foods that somebody hadn’t wanted. And it was all good stuff, too.”

From there Bloom began asking questions and exploring the topic on his blog. like his book, his blog offers as many solutions to food waste as it does point out the scope and severity of the problem. There’s a forum for readers to post tips about reducing food waste. They include bringing leftovers to coworkers for lunch, feeding scraps to chickens, and getting creative with putting leftovers in omelets.

All of these, like the ideas listed above, are small suggestions we can use at home. And they are suggestions that just make sense. In a phone interview with Bloom, who lives in Durham, North Carolina, the fact that it makes sense not to waste food was discussed from many different angles.

Colleen Wells: What events and memories have informed your journey?

Jonathan Bloom: Wasting food just doesn’t make sense. When I came to realize how much food wasn’t being used, I was stunned and confounded. I had this real ah-ha moment in DC Central Kitchen in Washington where I was volunteering, where I saw all of this food that they had recovered that would have otherwise been thrown out. I saw not just the massive amounts of food but the beautiful kinds of food and the variety and the quality of food that at most places would be thrown out, but, in this instance, was being put to good use.

Having that experience really forced me to start asking some questions and start doing some digging as a journalist. The more I’d go looking for food waste, the more I found it. To this day I keep learning more and more about where food is discarded in our food system and some of the rationale behind that waste. For the most part, none of it happens for a good reason. That’s the shocking part of food waste that keeps me interested in the topic and passionate about it.

CW: That makes a lot of sense.

JB: Yeah, and just to flesh it out a tiny bit more on the background, as I said before, it’s kind of common sense. Why would anyone waste food? And that’s my perspective but the experiences I had growing up in a family where we took all of the leftovers home from a restaurant, where we saved leftovers from our meals at home, and then also where we were told to just take what we wanted to eat and to try not to take too much. All these were formative experiences…

My grandfather would finish up everyone’s plate. My grandmother–I remember watching her eat a drumstick, a chicken leg–seeing her get every morsel of meat off that bone really caused me to take a moment of pause as a kid. I guess you just don’t see that kind of reverence for food most of the time these days because we as a culture, for the most part, haven’t gone without food. But for anyone who’s lived through the depression or even the rationing of WWII, or had parents who did, you’re going to approach food differently and more likely than that, you’re going to really appreciate that food.

CW: We have a daughter who we’ve adopted from Haiti who does that with chicken legs.

JB: And why wouldn’t someone do that? We have different sensitivities, but we as a culture err on the side of being a bit on the squeamish side and we only want our packaged, boneless chicken breast. We don’t want to deal with the entire animal and we don’t want to face the actuality of what we’re doing when we eat meat, but that’s a separate topic.

CW: We are so busy as a culture and have gotten away from cooking and using wholesome ingredients.  What are your thoughts on this?

JB: That’s certainly part of the problem of poor nutrition and food waste. Not having enough time, [and] leading these incredibly busy lives. We have stepped out of the kitchen to a certain extent, or we don’t have the time to cook where we wished we did, so as a result we’ve lost some of those traditional food ways… Collectively speaking, we’ve lost some of those tricks and tips of making food last and stretching food and most importantly, knowing when food has gone bad or not knowing how long you can keep food or even how to store food so it can last longer, how to prepare food, or can food. Busyness and the loss of food knowledge go hand in hand in creating this culture that has lost its way with food, period. And you’re starting to see a reaction against that, and thankfully more and more people are starting to learn some of those traditional food ways to get better at using all of their food and getting back to eating seasonally and cooking more. It does take time to be able to pull that off… [but] where there’s a will there’s a way….

CW: There are so many ways that food is wasted from the seed to the fork. What are some of the most surprising things you discovered in your research?

JB: The most disturbing aspect of waste to me is the fresh food that never ends up leaving the farm. That happens for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s based on macroeconomics where the price of the goods doesn’t justify the investment to harvest it. Sometimes it’s due to a lack of available labor or possibly the policies on immigration leading to lack of available labor. For whatever reasons, to have this fresh, nutritious food that could be going to help feed hungry people, to have that be plowed under or just rotting at the bottom of an orchard or the bottom of the trees at an orchard, that just doesn’t make any sense. There’s food wasted at every level of the food chain, and the more I looked, well, there’s just an abundance of more foods available for recovery because of our excess.

But as we move forward, I think it’s vital to focus on the healthiest foods so that we’re not exacerbating existing problems like obesity and food-related or diet-related illnesses in trying to solve hunger. So it’s all about finding the healthiest, most nutritious foods out there for everybody, and all the loss at the farm level just seems to be a lost opportunity to help those in need.

And I don’t want to cast any blame really on farmers and growers who I think in many cases are victims of circumstances. It’s not that, it’s that we have to figure out some logistical and policy-based solutions to harness the excess food.

CW: You offer many solutions in your book.

JB: I was a little vague there in the solutions part. There’s so many gleaning organizations who are able to harness volunteer labor. There’s one avenue for change and then I think that there should be some involvement from the USDA in trying to promote food recovery at the farm level and that hasn’t happened since the late `90s. There’s a real opportunity there, especially where you have farms that are receiving federal subsidies. I think that’s an avenue to make sure that food recovery happens. If you’re gonna take some federal money then let’s contribute all that food back to society and find a way to harness that excess so that it’s profitable for the growers who I recognize have a pretty tough path these days.

CW: We have wonderful farmer’s markets and coops and small farms in Bloomington. Do you feel like that’s a huge key, here, reducing travel involved in getting food to our plates?

JB: The long distance food chain is certainly to blame for a lot of waste, so eating locally will contribute toward a more local food system. I do think it’s a process where if more and more people are voting with their food dollars for a local food economy, then that’s going to have an impact. And more importantly, perhaps, would be that when you eat locally, whether it’s going shopping at a farmer’s market, or growing your own foods, the more connected we are with our own food, the more likely we are to respect and value what we eat. That connectedness is what’s really going to make a difference with food waste.

And it really carries through with adults and kids alike, in that if you can get kids, for example, to have a school garden or even a backyard garden, they’re so much more likely to want to eat their vegetables when they’ve played a role in creating them, growing them. Kids who grow kale, eat kale for the most part and all the sudden it’s miraculous. You’ll see this transformation where broccoli goes from being something yucky to something delicious and being a part of that process can have a magical impact on how we approach food…

CW: I totally understand. It’s hard to stay connected to our food with three kids on three different soccer teams, and I’ve worked in preschools where it can be discouraging seeing what’s in the children’s lunches… how else can we teach our children about food? I didn’t grow up in an environment where we did canning, but there are things I’d like to try with my family.

JB: We didn’t do canning either. We were definitely a supermarket-based family, but we valued (the) stuff we got. I would think canning would be a nice way to do it. I just went apple picking with my kids, but I have mixed feelings about that as I’m stepping on apple after apple that’s fallen by the wayside. I think the good probably outweighs the bad because of the awareness and connectedness that you’re fostering, but that’s debatable…

I was in Colorado this summer, and there’s this really neat org called They map all of the readily available fruit. There are apple trees all over the place in this town where I was staying, in Boulder. And we would be out for a walk and go by an apple tree, pick an apple or two, and that would be our morning snack, and it all just felt very organic for lack of a better word.

I think there’s something to that, just getting kids to realize that food doesn’t happen from the supermarket, and whether you’re gardening out back or in a community garden or enjoying the random apple tree run-ins, they all go toward that same end of connecting kids to their food better.

CW: That dovetails with another area of waste. It’s school lunches. I’ve seen waste in schools where I’ve worked, and it seems like it would be easy to redistribute the food.

JB: I’m with you. I’m astounded that there’s all this waste at the school cafeteria level, and for the most part, food doesn’t have to be thrown out. Leftover, packaged foods could be recovered or rescued and sent to a non-profit. There’s this huge misconception that all food in a school cafeteria setting has to be thrown out per USDA rules and that’s not the case. They’ve just added something to the Good Samaritan Act. In 2012 this congressman put an addendum on the Good Samaritan Act to make sure that people knew it applied to schools… and while there might be variations from county to county or state to state, for the most part we could have that kind of food recovery program happening at a school level.

Of course that doesn’t apply to the kid who takes a bite out of their sandwich and doesn’t want to eat any more. There’s nothing you can really do with that.

CW: I’m really interested in the composting. Can we talk about how wide-spread it’s becoming because I didn’t even know when you mentioned in your book that in Seattle and San Francisco there is mandatory composting per household and in San Francisco for businesses too. Has that taken off more since your book came out?

JB: Composting has grown steadily in the last five years and more and more cities and towns are instituting household composting, usually starting with a pilot program to test it out. So we’re at a point now where more than 200 cities and towns in America have curbside composting which is fabulous. But certainly there’s room for so much improvement there, and hopefully that will grow because there’s really no reason to be sending nutrient-dense food scraps to the landfill where they just create an environmental hazard in the form of methane emissions. So we’re taking a potential soil amendment, a potential plus, and turning it into a net negative when we throw away food, and unfortunately about 97% of the food waste created ends up in a landfill.

CW: That’s definitely another thing that families can do.

JB: Yeah, I was going to say that, and it’s not like you have to wait for your city to institute a compost program. You could do it in your back yard. If you don’t have an outdoor space, they  sell indoor composting contraptions, or you could even get worms. Have a worm bin and compost food scraps that way and in either scenario, whether it’s regular composting or worm composting, you’re going to create a really useful soil amendment that will help you or your neighbor garden.

CW: That’s awesome. Thank you for bringing up the worm bin. I hadn’t thought of that.

JB: Especially for kids too. It’s a nice way to interact with them in a natural process.

CW: Then my son can borrow a few for fishing I guess…

JB: (Laughs)

CW: How can someone like me, your average Mom who wants to make a difference but sometimes has limitations, how can I share the information about food waste?

JB: I think it all starts at home, and I want people to spread the word through actions before any kind of outreach, so trying to reduce their own waste and be as waste aware in their own personal lives, cooking at home, and out in the world of restaurants or shopping, for example.

So then I’m sure there will be these… kind of organic conversations popping up left and right, like why are you doing that? Why did you bring that metal container to this restaurant? … And why are you asking for a half loaf of bread at the grocery store with the fresh baked loaves? Then I think it’ll spread out from there. Maybe you’re then trying to work with others, work with neighbors and family members to avoid ordering too much at a restaurant or to avoid serving family and friends too much when you have them over for a meal. And I think it’ll flower from that.

CW: In your book you say, “Food waste reduction will succeed because it’ll become second nature.” You refer to recycling a few times and how that’s taken off, I was happy to hear that you believe that and that you’re seeing the change because those of us who aren’t out in the field aren’t always aware of the good things that are happening. With that in mind, what do you think are the greatest obstacles remaining?

JB: There’s three things. There’s awareness, apathy and attention span. The first thing is we have to get people to realize that food waste is a problem, then once you breach the topic then the danger is people don’t care about the issue and just don’t want to bother. Reducing food waste isn’t hard, but it does take a little bit of doing and people for the most part tend to steer clear of behavior change. That’s kind of scary for a lot of folks. They don’t want to listen if you’re asking more of them.

Busy lifestyles is a third barrier to action on food waste because we don’t tend to pause much on anything let alone this topic that people might not think is all that important. If we can really get people thinking about food waste, that’s the first step towards creating some kind of lasting change.

[Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) is published by Da Capo Press. You can read more about him at Wasted Food and @WastedFood.] [Colleen Wells writes from Bloomington. Her book, Dinner with Doppelgangers-A True Story of Madness and Recovery is forthcoming from Wordpool Press.]

The Ryder ● October 2014