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You open your fridge and there it is — that jar of pickles you've had for what feels like years. You pick it up to take a closer look at the best before date, only to find an indecipherable set of numbers. Is that day, month, year? Or month, day, year? Do pickles even expire? Wrinkling your nose, you decide to throw them away. After all, better safe than sorry.
Or maybe not. At least, not if you ask freelance journalist Jonathan Bloom. He's the author of American Wasteland: How American Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). According to Bloom, North America wastes around 40 per cent of the food it produces each year. That amounts to about $2000 worth of food per year for a family of four.
The number may seem shocking, but what's more shocking to Bloom is the costs that go beyond our bank accounts. From spoils on the farm and in transit, to premature disposal by stores and individuals, food waste seems to be a growing problem. It's also one that eats up more than its fair share of energy and water.
There are two real factors that lead to this counter-intuitive wasting of resources, Bloom says. First, we live in a society where food is incredibly abundant. Secondly, in comparison with other household expenditures, food has become relatively cheap.
"That's partly because of subsidies the U.S. government has put into commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat," Bloom said in a recent interview on Q. "There's a cost to the food that we're not thinking about in terms of what we're doing to the soil and a human cost in terms of the high fat, high sugar foods we're creating."
Bloom started his crusade against food waste after volunteering at a food recovery organization. The group would go to restaurants and supermarkets, collecting food that was edible but not sellable, and distribute it to people in need. Seeing the amount of high quality food that would have otherwise been thrown in the garbage bin made him wonder what would happen to it in places where there isn't a food recovery operation.
To help find that out, Bloom worked at a major fast food chain and a grocery store.
"My first day at work, I was throwing away food right away," Bloom said. "Anything with any kind of blemish was chucked immediately."
This is just one example of what Bloom sees as the food industry's tendency to prize appearance over taste. In his research for the book, Bloom found that many items don't even make it off the farm because they aren't the right shape or size.
Such blatant wastefulness might seem ridiculous, and that's exactly why Bloom wants to bring it to our attention. Taking action on food waste is like recycling, he says. Once people see the impact they can have, they'll do something about it.
That doesn't mean he's totally comfortable at dinner parties, however.
"It can be a little bit awkward at times. I think some people are keeping an eye on me and thinking 'oh, what's the food waste guy going to do? Is he going to eat all his food?'" Bloom said. "I try not to be 'on duty' so to speak, when I'm out socializing."