Monday, May 13, 2013


  • State of the Field Report – Food Waste – A Top-Down Analysis
  • Rooney,Ben. "UN Says a Third of Global Food Production Is Lost or Wasted."CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 11 May 2011. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • This article provides a general background on food disparities. In the developing world, inefficiencies in production lead to food loss and hunger, while wealthy countries have a combined food waste almost equivalent to the total amount of food produced in Sub-Sahara Africa. 
  • "2012 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics by World Hunger Education Service.2012 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics by World Hunger Education Service. N.p., 2012. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • A fact sheet on global hunger including definitions, causes and nutrient deficiencies. 
  • "4. Causes and Prevention of Food Losses and Waste." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • A detailed examination of developing and industrialized nations' food loss and waste. Industrial nations experience the most waste at the consumer level, while developing nations loose the most during production-processing stages. 
  • Taylor, Kate. "Restaurants Vow to Stop Tossing Out So Much Food." City Room Restaurants Vow to Stop Tossing Out So Much Food Comments. The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • Over 100 New York restaurants have pledged to reduce the food sent to landfills by 50%.
  • Clinton, Bill. "The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act." N.p., n.d. Web. 
    • Encourages food donations by protecting individual or corporations from any criminal or civil liability should someone get sick from donated food
  • Mather, Tina. "How the Top 5 Supermarkets Waste Food." Alternet. N.p., 18 Apr. 2010. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • Mather investigates supermarket giants and their willingness to coordinate with food recovery programs to reduce weight. Some were on board, seeing it as the right thing to do. Others refrain because they are wary of potential health hazards. 
Beware the Supermarketing!
  • Gunders, Dana. "How Stop and Shop Saved $100 Million by Paring Food Waste." N.p., 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • A selection of case studies from various places that implemented successful food waste reduction strategies - from stacking less produce in Stop&Shop display to eliminating lunch trays in a college cafeteria. 
  • Lubin, Gus. "15 Ways Supermarkets Trick You Into Spending More Money." Business Insider. N.p., 26 July 2011. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • Clever design of the supermarket (from the smell of bread, to the calming music) is meant to make customers purchase more. 
Eating with Our Eyes
  • Vidal, John. "'Ugly' Fruit and Veg Make the Grade on UK Supermarket Shelves." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • After an ugly growing season, the U.K. is forced to relax their cosmetic standards for produce. 
  • Delwiche, Jeannine F. "You Eat with Your Eyes First." N.p., 5 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • Our visual cortex is so dominant that it can affect stimuli for test, smell and flavor. In some cases, what's seen will alter what's tasted.  
  • Tesh, John. "Blemished Produce Packs the Biggest Nutritional Punch." Welcome To The Home Of Intelligence For Your Life – With John Tesh. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2013.
    • Produce that's not so aesthetically pleasing might be more nutritious than aesthetically pleasing counterparts. For instance, a tomato with crakes around the stem was grown in a dry environment and has double the vitamin B.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

State of the Field Report – Food Waste – A Top-Down Analysis

My inquiry into food waste started with personal goals. I intended to utilize the anthropological lens I’ve developed over the past 3 years to learn why consumers waste food. With this knowledge, I’d develop methods of reducing food waste at home. I said to myself that by making a public commitment to reduce my food waste, I would surely follow through. There was, and always is, one snafu: my overwhelming self-consciousness. It’s one affliction with a whole slew of social hindrances, and this time I was struck by paranoia each time I sat down to write a blog post and thought: people might actually read this…

Reluctant to present myself so publicly, I waited for a spontaneous surge of confidence to make me rise to the occasion. It never came. And so, as per usual, I started off without a moment to spare. Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed the blog format because it felt conducive to my eclectic writing style. It’s much easier to coalesce an assortment of thoughts under a single topic when hyperlinks reduce the burden of explanation. The blog format is also more suited for expressing random trains of thought because everyone leapfrogs around the Internet. Plus, I love watching videos and this was my first legitimate opportunity to reference television in an academic context. The medium worked well for me, the audience…not so much.

Nevertheless, I powered through the Internet’s knowledge on food waste and the facts were staggering.

About 1 billion tons of food is wasted each year, and about 1 billion people are hungry. It’s a disquieting paradox that’s woefully unacknowledged. To give you a frame of reference, an American eats, on average, almost a ton of food per year. Suffice it to say there’s enough food to go around. To be honest, I didn't realize the magnitude of this issue until I started researching for this blog. With every source came an onslaught of distressing statistics and info graphics, all of which conveyed the same message: too much food is being wasted. These sorts of facts and figures carry shock value, and this topic certainly lends itself to those descriptors, but I’ll refrain from using statistics here because quite frankly, I’m tired of seeing people reduced to numbers. My opening statement should suffice to convey the gravity of this situation. Besides, the source of this problem isn’t a lack of comprehensive data on who’s wasting what where. We have plenty of that, trust me I’ve read it. Like so many global issues, the biggest problem is a lack of communication. Farmers, consumers, restaurant owners, activists, friends, freegans - people at all levels of the food supply who must form connections both within and between their strata if there is any hope of reducing our waste. The greatest amount of waste is created in homes, but good, healthy food slips through the cracks at every level. This State of the Field report is my attempt to synthesize the information I’ve gathered on food waste at various levels of the food supply chain in a top-down fashion to understand why food is wasted at particular levels, and what measures can be taken to prevent it.

Let's begin at the source: Farms

Farmers are under intense pressure to meet free market demands. To remain competitive, they must ensure crop production of sufficient quantity and quality. The size of their yield must account for the fact that some crops won’t be sold because they do not meet exacting standards set by their customers (typically food retailers.) So farmers that can afford to will err on the side of caution by producing far more than needed. The excess crops are either sold for livestock feed (often for no profit) or sent to the landfills.

The solution is cooperation between farmers that allow ones surplus to compensate for another’s shortage. The overly strict standards typically pertain to cosmetic qualities that supermarkets assume are expected by consumers. In reality, the consumers probably anticipate that produce will meet an aesthetic standard based on the bar set by supermarkets. Thus perpetuating a very wasteful cycle. To know what consumers truly expect of produce, supermarkets can distribute surveys to consumers and use the results to create more accurate and hopefully less stringent standards to guide future purchases from farmers.

Now on to the restaurant plates & grocery store shelves
Restaurant food waste is self-explanatory: patrons don’t finish meals. The restaurant is an interesting context because responsibility for food waste shifts from the restaurant, to the customer, then back to the restaurant. Large serving sizes leads to more food left on plates so serving smaller portions is an easy first step in mitigating restaurant food waste. After this, the onus is on the patron to clean their plate. Many of us have experienced that awkward moment at the end of a meal when debating whether or not enough food is left to warrant a doggie bag. My strategy is to eat with prudence: if I’m unlikely to finish I stop eating when a sizable portion is left. Not everyone has this degree of forethought or self-control, so some food is inevitably left behind. Now its back in the hands of the restaurant owner who has made an executive decision about what to do with scraps. The most environmentally sound course of action is to compost this food, like many New York restaurants will do to honor their pledge of reducing waste in landfills.

Food waste at grocery stores is also generated in a predictable way: perishable food begins to spoil. However the point at which food is no longer sellable is a subjective matter. Stores are incentivized to clear bruised or otherwise blemished food from the shelves, even if it is safe for consumption, because it does not meet consumers’ cosmetic standards. “Sell By” Dates are often marked earlier to avoid potential lawsuits. Generally, the idea is to only have the freshest, prettiest foods on display.

Before sending produce to its next (and potentially final) location, one simple waste reduction strategy for supermarkets is to offer blemished fruit at discounted prices. Food that doesn’t make it into consumers shopping carts has a number of potential fates. The most favorable options are those ensuring the food is being routed to hungry people such as a donation to a charity, non-profit organizations or programs such as the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge. Unfortunately, some companies find the logistics of coordinating with such organizations to be too much of hassle. Or they worry that about legal ramifications of someone getting sick from their food. Such concerns are invalid because these companies are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, which protects individual or corporations from any criminal or civil liability should someone get sick from donated food. Despite this exoneration some food stores are unwilling to engage in such charitable programs because they consider such entanglements risky for their public image. From a business standpoint, these partnerships are more likely to strengthen public image by displaying corporate social responsibility. It’s also just basic human decency.

Those food retailers who choose not to donate food, or just not ALL the food that can be donated *COUGH COUGH TRADER JOES* and don’t compost will put their waste in the dumpster. For much of the food, this represents the end of a journey in vain from the farm to the landfill. Some food, however, is given a second chance at fulfilling its destiny to be consumed.

Enter: Dumpster Divers

The term dumpster divers evokes images of street urchins or homeless people loitering on a dark side street. Some do fit that profile, but doesn’t negate the fact that dumpster divers are some of societies most noble citizens. They see the potential for a nutritious meal in what others consider garbage. While most people are blinded by social taboos about handling trash, its clear to dumpster divers that all this food needs is a rinse and inspection. The trash belongs to no one in particular, so by sharing the dumpsters’ wealth divers form egalitarian communities naturally. Take for instance my friend Maximus Thaler, who’s launching the Gleaner’s Kitchen, a revolutionary cafĂ© & restaurant that will serve entirely dumpstered food free of charge. The restaurant will also function as a performance art space and music venue. It will be a public space for nourishing the body and mind. In my opinion, the best fate to befall any piece of food is being sustenance for a dumpster diver.

Dumpster Divers are admirable for rescuing food, but their role is dependent on the inefficiencies of a system that needs fixing. Much of our food waste results from a lack of communication on food quality standards. Let the dumpster diver’s two basic principles be a lesson to other levels of the food supply chain.

1) SHARE: That applies most literally to the two ends of the chain. Farmers should cooperate and redistribute crops amongst one another to reduce waste by overproduction. And consumers can reduce waste at home and restaurants by sharing meals. Throughout the chain information must be shared, to maintain transparency at all levels.
2) LEAVE THE PLACE CLEANER THAN YOU FOUND IT: The philosophy that must be adopted when considering the amount of environmental degradation and pollution that goes into making food that wont be eaten.

Dive! The Film - Living Off America's Waste

In this documentary, Jeremy Seifert takes a close look at our society’s shameful habit of wasting 1/2 the food we produce. Following a group of L.A. Freegans, we see the astonishing amount of food that’s thrown into supermarket dumpsters every night. This food is salvaged to feed their family and friends as well as provide donations to organizations working with the poor. Their efforts are noble, but dumpster diving is inevitably dependent on the inefficient capitalist system that allows so much unnecessary waste. So the question we are left with is: how do we become a society with empty dumpsters?

Jeremy questions why more excess food isn’t transported directly to those who need it most. His persistent attempts to get answers from supermarket officials go unanswered. Although the Trader Joe’s website claimed they prefer to speak with people face-to-face (their FAQ section has since been changed), not a single person was willing to discuss the tremendous amount of good food found in their dumpsters.

Screen Shot from Film

 I was astonished by this lack of transparency from a company that provides a considerable amount of information about the products on their shelves. When Trader Joe’s finally acknowledged Jeremy’s letter-a-day the response was very defensive, stating, “TJ’s stores across the country donate food that they feel is safe to eat 7 days a week.” The question becomes, how and why is certain food deemed ‘unsafe’ when it’s sustained a community of people for years without causing illness? It’s likely that these standards are somewhat arbitrary, and the real issue is laziness. It’s easier for food stores to send unsold products to landfills than to carefully sift through goods and salvage all that is truly safe for consumption. By the same token, if purchasing food is within ones means, it’s easy to turn a blind eye while this issue persists.
         Gleaning food definitely presents logistical challenges. The hard work of dumpster diving was written all over the exasperated face of Jeremy’s wife. Though she appreciates the literal fruits of his labor, she admits to dreading the mornings when the kitchen is filled with food that needs to be sifted through and washed. Surprisingly enough, the work involved for Jeremy to recover more food for more people was far less taxing. In this instance, he called one Trader Joe’s store directly and asked to take their excess food after New Years Eve. The store agreed, allowing Jeremy to come through the front door and pick up 6 shopping carts worth of food, which he then donated to the Salvation Army.

With one simple call, Jeremy found a sweet spot between corporate donations and lone dumpster divers where the most productive gleaning was possible. The objective now is to broaden that space for effective action. Why this single store was willing to open their doors and reduce food waste while the corporate head quarters refused to even speak on the matter is a mystery. Nevertheless, Jeremy’s collaboration with this store is a seed of hope for the future without food waste. A future in which executives let down their guards, acknowledge the problem and use their influence to make large scale changes. A future where gleaners aren’t forced to use subversive tactics to do something just. The secret is already out – a lot of good food is feeding landfills instead of hungry people. Jeremy’s success in this instance is admirable, but it is still a band-aid solution for a broken system. The more people willing to engage in this conversation on various levels of the food system, the greater chance there is of becoming a society with empty dumpsters.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Beware the Supermarketing!

I began this jaunt through the Internet with an article on applied strategies for food waste prevention in supermarkets, restaurants and homes. I started reading with high spirits, but was quickly brought back to my pessimistic world view when I reached a description of the "Pile em high watch em fly" philosophy which reasons that people are enticed by large displays of food, especially when placed towards the entrance because it gives the illusion of a "deal." This strategy was rececently abandoned by Stop&Shop because it lead to more produce spoiling, which, when seen by customers is more of a deterrent than bait. (Go figure.)  

Entirely distracted from optimistic case studies in this article, I was compelled to find out how else the super market goliaths are manipulating consumers to buy more. I discovered that the "pile em’ high watch em’ fly" philosophy is just the tip of the iceberg. Grocery stores intricate marketing strategies are both appalling and explicable at once. It’s upsetting in the way that all marketing is: this external force embeds a craving deep enough such that you’ll act on it, but covert enough such that you think it arouse organically. Given the ubiquitous nature of marketing, its understandable that any establishment with an abundance of products will pull out all the stops. Especially when the customer base is secured because their products, unlike most, are necessary purchases.

Yes, we will inevitably spend money at the grocery store, but clever product placement will have you spending more than is necessary, and likely waste more too.  Rather than make you feel as undermined and manipulated as I did after learning their schemes, I’ll try to put a positive spin on my findings. Here are some helpful tips to see past the marketing ploys and give you the most control over your shopping experience:

1)   Bring a list and stick to it! It’s common knowledge, but for the sake of making this list comprehensive, it must be said. 

2)   Eat before you shop.  For me, impulse buys are typically post-shopping snacks (chips, dried seaweed, chocolate covered something or other). Avoid these purchases with a full belly.

3)   Plug in and tune out. Normally, I frown upon disengaging from public spheres, but this time is different. If you’re alone, listen to something that’ll get your adrenaline pumping! Some hard-hitting beats will motivate you to move through your list quickly.   

4)   Mothers: Distract your child! While I don’t have a child of my own, I still remember being one at the grocery store. I waited patiently until we neared the end of our trip, then look up at my mother with pleading eyes and asked, “Can I have a treat?” Some kids aren’t so well mannered, and when the right kind of snack crosses his eye (which it WILL) queue: hysterics. Know that the danger zone is kids eye level. So come prepared with a snack from home or something shinny to divert attention and help avoid unnecessary spending, and tantrums.

5)   Consider those coupons. You might save money now, but that money could end up in the trash if spent on food that you won’t eat before the expiration date. Remember: a penny saved is a penny earned.

6)   Lastly, staples. You might notice that eggs and dairy are never in the most convenient locations. Always pushed to the perimeter, giving you no choice but to navigate through aisles of tempting nonsense. By purchasing these items at the end of your trip, you can ovoid impulse buys and your time sensitive food will be marginally fresher! WIN-WIN!

Eating With Our Eyes

Don't judge a book by its apple by its skin, a carrot by its shape or lettuce by its color. Its this tendency to judge food quality based on aesthetics that accounts for a significant amount of our food waste. In the UK about 20-40% of fruits and vegetables are rejected by supermarkets because they don't meet strict cosmetic standards. If its not a health concern, is there any validity to these superficial assessments?

In a sense, yes. Studies have shown that visual stimuli can influence our perception of taste. The stronger the correlation between, a certain color or texture of food and a desirable taste, the more these visual queues can alter perceived flavor. These superficial assesments govern our decision of what produce to purchase at the grocery store.

Consumers aren't entirely to blame - cosmetic filtering of food begins at the source. Farmers can only sell crops that meet government issued standards based on size, color, weight, blemish level, and Brix (the measure for sugar content). What doesn't make the cut is either diverted to animal feed or the landfill. Take for instance the carrot quality standards set by supermarket chain, Asada. For his book,”Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” , Tristram Stewart (seen in video previously posted) visited several farms in England who supply produce for this chain. One of which was M.H. Poskitt Carrots in Yorkshire. He learned that carrots must pass a pretty rigorous screening test to be cleared for sale to the supermarket. No, literally, a screening test. The carrots pass under a photographic sensor to test for aesthetic defects. If the carrots are not brigh enough, or bent, or blemished they are swept off to a livestock feed container. The farmers were told that, “all carrots should be straight, so customers can peel the full length in one easy stroke” (Stuart, 2009). This requirement seems ridiculous out of context, but it speaks to the sort of snap judgements consumers make when presented with two brands of carrots. People will most likely choose the more symmetrical carrots after making a subcoucious assessment that they're more convenient to cook with.

The food I’m talking about has all the same vitamins and nutrients as their prettier counterparts. In fact, the blemished produce could be more nutritious. The point is, its all edible, just not *sellable.* Even after the food is purchased, we continue to hold these prejudices against food that does not meet our (at times) arbitrary standards of freshness. So your apple has a bruise - big deal. Is it poisoned? No, you're not Snow White. Are there raser blades stuck inside? No, its not Halloween in the 70's. OK, so its pretty unlikely to be life threatening. Just slice off the bruise or eat around it, problem solved. You might be thinking this problem is minute detail in the scheme of things, but when you're presented with *defective* produce isn't that what it boils down to? Menial tasks can be so burdensome and I cant deny that humans are predisposed to set an aesthetic standard for food. My point is that its entirely possible to disregard that visceral reaction and go against the grain by choosing the produce that others would turn their noses up at.