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America, quit crying about food prices and stop wasting it

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It’s a regular report on the evening news: “The cost of food in the U.S. is up X% percent this year. How can Americans afford to feed themselves?”

Answer: Quit wasting so much food.

An article I read this morning on Grist.org made an amazing, but believable claim: The average American family of four throws out an estimated $130 to $175 per month in spoiled food.

I add my own math: that’s $1,560 to $2,100 a year, or $30 to $40 a week.

Not sure about anyone else, but that’s a significant amount of money in my household. I’m hyperconscious of waste, but I wasn’t always.

Despite growing up in a frugal home and years of browbeating from cost-conscious/bonus-conscious restaurant chefs, I rarely looked at food waste as too big a deal until Jim Laube opened my eyes 12 years ago.

A restaurant consultant from Sugarland, Texas, Laube spent nearly two decades working for systems-oriented chains that never forgot what food on a refrigerator shelf really is: money in a different form.

“I used to tell my employees, don’t see a box of steaks on the shelf, see it as a pile of money,” Laube said during a food cost seminar I attended at a large trade show. “You could see the lights go on when I put it that way. They understood that any lettuce thrown away, every tomato trashed, every steak overcooked was money—be it dollars or cents—thrown into the garbage and profits lost.

“It’s easy to waste food when you just look at it as a little bit of shredded cheese, but it’s much harder to accept when you think of taking change out of your pocket and throwing it into the trash.”

In a follow-up interview some years later, Laube shared a practical illustration that hit home, literally: “When you have a full tube of toothpaste, it’s easy to waste it,” he said. “But when you’re down to the point that you have to squeeze it hard to get some out, you’re much more careful. … And that carries through to what’s in your family kitchen.”

What he meant was, when the fridge is full of options, it’s easy to act as if it were a widely varied buffet, a canvas for cooking creativity from which we take a little of this and a little of that, while paying little heed to how we’re going to use the leftovers.

A week later, most of the fresh food is rotten and gets thrown out, yet few people liken that to opening their wallets and purses and dumping out money. Like my 13-year-old says regularly, “It’s just food, Dad, what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is the Food Fairy never visits my house and drops off free grub. I and my wife work to make the money that paid for the car we drive to the station to get the gas needed to drive to the grocery to buy the ingredients the Food Fairy will neither deliver to nor prepare at my house.

The sad thing is more adults look at food the way my son does than don’t. From the story:

 Collectively, we consumers are responsible for more wasted food than farmers, grocery stores, or any other part of the food supply chain. We’re also wasting far more food than ever before, as the average American today wastes 50 percent more food than 40 years ago. The truth is the implications of our wasteful habits with food are just not on most of our radars.

 So, in a day when food costs more than at any time in history, we’re wasting more of it.

Smart!

This has nothing to do with the “starving Chinese children” story many of us heard growing up, it has everything to do with how wasteful we are in this country. We are a people of excessive appetites who’ve lost control of our purchasing habits, and when we over-purchase, we waste.

Were it possible, Laube made his food waste point to me more clearly by recalling how the very employees who wasted the most in restaurants—the rank and file clock punchers—were sometimes the ones who suffered the most from their poor discipline. High food cost equates to profits lost, and when the boss doesn’t make money, raises are denied and bonus checks aren’t written. Worse, in an economy like this, restaurants can and do close when food cost isn’t well managed.

The good news is people can change, Laube said.

“When we could get them to see that it wasn’t ‘just food’ on the shelves, that it was food we traded for money, people paid more attention to that,” he said, adding that staff incentive programs to lower food cost worked well also.

My wife and I budget for our groceries every month, but to be honest, we’re not always perfect about it. Still, we’re close, and we do pretty well using all our leftovers.

Monday, when I returned from working out of town for the weekend, I visited the fridge to find something to eat and was nearly blinded by the light. When your fridge is bright, you don’t have a ton of packages and food blocking that light. Inventory was tight—even though my wife had just been to the grocery the day before.

I was a happy man.

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