BY ALEX NEASON
Waste—it’s a part of daily life in American homes, stores and restaurants nationwide. We throw away a shocking amount of food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 25 percent of all food produced yearly is thrown away. Jonathan Bloom, author of the blog Wastedfood.com, says Americans are pretty good at wasting stuff and food is no exception.
“People aren’t really aware of how much food is thrown out,” he says.
In 2008, 12.7 percent—or 32 million tons—of the nation’s waste was food and a lot of it was still edible. Food is the third largest waste stream behind only paper and yard trimmings. Heaps of unwanted food occupy America’s landfills. Here, all it does is rot and produce methane, a harsh greenhouse gas, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Bloom thinks part of the problem is our conditioned desire for perfect food.
“We as a country and as a culture have come to expect food that looks perfect,” says Bloom. “Anything that diverges from that is just going to get tossed aside. When we see things in our fridge that don’t look quite right, the instinct on many people’s part is to just throw it away.”
That instinct isn’t unique to just consumers. Grocery stores, restaurants and even farmers are notorious for rejecting oddly-shaped or even lightly bruised fruits and vegetables. Ugly food apparently breeds ugly business. Misleading sell-by and expiration dates also encourage buyers to avoid food and drinks that can still be consumed, prompting retailers to throw them out.
Our desire for Stepford-like food doesn’t stop at the parking lot. Lean Path, a company that sells food tracking systems, says between four and ten percent of the food we purchase ends up in kitchen trashcans. Spotted bananas? Toss. Too much hamburger meat? Toss.
We over-produce, over-purchase and then let all that food go to waste.
We need an intervention.
Who’s paying attention?
DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) specializes in recovery and redistribution of surplus food and crops in and around Washington D.C. Using refrigerated trucks and vans, staff and volunteers collect over three tons of excess food from area food service corporations daily, according to the organization’s website. The food is insured by DCCK’s adherence to strict Food and Drug Administration guidelines and the kitchen’s zero tolerance waste policy.
“We believe very simply that waste is wrong,” says DCCK CEO Michael Curtin.
DCCK’s main kitchen resembles Santa’s workshop. Carts carrying everything from heads of lettuce to chocolate cakes zip in and out. Carrots are shredded, sliced and diced in assembly lines of workers clad in hair nets and blue gloves. In one corner, a supervisor works with volunteers making ham sandwiches. Massive freezers line the walls, packed with fresh vegetables and raw meats—all donated from retailers that would have thrown them away.
The kitchen creates almost 5,000 meals daily and then donates them to local shelters and non-profits. In 2009, DCCK recovered roughly 800,000 pounds of food. But there’s plenty more where that came from.
Founder Robert Egger says despite the disheartening statistics, he’s noticed a shift in the public’s attitude about waste since he opened the kitchen in 1989. Food has become an essential rallying point in the movement towards sustainable lifestyles, largely due to rising grocery costs and a temperamental economy.
“It’s a doorway to a really amazing new way to think,” says Egger. “We’re coming out of an era where our economy was consumption driven.”
What does the government think?
Despite the public change of heart, the U.S. government has largely ignored our nasty little food habit. Very few government mandated studies have been released—the last one was completed in the late 90s.
One exception was the Food Recovery and Gleaning Initiative, which was created in the late 90s by former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. The initiative was designed to energize the public and provide assistance to food recovery organizations. Later on, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed into law by in 1996, gave food recovery groups some protection from liability issues. Since then, the federal government seems to have lost interest.
DCCK and other food recovery agencies like it are working hard to pick up the slack. DCCK operates a culinary training program where students learn to be food handling managers. Fresh Start Catering offers job opportunities to graduates to recycle excess food. They also have a Campus Kitchens project that operates at 25 college and high school campuses nationwide.
Curtin, DCCK’s CEO, used to work in the restaurant business. He says as a hospitality organization, DCCK’s job is to serve the community in as many ways as possible.
“You make people happy,” he said. “You hopefully improve people’s lives. And that’s exactly what we do here at DC Central Kitchen.”
Producer: Bei Zhang
Producer / Photographer: Wayne Huang
Multimedia Editor: Ellen Webber
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