No wonder we waste so much food. We’ve forgotten how to relate to it, on the most basic and the most complex of levels. We’ve spent so long, both as individuals and a society, as consumers in thrall to a food system that has abstracted us from nature, clouding our innate understanding of it as well as our ability to draw on it for nutrition and sustenance.
I recently read a review of Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, in which he catalogs America’s food-waste problem and suggests ways to address it. As a disclaimer, I haven’t actually read the book, so I won’t attempt to directly comment on any of Bloom’s points in Wasteland. Reading the review, however, allowed me to reflect on how the industrialization of the food system has distorted our relationship with food on two fundamental levels: individually, biologically; and at the wider level of our whole society.
Is it really a wonder that kids raised on Pop Tarts, Lunchables, Hot Pockets, and other buffet buffoonery throw away so much food in school lunchrooms every day?
In a larger way, as a society we’ve also distorted our relationship to food. Cultural patterns and arbitrary assumptions that become embedded as dietary gospel, shoddy lab work and academic obfuscation that masquerade as robust science—they combine to foster an attitude toward diet that’s fueled by guilt, fear, and blind deference to authority. These factors play out on an individual psychological plane in our mental and emotional relationship to food, as well as on a broader sociological level in how we construct and interact with our food system.
The upshot is an eating public afraid to trust its own evolutionarily honed instincts for feeding itself. The animal knows what—and how much—it needs. By and large, we no longer do.
At the same time, it’s perhaps reassuring that although we’ve been acculturated to think of certain things as food, we continue to waste them because we don’t intrinsically recognize or value them as such; food is an output, (re)producible and subject to design. In a way, the amount of food we waste is a marker for the considerable imperfections of industrial food production, an implicit rejection of a system that isn’t doing its job. Waste isn’t just an unfortunate byproduct of that system; it’s an inextricable element of it, and a clear sign that the whole thing needs to be rethought. We don’t honor the system, and rightfully so, because it shouldn’t be honored in its current form. How much we can work with this system and how much of it will have to be discarded is unclear and probably won’t be clear for a long time–vegans and Polyface proponents will likely be debating a central piece of this question until the cows come home (or are let loose, or eaten, or…).
I’m not saying wasting food is a good thing. But until we can create the food system we need and deserve, there’s going to be waste. It’s there to remind us that there’s a better way.