Monday, November 23, 2015

Food Foolish #5: Some Lessons from the Field at Thanksgiving

Thanks to Gettysburg College and the Gettysburg Foundation
for hosting an evening of Food Foolish discussion.
Since we published Food Foolish in July 2015, my co-author John Mandyck and I have been on a variety of calls, Webex’s and in-person lectures to talk about the issues of food waste and climate change.  John has been especially busy, so if you have an interest in these topics, you should be sure to connect with him on Twitter (@JohnMandyck).  (And I'm on Twitter here.)

As I meet with folks, I get asked a lot of questions that, frankly, I can’t answer.  So I've been studying up on everything from food security, ugly fruits and vegetables, drought, precision farming and composting, to agroecology, urban gardens, food banks and even so-called Frankenfish.  I have found Twitter to be especially helpful in channeling the daily flood of material being generated.  Food + Tech Connect in particular is a terrific feed for entrepreneurial news, and the Guardian in London seems to have the broadest coverage of food and climate change news.

Now, as the season of food (and thanks) is upon us here in the States, I thought I might share just a few of my many lessons from the field.

Getting Mom to Waste Less.  Let’s begin with the very nice woman in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who asked me how she should deal with her mother, who refuses to eat the dark meat from the turkey.  I am still formulating my answer, which might require as much Dr. Phil as Michael Pollan.  (My own dear mother hated parsnips, though it never came to a crisis stage.)  

It’s worth noting, however, that Americans toss out 204 million pounds of turkey annually, worth nearly $300 million and containing about 105 billion gallons of embedded water.  In fact, if we start counting embedded water on our Thanksgiving plate, we’ll find that a can of cranberry sauce has 1,559 gallons, a gallon of apple cider nearly 1,500, and a bowl of mashed potatoes some 2,528 gallons.

So, as I think about how to motivate Mom, let's all plan and shop wisely.  And once the big event is over, work on those leftovers.  I discovered in my travels that many folks now plan “Leftover Parties” on the Friday after Thanksgiving to insure that they reduce things down to the carcass.  This, along with the budding “Meatless Mondays” movement, are small signs that there is a fundamental change in the way Americans are thinking about their food.  (See “The War on Big Food” from Fortune here.) 

See here for more.  Dana's
dedication to her father is
"For my Dad, who can suck
meat off a chicken bone like
no one else."
A Book Worth Owning.  While our Food Foolish presentations usually start with a macroeconomic look at food waste, discussions inevitably end up in the kitchen.  What can we do in our own homes that will help reduce waste?  With that question in mind, I purchased Dana Gunders' Waste Free Kitchen Handbook.  It explores ways we can each reduce food waste in the final link of the cold chain, from grocery store to stomach.

Gunders just happens to be Staff Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and is one of the pioneers in the field of food waste reduction.  "Today," she writes, "we waste 50 percent more food in the United States than we did even in the 1970s.  We also waste 10 times more than the average consumer in Southeast Asia.  A woman from Hong Kong once told me," Gunders said, "that when she was a child, her aunts and uncles would inspect her bowl and tell her that each morsel of rice she had left would turn into a mole on the face of her future husband!"  Now, there's inspiration. 

Water is the real canary.  While we tie together food waste and greenhouse gas in Food Foolish, I am beginning to sense that water is the canary in the psychic coal mine.  People surely don’t want to waste food, and they are increasingly troubled by climate change.  But there is genuine fear about the subject of drought.  When we tell people that the food we waste each year uses almost three trillion gallons of water to produce, or that a head of broccoli has 5.4 embedded gallons of water, you can see the dots connect.  We also seem to be in a steady cycle of drought-related news that is no longer centered in some distant, sun-scorched land: SaudiArabia is acquiring land in Arizona to replace its own depleted aquifers, Mennonite farmers in Mexico are departing for Argentina on news that their groundwater may run out, and the reservoir outside of Sacramento that provides200,000 Californians with drinking water is at an all-time low.  There are still those that deny climate change, but people are done denying drought.

One of the slides that makes people squirm.
Large-scale insect farming.  We say in Food Foolish that two billion people around the world eat 1,900 different varieties of insects, but I know that few of those are American.  My countrymen turn out to be very squeamish about eating bugs.  Even New Englanders, who pine all summer for soft shell clams (a kind of wet alien bug) and lobsters (nothing but big, crunchy bugs) will not touch insects.

Many won’t even eat Exo bars, which I pass out at some of my presentations; these are tasty sports bars that contain a mere 20 percent cricket flour.

While insects are rich in protein and can be raised quickly and in quantity, it is going to take a legion of very clever marketeers to get Americans to trade their beef and pork protein for bugs.

Apps are Up.  The collision of food and technology is at full impact.  See here for 14 apps, some of which may even help you reduce waste at Thanksgiving.  I had a chance to visit personally with the CEO of Spoiler Alert--"a real-time marketplace for wasted food"--which just launched in Boston last week.  It's a great idea and we wish them good luck and rapid growth.

People are ready to change.  Once we describe the 1.3 billion metric tons of food waste, the 40% that Americans purchase and send to landfills, the mega-portions we’re served at restaurants, the incredible value of food banks, urban gardens and gleaning—you can see the faces light up.  People get it.  If half the battle is simply being intentional, we are well on our way to victory.

I have learned in the past few months, for example, about a family that reduces food waste by organizing their refrigerator by day of the week.  This is a kind of meal planning that goes above and beyond mere mortals, but it speaks to the kind of intentional and ethical activity that I see gaining momentum.

Summing it up.
One of the most hopeful articles I have read recently has to do with changes going on in Iowa, a state that has taken a kind of holistic approach to food, climate and soil.  See here.

Best of all, as we travel around, we are having the kinds of positive conversations we had hoped when we published Food Foolish.  The idea that reducing food waste helps everything--hunger, malnutrition, carbon mitigation, food security, national security, land, water and money--is becoming an important part of the larger climate healing strategy.  

So, we’re off to Singapore next week to learn more about global efforts to reduce food waste.  And the world will be gathering in Paris at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change beginning on November 30.  This is surely a group of people that deserve mention in this year’s Thanksgiving Day prayers.