Many years ago I was staying with a good friend of mine in Rotterdam, who happened to have a big birthday right in that period. This man is one of the most hospitable and generous people I know, as well as a great cook. The preparations for the birthday dinner were correspondingly elaborate. He spent a whole day shopping for the ingredients, two bags at the time because he had to haul everything home the Dutch way: on his bicycle. Then he spent two days in the kitchen, mixing, stirring, roasting, boiling, frying. By the end of the second day, his birthday, he had prepared a dinner large enough to feed the entire neighborhood. You could not wedge a salt shaker between the dishes of food covering the table. There was sliced roast beef, there was chicken, there were sausages, burgers and meat balls, all with special sauces. There was smoked fish too. Huge bowls held 5 different salads and I forget how many types of pasta. There were boiled potatoes, baked potatoes and fries. And for dessert, there was an ample selection of pastries and fancy French cheeses.
Then by some weird twist of fate, nobody showed up. It was just the two of us looking at each other across that enormous pile of food, while dusk changed into night. It was a terrible let-down. Ultimately, we ate some, hardly making a dent; we weren’t very hungry anymore either. The next day, a few late well-wishers dropped by and took a helping or two, but the bulk of it remained and became less appetizing by the hour. In the end he threw it all out. We both felt like crying.
But there was nothing else we could do. There were no homeless at the time to give it to, no shelters, no food banks, because there were no poor. The government provided for all, and generously so. But the underlying concept that a civilized society should take care of its weaker members has not survived the series of economic downturns that started in the seventies. Now there are poor in Holland, and shelters and food banks – just like there are here.
Even if the people would have shown up for the birthday dinner, my friend would have ended up throwing out about half of the food for two reasons: he made way too much to preclude the possibility that there would be anything in short supply, because that would look poor, and he made a lot of different dishes to make sure all tastes and tongues would be pleased.
There is a number of such subtle psychological mechanisms which contribute significantly to food waste. An interesting article on that subject by Rachel Cernansky appears on the Civil Eats site under the title: “Food is a terrible thing to waste“.
And it is. While 15 million Americans are food-insecure, the average American family throws out some $1500 worth every year, This obviously needs a tweak. There are many organizations, such as our local Community Food Bank, that do great work with leftover food. Food waste can also be mitigated by various conservation methods such as freezing, canning and pickling. But why do we buy too much of it in the first place? It is because it is much more than just something to eat – food is a means of communication, a way to express love for our dear ones, but also to display our wealth and generosity.
Viewed in those terms, more is clearly better. But looking at the 36 million tons of food wasted annually in this nation, it is clearly not.
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Addendum: other organizations combatting food waste
The US Environmental Protection Agency has published a guide on food recovery.
Fry’s Food has an excellent food scraps collection program.