Americans Waste Insane Amounts of Food

The following is an excerpt from the new book Freegans by Alex V. Barnard (University of Minnesota Press, 2016): 

On a cold night in December 2008, a slightly overripe tomato sits inside a black plastic trash bag on a sidewalk outside a D’Agostino supermarket in Murray Hill, a wealthy residential district east of midtown Manhattan. A sticker on its side, “Grown in Mexico,” hints at the long trajectory that it took to the curb.

A good starting point in this tomato’s story is 1994, when the United States, Canada, and Mexico implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. In preparation, Mexico phased out long-standing protections for its agricultural sector. International agribusinesses seized the opportunity presented by lowered tariffs to flood Mexican markets with heavily subsidized U.S. grain, especially corn. Falling grain prices and the withdrawal of state support for small-scale agriculture pushed thousands of peasants off the communal lands they had worked for centuries and defended during the Mexican Revolution. Many trekked north; some made it to the tomato fields of Florida, where a recent investigation found both old and young engaged in backbreaking labor and living conditions akin to “virtual slavery.”

This tomato was most likely picked by temporary laborers on a huge tomato plantation in Mexico, working twelve hours to earn a meager ten-dollar daily wage. Industrial farms pick their tomatoes while still green and ripen them through dozens of different chemicals and pesticides. They then send the tomatoes north: in the peak growing season, more than one hundred trucks full of tomatoes cross the border each day. These tomatoes are emblematic of the increasing distance our food travels from farm to fork, as well as the rising carbon emissions that result. Indeed, although we might think of tomatoes as a product of sun, soil, and water, virtually everything used to raise the crop—fertilizers, pesticides, plastic bins, fuels for trucks and tractors—is petroleum based.

The average tomato today contains 62 percent less calcium, 19 percent less niacin, and 30 percent less Vitamin C than just a few decades ago. The products of industrial tomato farms are uniform, tasteless, and nutritionally devoid—because they were bred to be that way. Although tomato seeds originated in Mexico, the hybridized and genetically engineered varieties planted there today, and the chemicals used to grow them, are increasingly the property of multinational corporations like Cargill or Monsanto. These companies loom ever larger over our food system: in the United States, ten agribusiness conglomerates account for half of all food sales.

It took many hands to pick, process, pack, unpack, and put this tomato on display. Nearly one in six employed Americans works in the production, marketing, distribution, and preparation of food. Like many jobs in the burgeoning service economy, food service jobs are poorly paid, unreliable, and offer few opportunities for advancement. In one survey, only 13 percent of employees in the food sector reported earning a living wage. Compared with those in other occupations, these workers were more likely to be employed part-time, lack health insurance, and need welfare benefits. Walmart reaps 18 percent of the $76 billion a year paid out for food stamps, a portion of which comes from workers it pays so little that they qualify for the program. Cruelly, food service employees are still substantially more likely than the general population to be unable to afford enough to eat.

Embedded within this tomato, and every other item on the supermarket shelves, is a history of human exploitation and ecological harm. Yet the average consumer won’t see the uprooted laborer in Mexico, the greenhouse-gas-emitting truck that brought the tomato to New York, or even the underpaid worker in the D’Agostino back room. Instead, he or she sees only the products themselves: the forty thousand different items on offer in a typical supermarket. These goods are symbols of America’s historically unprecedented superabundance of cheap food (the average family in 2012 spent only 10 percent of disposable income on food, nearly the lowest figure ever recorded) and the high social and environmental cost at which that abundance comes.

In recent years, activists, journalists, and scholars have begun to expose the hidden underside of our food system. Best-selling books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation chronicled the problematic paths that our food takes to our plates. A wide range of social movements, too, have made increasingly audible calls for reform in the food system, demanding that all consumers—not just wealthy ones a short Prius drive from the local farmer’s market—have access to food that is organic, fair-trade, and free from genetically modified organisms.

For all this growing interest in where our food comes from, though, there has been comparatively little attention to where it actually goes. Then again, the denouement of the tomato’s story appears obvious: someone eats it. For most of us, the notion that food should feed people, not go to waste, is a powerful moral imperative. In a country with 17.6 million food-insecure households, it seems instinctual that any excess food surely must be donated to the needy. But as this tomato sitting outside D’Agostino shows, the end point of our food’s long journey from the farm is more complicated—and more disturbing.

Perhaps an employee spotted a blemish on the tomato while putting it on the shelf. Maybe she put it on the bottom of the display, where shoppers didn’t see it. The store could have received a new shipment earlier than planned. Or it is possible that, out of fear of ever showing an empty display, the store deliberately stocked more tomatoes than it anticipated that people would buy. City Harvest, the largest organization recovering and distributing surplus food in New York City, describes D’Agostino as a “great partner” that donates significant quantities of food. Yet whatever the reason, this tomato was not bought, not donated, and not composted. It was wasted: put in a garbage bag and placed on the curb.

This tomato’s sad fate is no aberration. Forty percent of the United States’ food supply is never consumed. From virtually any angle, the scale of food waste is astonishing. According to conservative estimates, 160 billion pounds per year are jettisoned during harvest, processing, distribution, and consumption. In 2008 Americans wasted $4.1 billion worth of tomatoes alone—and with them, the approximately 8.9 million hours of labor and 15 billion gallons of water that went into producing them. While the market value of America’s food waste ($197.7 billion) is shocking, its potential “value” to meet human needs is even more striking. By one calculation, Americans dispose of enough calories of edible food each year to bring the diets of every undernourished person in the world up to an appropriate level. Yet estimates suggest that less than 10 percent of grocery stores’ edible excess gets donated. Still smaller quantities are donated at other points in the food chain. Almost all the rest makes its way to landfills, where it spews methane, a potent greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change.

Examining the trajectory of this tomato, then, reveals a different set of truths about our food system. It is not just that the food we buy has a sordid history of exploitation behind it. It is also that the food that actually gets sold is shadowed by an enormous number of products that, like this tomato, are never sold, never consumed, but simply wasted. Yet while the average consumer in D’Agostino might spend a long time perusing the store’s shelves, he likely won’t think for a second about the lumpy black trash bags outside. Even if that shopper opened one, he would probably assume that the food in it was dirty or rotten—even though much of it is just as fresh and nutritious as the food he bought inside. Accustomed to thinking that anything in the garbage must be polluted and valueless, few of us see the massive wealth of one-time commodities that, in modern capitalism, ends up wasted. 

Excerpt is reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from the Introduction, “A Brief History of a Tomato,” to Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in the United States by Alex V. Barnard. Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the Universityof Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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