What I’m reading: American Wasteland

Jonathan Bloom, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (and what we can do about it)

Jonathan Bloom knows everything about food waste!

At the University Book Store on March 9th, Jonathan gave us a sampling of the fruits of his many months of research tracking down the journey of perfectly good food from field to landfill (an itinerary that did not include stops with hungry people). He has talked to farmers, restaurant owners, grocery store managers, food bank operators, and pretty much everybody else who populates our American food supply chain. He has read, apparently, every word ever written on the subject of food waste (his book ends with about 30 pages of citations, notes, and resources). The bottom line: he documents in horrifying detail the fact that America throws away almost half the food it produces.

Along the way to producing his book, he also engaged in some immersion journalism (what in my field we might call participant observation) by for instance working as a stock boy in the produce section of a grocery store, pulling and trashing produce with small blemishes or approaching “sell-by” dates. He is eloquent on the tyranny of the sell-by date and its near cousins “best by” and “use by,” which we learn are rough guesses by packagers of how long the food will look picture-perfect–nothing to do with food safety, let alone taste or nutrition. (And in an informal aside, he gave us a disarming picture of his encounter, decked out in his stock-boy apron, with a former college classmate on his way up.)

He knows it doesn’t have to be this way! He documents numerous grass-roots efforts to recover food for healthy uses, from restaurants and grocery stores taking advantage of Good Samaritan laws to donate to food banks to individual home gardeners sharing their bounty. And he ends with a slate of suggestions about how we as individuals can do our part to change our culture of waste.

(Da Capo Books, 2010)