You probably know the ritual. On a given day of the week (often the weekend—your “time off” for good behavior) you troop to the grocery store. You toss the items you’ll need for the week into a cart and trundle home to fit them into the interstices of a crowded kitchen or pantry. Then you start to notice that funky smell when you open the fridge. Or you eat a snack chip and find it gives no resistance to your teeth. Something’s gone off and needs to be tossed again, but this time into the landfill (or hopefully, compost). We’re all so busy that we don’t really have time to ponder this much. After all, the work’s the thing, and we only have a few hours at home anyway, and we can go shopping again soon. Now here’s where it starts to get ironic: we subscribe to Consumer Reports. I’m about the least consuming person you’ll be likely to meet (or not meet), unless, of course, the topic is books. I don’t buy stuff unless I have to. My jobs have been financially disappointing since earning a doctorate and I’ve got tuition bills of my own to pay. Every penny counts. But I digress.
Consumer Reports, in its September issue, discusses the problem of food wastage. Since I’m a simple man statistics impress me. 52 percent, for example, of the produce Americans purchase is thrown away. Math class was some time in the past, but even I can see that’s over half. This is something we’ve paid for and we simply jettison because it’s gone bad before we use it. This particular figure hit me because I like to have fresh produce with my boringly consistent lunch. When they’re in season I buy snow peas. Problem is, our grocery store only sells snow peas in massive packages, hermetically sealed. I can’t get through them before they go bad, and I can’t buy just what I need. For my convenience, I’m told, these tasty greens are prepackaged and pre-priced (at the cost of a small automobile) so I don’t have to dip my grubby hand in the basket and weigh out just what I need. And it’s not just peas. I can’t remember how to make a salad any more because, well, they come in bags, right? The natural habitat of greens.
The problem goes further than that. Here’s where the stats get scary. According to the article 28 percent of the agricultural land of the world generates food that isn’t consumed. Over a quarter, if memory serves, is ultimately wasted space. A full quarter of our freshwater usage is for stuff we throw away. In the land of overabundance we’ve learned to squander our resources and think nothing of it. It’s just food, after all. It’s not like there are starving people in the world. Perhaps the greatest ethical crimes are those that are so ordinary as to become forgettable, like that trip to the grocery store. Let someone else do the packaging. Anything I don’t eat I can always throw away. We can grow more. It’s a ritual, after all.