Book Review: An American Wasteland

American Wasteland by Jonathan BloomJonathan Bloom isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty as he examines American food waste from all angles, literally.  In his new book, American Wasteland, Bloom convinces us that food waste is a huge—but solvable—environmental and economic issue.

I enjoyed Bloom’s trek through American farms, schools, restaurants, highways, groceries, homes, and landfills to see first-hand where 50% of edible American food gets wasted.

People think that because food is biodegradable, it’s okay to toss it onto the ground. But food waste contributes significantly to global warming. It emits methane, which gradually releases carbon dioxide into the air. Organic waste is especially detrimental when it sits in landfills,  where it can emit methane for generations. And as recycling increases, a higher percentage of landfills consist of organic materials.

A big part of the solution involves treating food waste and landfills in an ecologically sound way, by capturing methane from landfills and moving toward anaerobic digestion to dispose of food waste. But aside from working to change public policy, what can the average consumer do to prevent waste?

Retailers don’t make it easy, by doing everything they can to convince you to buy more than necessary. If you live alone,  you can’t always find half a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. In some stores like Costco, you can’t buy less than a package of twenty oranges. Then there are sales that encourage you to buy one, get one free.In Great Britain, where the government is making a serious effort to reduce waste, retailers advertise “Buy one, get one later” and pass out a voucher.

In a book full of memorable anecdotes, two stood out for me. Bloom visited an elementary school in Quitman, Alabama, one of the poorest school districts in the US. Sitting with kids in the lunchroom at 11 am (!), the kids threw out more than they ate. No surprise, since they had already been served a free breakfast at 9 am. Lunch consisted of four corn-dog nuggets, a cookie, a serving of corn niblets and a four-ounce cup of peach slices. School lunch waste is a country-wide problem. Research clearly shows serving lunch  after recess results in 30% less waste. Yet only 5% of elementary schools do so.

At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, Bloom compiles a list of the refrigerator contents of a childless couple who describe themselves as “foodies.”

  • Bag of half-eaten flatbread (light)
  • Half a bag of uncooked flour tortillas
  • Fat-free tortillas
  • Bag of pita pockets (1 remaining)
  • Bag of Mexican-style grated cheese with four cheeses (used mostly for quesadillas)
  • Block of Norwegian cheese (half-eaten)
  • Pack of string cheese (from Costco)
  • One random serving of string cheese
  • Jarlsberg Swiss (only a few pieces left, in a Ziploc bag)
  • Monterey Jack cheese (in a Ziploc bag, expired)
  • 40% reduced-fat Mozzarella cheese (nearly gone, also in Ziploc)
  • Small block of Jarlsberg (in Ziploc, expired a few weeks ago)
  • And all that was on a single shelf! The complete list takes up four pages of the book.

    Bloom made the point that today’s large refrigerators encourages waste. When he went to Great Britain to see their campaign to cut consumer food waste, he visited Barbara Wormsley, the “Green Granny.” She is part of Britain’s campaign to buy less and eat leftovers.  Warmsley doesn’t didn’t think of herself as an environmentalist, but she did grow up in a generation when throwing out food was bad form. He was impressed with her narrow refrigerator.

    With a big refrigerator, we “lose” food, and we buy more than we need. Bloom suggested that a larger fridge means we won’t have to remove things to make room for new purchases. I disagree, since one should try to put off grocery shopping until the fridge is fairly empty. As Bloom pointed out repeatedly, we consistently choose the freshest food and neglect older items until they get spoiled.

    The preference for perfectly fresh and beautiful food also explains the colossal amounts of food waste long before it gets to the store, because the produce has been judged too small, brown or misshapen for American consumers.

    To learn more about food waste see my comments on Bloom’s book at the Middle Eastern environmental blog, Green

    Jonathan Bloom also writes a blog called Wasted Food. Last year he published my guest post on Thanksgiving cooking,  Be Thankful, Not Wasteful.

    Related posts:
    Do You Need a Second Freezer?

    Ten Tips for Cutting the Cost of Running Your Refrigerator

    Ten Kid-Friendly Foods that Use Leftovers


    1. What a waste! Having been brought uo in a family where throwing out food was not an option, this seems crazy to me.
      It would be a lie to say that I never throw out food but I certainly try not to.
      Thank you for the book review.

    2. Dena Lerner says

      Thanks for the article, food waste is an issue that I face all the time and recently have been forcing myself to change. My rule mow is that I finish everything in my fridge before going shopping (cupboards is a different story). It makes me eat all the stuff I already paid for, and I find myself being very creative.

      And I very much agree with your point, have stocks of food does not equal waste. I still remember my grandmother poaching and freezing peaches at the height of the season to use on a rainy day. As long as the food gets eaten having basic items around is a benefit for cooks.

      There is one argument I have and that is with having to finish food on plates. As a mother who is fighting obesity, diabetes and numerous other ailments in the family, I encourage my children to only eat until they are full. I give small portions, and seconds but do not require clean plates.

    3. I am guilty of neglected vegetables in the crisper. Poor, poor celery. However, we are usually pretty good about not having too much extra food around. You have inspired me to work harder at it. Thanks!

    4. I remember visiting friends in England for the first time when I was in college and being blown away by how small their fridges were. One friends family had a fridge slightly larger than a hotel sized fridge and they stored all their produce outside, in bins, to be finished quickly.

    5. my mil is is a school lunch lady (and the mother of 10!) who cannot stand to see food thrown out-she is always packaging up leftovers that can’t be reused so teachers and administrators can take it home-if there is still food left after that she has a list of “customers” she calls to pass it off to. We have eaten beefaroni and fish sticks more often then I would like.

    6. I just started reading this book and am very taken by it. It’s not some extreme environmental screed but very thought-provoking, and a pretty easy read too.


    1. Leftovers, Judgment and Credibility says:

      […] are always two sides to a question. The maxim, “When in doubt, throw it out” leads to excessive food waste and creates many ecological problems. Just because something is biodegradable doesn’t mean […]