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Lifestyle

The United States Is a Food Wasteland

by Peter Smith

October 23, 2009
Photo courtesy of Taz/Flickr

When it comes to food, Americans are the undisputed champions of one thing: trash. We waste food in volumes that it defies the imagination. New York City alone has an annual surplus of about 50 million pounds of food. Ten years ago, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that more than 96 billion pounds of edible food went to waste. And, according to anthropologist Tim Jones, the United States throws away just about half of the food it produces.

There's probably enough wasted food in the United States and Europe to feed the world's hungry three times over. And in just one year the United States may even produce enough food waste to feed all of Europe. While food recovery programs, gleaners, and freegans may be reducing the food waste stream, vegan Dumpster-divers are not exactly feeding the world's hungry.

Ultimately, we need a systemic fix, which is why you should read British activist Tristram Stuart's new book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food ScandalWaste issues a call to stop the wanton waste of food-not just at supermarkets, but also at homes and farms. Stuart argues that food waste contributes to environmental degradation, global warming, soil erosion, habitat destruction, and starvation.

In Waste, we hear of carrots thrown out for being slightly crooked; edible fish dumped, dead, back into the ocean; and farmers, who must, by contractual obligation, eradicate healthy crops. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported this year, a heightened awareness about E. coli has led to crop destruction in the name of increased food safety.

Although Stuart, who has also written a history of vegetarianism, does not advocate for an outright moratorium on eating meat, he argues that only 13 percent of the calories fed to meat cattle are actually consumed by beef eaters, especially when offal and other scraps are discarded.

Waste is not exactly The Jungle of modern food trash. Upton Sinclair had intended to use the meatpacking industry as a backdrop for his fictitious narrative of wage-laboring immigrants; Stuart aims his extensively-researched book squarely at the guts. Like Elizabeth Royte's entertaining Garbage Land, Stuart's book serves as another stinging indictment of consumer culture. The scale of our trash problem demands change. And simply growing more food is not the answer. What's lacking is a clear, viable solution for equitable food distribution.

Stuart also suggests that consumers can learn to love leftovers a little more, start composting, and begin cooking with offal. Additional food pantries should be built, municipal anaerobic digesters could break down more waste, and hefty tax should be levied on trash collection, he says.

Waste remains a compelling moral crisis. With the right tools, Stuart says that we can create opportunities to feed the hungry and to generate methane for fuel. And, as much as I enjoy finding something for nothing-some recent finds included dumpstered chocolate, baguettes, or lemon juice-these are mere drops in the bucket compared to the world's vast sea of edible detritus. Let's hope Stuart's message doesn't get lost in the trash heap. It's something we need to hear.

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