Wasting Food

The banana resting in my fruit bowl didn’t look very appetizing last week. It was showing a few brown spots, and the stem was weak. I left it in the bowl as I headed to work.

The next day it was even more brown and soft, and if I decided to eat it, the stem wouldn’t snap when I peeled it. I thought about throwing it out and just buying a new bunch of bananas. Why not, when I can get five more bananas for less than a dollar.

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But tossing that one banana wouldn’t just be giving up on the 50 cents it cost. A pound of bananas requires 102 gallons of water to grow it and wash it, often in a water-starved region. It swallowed up a chunk of the pound of fertilizer a banana plant requires each month, and it traveled thousands of miles to my home, using fuel and labor each step along the way. When this information slideshow flashed through my mind, it was hard to just toss it aside, even into a compost bucket.

But that is precisely the decision most Americans make several times a day, one that is repeated in bulk by grocery stores before individuals make their purchase, and one repeated by growers long before the grocery store weeds out the unsellable portion of a crop.

“American consumers are extremely meticulous about what they’re buying,” said Eric Landen, manager at Econo Foods in Sturgeon Bay. “An apple with one small bruise or a deformed tomato will not be picked up.”

Kaaren Northrop, whose family owns Main Street Market in Egg Harbor, said the cheap price and abundance of food in America skews customer expectations.

“Nowhere else in the world can people afford to be as picky as we are,” she said.

Door County grocers, like many other county business owners, rely in part on seasonal workers from other countries, many of whom are appalled by what Americans throw away.

“When I tell one of our employees from the Ukraine that a product has to come off the shelf, he’ll say ‘Oh, but I hate to do that,’” Northrop said. “In the Ukraine, they don’t have enough food to eat, but here we throw it away.”

Because of this, grocers can’t even risk putting a subpar (to the eyes, anyway) product on the shelf. It will be picked over, and the store will get a reputation for carrying poor produce. Landen said Econo Foods has to discard a lot of food not because it has gone bad, but because lighting or time on the shelf has dampened the color of it and people think it has spoiled.

Dean Volenberg, agricultural agent at the UW – Extension office in Sturgeon Bay, said consumer habits have moved far from nutrition and taste in favor of appearance.

“We’ve manipulated consumers to think that everything has to be picture-perfect,” he said. “Any home gardener knows that you very rarely get picture perfect produce. I know you eat with your eyes, but it’s disheartening to think that so much goes to waste because of how it looks, not how it tastes. There is so much food that even when it is past its prime, it still has great food value.”

In his new book, American Wasteland, the author Jonathan Bloom estimates that 25 percent of the food Americans take into their homes ends up in the garbage. It’s a staggering waste of resources and money that our grandparent’s generation would have abhorred.

The decline of the corner market and rise of the suburban grocery superstore is partially to blame. Previous generations often shopped daily for food, but now most families buy in bulk on a weekly basis, usually over-shopping for food that will sit on a shelf for months or years. We have bigger refrigerators and kitchens, Bloom writes, and we have an insatiable need to fill them.

“The image of a refrigerator that’s empty looking is kind of frightening to some people,” he said recently during an interview on National Public Radio.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that the average family of four throws out at least $1,300 worth of food each year, and that Americans trash 50 percent more food today than in 1974.

But it gets worse. That’s just the waste from what we bring home. Estimates of total food waste go as high as 60 percent, and are figured to be at minimum 40 percent of America’s total food production.

“I could see 40 percent waste, easily, in this country,” Northrop said. “Just look at the amount of food wasted in a school cafeteria. It’s easier to throw it away than to try to do something with it.”

Northrop said Main Street has been able to reduce its food waste significantly through creative partnerships in the community. A regular customer picks up old apples to feed to his horses; Feed My People takes old bakery and out-dated dairy (which is good for seven days beyond its use-by date); and some old produce goes to local growers for use as compost. But holding on to that product for someone to pick up requires a lot of storage space, a precious commodity.

Donating food seems logical, but it’s not an easy proposition. One local grocer said that they would like to give old bread and produce to food pantries, but have suffered hits to their reputation.

“If we donate it to a pantry or another organization, and it’s less than perfect, it reflects poorly back on us,” the grocer said. “People will ask where it came from, and when they find out it came from us, they think we carry bad product and that gets around.”

The grocery store deli is another way stores can cut food waste. Those vegetables that are misshapen or have spots can be used in soups, salads, sandwiches and all manner of deli products. “The problem is, you still can’t come close to using it all,” Volenberg said.

Grocery stores would seem like great places to start large composting operations, but Landen said that would be more difficult than expected.

“Largely due to runoff issues with the Department of Natural Resources, you would have difficulty doing it,” he said. “And that’s if you had the land to do it.”


Among the peculiarities of the American shopper is our fear of the use-by date on food. We’ll break many rules in this country, we’ll push boundaries of legality and ethics, but it’s a rare American that will push the limits of an expiration date.

Most consumers would be surprised to learn that those expiration dates aren’t even regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The only food product that is required to carry an expiration date by the FDA is baby formula. The rest of our food supply is regulated by the industries themselves.

Somewhere along the line we stopped trusting our senses to judge food and, as Bruce Fieler of the New York Times writes, “we ceded control of our refrigerators and pantries to nameless bureaucrats and faceless corporate automatons who are surely motivated as much by fear of lawsuits or selling us more stuff as they are by whether my dinner tastes good.”

“Having grown up in this industry,” Northrop said, “I’ve probably eaten more out-dated products than almost anybody alive. Our fridge was always full of them growing up, and now mine is. All the things that are dated now didn’t used to be. And people didn’t seem to be getting sick back then. It seems there’s more food allergies and poisoning now, with all the expiration dates and packaging, than ever.”

Changing Our Habits

The cafeteria waste that Northrop mentioned is a growing concern nationwide. More and more parents are clamoring for healthier lunches in schools, but there are also new strategies for how and when food is served.

Many colleges have eliminated the trays that have been standard use for generations. Those trays entice students to sample the entire buffet, piling on far more than they will eat, with much of it ending up in the trash.

Elementary schools have even begun to question the timing of lunch service. With lunch usually coming right before recess, most students rush through their meal in a quest to be first into the gym or outside to play, throwing out much of their food and foregoing the calories they need for energy and thinking the rest of the day.

Many schools are switching to a schedule that puts lunch after recess, resulting in less waste, better eating habits, and calmer students.

At home there are a lot of things we can do to cut waste and save money. Volenberg said to start by shopping with a detailed list.

“You really have to plan and organize,” he said. “People in the grocery store tend to over shop, especially with perishables. In third world countries they go to the market every day, maybe twice a day, buying only what they’ll need for that day. Here we go once a week and overbuy and throw a lot out.”

He recommends buying frozen fruits and vegetables not only to reduce spoilage, but because flash frozen produce retains more nutrients than fresh produce, which degrades on the delivery truck.

If buying locally, he suggests buying strawberries in bulk in May and June and freezing them for later in the year. You keep your purchase among neighbors and reap the benefits down the road.

“In general, look back at what people did in previous generations,” he said. “There are a lot things you can do to cut back on your costs. Can food. Plant a garden. It takes time, so it has to be also about what else you get out of it, the enjoyment of being in the garden, of knowing what’s in your food and where it came from, but you’ll save money and appreciate your food.”

As for me and that rotting banana? I don’t bake, so banana bread isn’t an option, but I do blend. On day two, as the banana browned more, I needed a knife to snap that limp stem. I threw it in the blender with the yogurt that just wasn’t tripping my appetite trigger on its own, some frozen strawberries, and a little of the honey that it will take me 10 years to go through.

After it was blended, the banana peel’s brown color, mealy texture, and soft spots were forgotten. I had a healthy smoothie, and all that labor, fertilizer, travel, and water were put to use.

And I didn’t throw 50 cents into the garbage.