One Last One on Food Waste

June 26, 2016

I have to bring this series of diatribes about food waste to a close, but there was one more thing that I wanted to write about when I started this thread six weeks ago. I’m reminded of a fascinating talk I heard from the former Vice President for Sustainability at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. It was a good talk with lots of good ideas. So I’ll warn both my regular readers right at the get-go that even though my memory of this talk is going to wind up being a dig on the Walmart Way of Waste (or the WWW, as us food waste insiders refer to it), I don’t really mean to be digging on this guy, or even Walmart. I’m sure that if one of my irregular readers happens on this week’s blog, I’ll get some sort of e-mail pointing out all this giant corporations’ flaws and warts, now that I’ve said something implying that they might not have been the supernatural entity that the Louvin Brothers were referring to back in 1959 when they wrote about the testimony of a poor fellow who had been “a leader in my community,” before this entity “came into my life.” And then…

I grew selfish and un-neighborly My friends turned against me And finally, my home was broken apart My children took their paths into a world of sin

No, that wasn’t Walmart, even if giant food companies like Walmart are responsible for similar events in the lives of some people today. Heck, Wal-Mart Stores wasn’t even around in 1959, so let’s just forget this little tangent because what I sat down to write about this Sunday was that little lesson in the WWW that I was talking about two or three sentences ago.

What this guy was proud of was the way that when Wal-Mart Stores started thinking about sustainability, they started looking at stuff like recycling the cardboard in their boxes and reducing the amount of energy they used to run their stores. They didn’t stop doing anything that was contributing to their business, but they figured out how to cut down on waste. Except I’m thinking to myself that in the food part of their business this probably means they are figuring out how to avoid having inventory they aren’t going to be able to sell, as well as maybe figuring out how some of the non-salable stuff can go to food pantries or soup kitchens and the like. And if they’re avoiding having food stuffs they won’t be able to sell, it means that they aren’t buying stuff that’s going to get wasted when it passes the sell by date. And if they aren’t buying that stuff, it means that somewhere along the food chain, there’s a farmer who isn’t selling it.

And all my prior testimony to the importance of reducing the environmental impact of food production to naught, this is a kind of waste reduction that I really have trouble getting behind. At the end of the day, I’m pretty seriously pro-farmer and I’m troubled by ethically motivated transformations of the food system that make it even harder for farmers to make a living.

Now as I said above, don’t hold this against Walmart stores. I think the WWW is fairly pervasive as a strategy for dealing with waste in the food system. It’s certainly not something that’s unique to this particular giant food corporation. Still and all it makes me think. Maybe, just maybe….Satan is real!

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


More Waste

June 19, 2016

We’ve been on a run of blogs focused on food waste. The topic can’t help but bring up memories of my Nana, an obsessively frugal woman whose closets always contained at least fifty rolls of toilet paper purchased with triple coupon savings at her neighborhood Publix supermarket. Although she never did, I imagine my Nana saying things like this: “When I go to restaurant, I hate to waste the water that they’ve insisted on bringing me, despite the fact that I’ve ordered something else to drink, too. So I ask for a to-go cup so that I don’t have to waste that water. I’ll take it with me. Except that they invariably insist on bringing me another cup of water in a brand new to-go cup. So I have to tell them, ‘No, I wanted that water. Now I have even more water to carry around with me until I get thirsty so I don’t have to feel like I’m wasting stuff.”

Then I’m imagining a plumber telling my Nana, that she needs to spend about four thousand dollars on the pipes in her kitchen because she has been so frugal in saving every last of water that might have gone swirling down the drain that her pipes have gotten clogged up with some kind of sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union. In actual real life fact my Nana did have to have a functionally new dishwasher replaced after a decade of non-use (so she could save on both electricity and water) because the rubberized seals had dried out from lack of use. So in my imagination her economy with water has not actually been an economy in the larger sense, and even if she hasn’t been wasting her water all these years, the plumber is telling her that she is now actually going to waste some money (not to mention time and presence of mind) paying to have the sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union removed from the infrastructure of her otherwise efficient modern ranch home.

Which brings us back to the ontological point at issue: what makes something waste, in the first place? I think that both my Nana (notice how she’s replaced the pointy headed intellectuals in my earlier blogs?) and the plumber agree that waste is expending something that did not need to be expended. The difference seems to be that my Nana is placing her chips on a precious natural resource while the plumber has a laser-beam focus on dollars and sense. Err, cents, I mean. (Freudian slip, there, n’est pas?) Not that he minds the fact that my Nana is spending $4000 on a plumbing repair, mind you, but he does consider this to be a wasteful expenditure in some yet to be identified sense. What is that sense? That’s question that should be bothering us, not to mention the question of whether there is any hope that the plumber and my grandmother could ever come to an agreement on the issue.

And maybe they just can’t and maybe there is some deep truth about waste to be revealed in that circumstance. I’m resisting the thought that waste is all in the eye of the beholder. After all my Nana, the plumber and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already circled the wagons around this theme of food waste, so doesn’t there have to be something more to it than the difference between strawberry and vanilla? I think there is. Nevertheless I am coming around to the idea that there might be some deep moral commitments—like the commitment to nature vs. the commitment to money—that are going to reverberate through anyone’s decision making about whether a given thing you’re doing at any random moment is frugal, wasteful for none-of-the-above. I think that coming to any kind of community based action plan on limiting food waste is going to require us to sit down together and hash some of that out.

Don’t you?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Waste (at last)

June 12, 2016

So finally after last week’s silliness and the week before that’s semi-seriousness I want to circle back to the week before that’s deadpan no-foolin’ serious talk about the moral dimensions of food waste. I’ll start by apologizing to anyone who might have been offended by the sarcasm or by the flippancy implied by the way I’m sidling up to what many people would take to be a deadly serious topic. Except by ‘apologizing’ I mean what Socrates meant right before drinking the hemlock; to wit, defending myself, (as opposed to what Paul McCartney meant when noting that the kettle’s on the boil and we’re easily called away just before launching into that ditty about Admiral Halsey, a cup o’ tea and a butter pie).

Which is, in effect to prod a little harder on the deadly seriousness of food waste. And speaking of butter, we’ve blogged about leftovers at least once before and even then we were poking just a little bit of fun. Yet there is a strand running through food culture that sees any waste of food as a huge sin. People who have lived through hard times come by this very honestly, and I don’t mean to poke fun at them. There are precious few Americans around these days who endured food shrortages during the Great Depression, but there are plenty of Chinese who lived through the Great Famine years in the late 50s and early 60s. The tragedy in both cases was that there was food to go around, but a breakdown in the economic system that kept hungry people from getting it. So there’s this one kind of running-short-of-food-that-leads-you-to-conserve-every-scrap-of-butter-because-who-knows-when-you-might-need-it-and-even-if-you-don’t-someone-round-the-corner-does kind of worry about food waste, and then there’s a somewhat different kind of damn-I’m-hungry-why-can’t-I-have-some concern that is actually a little bit misplaced when it is understood as a problem of waste.

Now remember that we’ve already allowed as how throwing away food that you could have meaningfully used to feed a genuinely hungry person is a moral shame. Shame on the communes in China who threw food into garbage cans when others were so hungry they were boiling tree bark and digging up fresh corpses. But not, I dare say, on the farmers who plowed unsaleable crops into the ground while others stood in breadlines during the Great Depression. Somebody needed to buy those crops to feed hungry people, else the farmers themselves were going to be the ones taking the biggest hit. The shame here in the USA was on people who refused to support programs to give hungry people the money they needed to buy those crops themselves. By plowing them back, the farmers were at least saving on next year’s fertilizer. Which is to say that they were not literally wasting them in a morally pernicious way.

But to push my larger point, while there are moral shames in both counts, it’s potentially misleading to characterize the failure as a problem of some person or group wasting food. Nevertheless, talk about food waste seems to be a very natural way to encourage people to do something about a situation where people are going hungry. So here’s my dilemma. I don’t really want to criticize the recent push among news media (and the USDA) to bring this huge problem of food waste to everyone’s attention. Using the word ‘waste’ here does engage our moral sensibilities in a way that might get us around to doing something about food security. I don’t want to short-circuit that.

Yet you might be mistaken if you thought that the solution to this problem was to give hungry people some of the food you were about to “waste”. They don’t really need the food that you were literally about to throw in the garbage (there are some exceptions to this, which we’ll get to in the weeks to come). And if you’ve got cans on the shelf or something in the freezer that you decide to give away, well it’s not at all clear that you were going to waste it. In most instances, you’ll just go right out and buy some new food for the shelf…and then you’ll waste that food instead of the food you gave away. So I think that we’re really just talking about a charitable gift on your part  when you contribute to a food drive, rather than something like “not letting it go to waste.” All well and good. I don’t want to dissuade you from charity, even if this is not really doing anything to address the larger problems of food waste.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Kale Field

June 5, 2016

Well I promise to get back to the serious talk about food waste sometime, really, I do. John Zilmer’s comment to the first blog on food waste has already made a few points I thought that I might get around to sooner or later, so if you are itching for something more pensive I’d recommend reading that. As for me, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in South Georgia where the temperatures have gradually climbed into the upper nineties. I’m just not in a pensive mood as I sit down to write this.

And speaking of South Georgia, I am very happy to report making the acquaintance of Philip Lumpkin who endorsed my own view of one of the great food waste phenomena of the 21st century. To wit: kale. We were sitting around chatting with Philip about all manner of food related things, explaining to him how the Thornapple CSA worked up in Michigan and enjoying some very, very fine peaches that had been dropped off by one of his friends, reputedly the largest peach grower in Georgia. The peaches, by the way, were sensational despite being a tad early in the season for peaches. We had bought some rather puny samples from some guy in a truck parked under a shade tree outside the K-Mart store in Tifton, but even after four or five days of seasoning they had not ripened to the point of edibility. I doubt they ever will. Just picked too early for hawking to the gullible Yankee tourists who had stopped at K-Mart on their cruise up and down I-75.

Not that we had been cruising up and down I-75 our own selves. As I said already, we’ve been here for a couple of weeks (well actually it’s just ten or eleven days if you want to get technical—we were in Alabama for three days before we got to Georgia). Aside from the peaches we got from that guy in front of K-Mart, it’s been good eatin’. Not only were there some fine peaches at Philip’s, there was good Carolina melon, fresh sweet corn and zucchini picked the same day from Chris Ponder’s fields, and a couple of stops at Fat Boy’s Homemade Barbecue in Sylvester. The pulled pork is just the way we expect it here in South Georgia and it comes with a tub of that yellowish (not yellow, just yellowish) sauce that they only seem to do in these parts of the country. It’s especially good slathered with coleslaw. And not only is the barbecue pretty damn good, you have the extra pleasure of getting it from a place named “Fat Boy’s”.

So there may be one or two readers of the Blog (I know. I should just stop there and put a period after that phrase.) who don’t appreciate the virtues of fried okra and other types of Southern cooking. If so, you may not catch the humor of Philip speculating that Chris had left a box of zucchini as some kind of cruel joke, because you would not know that Southern folk do not eat zucchini. “Those little yellow crooked-neck squash—we love ‘em. And we’ll eat that other kind of straight-necked yellow squash, but zucchini? We’ll grow it,” says Phillip, “and we’ll ship it up North, but we don’t have to eat it.”

Now truth to tell, I’m not really down with Philip on zucchini. We had two meals last week where zucchini featured heavily in the main dish. One was a casserole which I will not attempt to explain except to say that it also included potatoes. The other was a stir fry I cooked up myself with some Vidalia onions and the peppers and tomatoes that Chris brought by. The only things we needed to get down at the Piggly Wiggly were garlic and soy sauce. We did buy some peanut oil, but heck, we probably grew those peanuts right here on the farm! It is a sign of modernity that you can get soy sauce at the Piggly Wiggly in Sylvester, but you can.

However derisive Philip was of zucchini, it was nothing compared to the hilarity with which he regards the thought of eating kale. Here, I’m as Southern as the next fellow. Now as my Thornapple friends know, we get plenty of kale in our boxes, and most people seem to like it. It’s the signature food of the hipster generation, I’m told. But though we’ll eat collard greens or turnip greens or mustard greens, you are just not going to get Southern folk to eat kale. Or so Philip says. And I agree: a prime example of food waste if I ever saw one!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University