The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday December 2nd

Q&A with "American Wasteland" author Jonathan Bloom

As part of The Daily Tar Heel's Projects and Investigations Team's Food Issue, Senior Writer Caroline Leland spoke to Jonathan Bloom, the award-winning author of "American Wasteland." 

The book chronicles the ways in which Americans waste food between the farms it's raised on and the plates it's eaten off of. Bloom offered insight into the University's responsibility to prevent food waste and why it's important to conserve.

The Daily Tar Heel: What first made you care about the issue of food waste in America?

Jonathan Bloom: I grew up in a household where we really loved food, and part of that was learning to respect food. And what that ended up looking like was saving all the leftovers, and trying to do a good job to eat whatever was put on your plate. So I came from that background, and then I started to really enjoy food as an adult and started to cook as an adult. And that helped me to become someone who really values food … As I started writing about food as a journalist, I started finding these niches. One day while volunteering at a food recovery organization in Washington, I really came face-to-face with the amount of food that isn’t being used. Coming from a background of really appreciating and enjoying food, to learn that 40 percent of all the food we produce isn’t being used really angered me and motivated me to raise awareness for food waste in America … The more you learn, the more frustrating it gets.

DTH: What do you think is the most surprising aspect of the national food waste issue?

JB: We are wasting almost half of our food, and very few people seem to notice and/or care about the topic. It’s that invisibility of food waste that continually surprise me. And you’ll see that even in a household, where people don’t really recognize how much food they’re tossing because they usually just tend to throw it away. The food tends to just go away, whether down the dispose-all or out with the trash. We’ll go to great lengths to save a tiny bit on our groceries, but then we don’t factor in the lost money that comes from not eating all of that food.

DTH: Do you have suggestions for everyday things people can do to reduce their food waste?

JB: Yeah, it’s pretty simple: Just buy less food. That’s my one overarching bit of advice. We often get ourselves into trouble by filling our refrigerators to the point that we couldn’t possibly use all the food before it goes bad. Just taking a step back and thinking about your own purchasing habits and considering that we don’t use about a quarter of the food we buy — it’s time for many people to rethink how they buy food … And then the other bit of advice I would say is to become more connected with your food. Get closer to your food. Know where it comes from, by either shopping at a farmers market, or growing your own or even just cooking for yourself or your friends — that will make you appreciate and value food more, and thus make it harder to waste that food. And you won’t want to waste that food if you’ve put your time and effort and energy into producing it.

DTH: What entities are the biggest contributors to food waste?

JB: The estimates that I’ve seen point to farms and homes as the two largest producers of food waste. We can’t really do much about what happens on the farm, but we can play a direct role in reducing household waste. For me that’s kind of encouraging because a lot of people in environmental issues across the board think that they as an individual can’t possibly have an impact, but in reality it’s really the opposite. We all have a massive role to play in reducing the carbon footprint and reducing food waste as part of that. We as individuals have a whole lot of agency to impact change in the food waste equation.

DTH: Why should the average college student should care about food waste?

JB: For young folks, I think we all agree that we need to do something to change the environmental course we are on, and there are few easier ways to do that than by just not wasting as much food. The current status of food waste represents a huge waste of energy, water usage and the impact from excessive fertilizers and pesticides. Simply not taking too much at the dining hall will have an impact back throughout the food chain if we all do our part. It’s a bit of a butterfly effect there, where if you don’t take an unnecessary amount of food, then they won’t have to put out more food, and they could serve that food they’ve prepared later, and demand decreases, so on and so forth back to the suppliers. If we all take that step then it can have a massive impact. And I know that Carolina Dining is thinking along those lines, and they recognize that if students act in concert there’s an opportunity to reduce waste by a significant amount.

DTH: Do you think a large university like UNC has a responsibility to act to reduce waste?

JB: We all have a responsibility to reduce waste, but a public institution that’s receiving taxpayer dollars certainly has a more heightened responsibility to try to lead the way in reducing food waste.

DTH: What do you think large universities like UNC can do to minimize food waste?

JB: I think UNC is doing a solid job of curbing food waste. As at most schools, what they really need to focus on now is awareness-building, and getting students on board with wasting less food … like with Feeding the Five Thousand. I’m excited to see that kind of energy and awareness coming to Chapel Hill.

DTH: What do you see as the long-term effects of food waste?

JB: We need to become more efficient with our energy supply and with our fresh water, and so reducing food waste will go a long way towards making our planet a healthier place. But more significantly, it will allow us to feed everyone on this planet. The estimates are that by 2050 there will be 9 billion of us on the planet earth, and that represents a challenge on how we go about feeding everyone. But we currently have enough food to feed everyone; we just don’t do a great job of distributing it. Before we turn to GMO crops on a widespread basis, before we cut down more rainforest to create farmland, I think we should focus on being as efficient with our food supply as we can. Reducing food waste is a way that we can make our planet a better place environmentally, and economically as well. But certainly from an ethical standpoint it makes no sense to have enough food to end hunger, and not end hunger — but that’s what we’re doing now. For me that’s fuel for trying to curb food waste globally.

DTH: Is composting a good solution to food waste?

JB: Overall, it's incredibly positive that the school is composting. Composting is a sound solution for kitchen trimmings and the inevitable excess food arising from the cafeteria setting. That said, I wouldn't necessarily trumpet the tons composted as a success, because you could also call that edible food wasted. A composting program could and should dovetail with an effort to reduce food waste. Ideally, the school would put at least as much energy into reducing waste as it does toward composting and I think that it does.

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