Writer Jonathan Bloom learned the value of food from an early age.
"I grew up in a house where we learned to respect food," says Bloom, who lives (and composts) in Durham, North Carolina. "We certainly enjoyed it. We would always eat dinner together. But I learned food was something that you valued. You saved your leftovers."
Bloom started writing about food and environmental issues as a journalist. A volunteer experience at D.C. Central Kitchen, a homeless shelter that collects unused food from restaurants and supermarkets in Washington, D.C., prompted him to delve deeper into the issue of food waste. He's the author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food, which examines how our throwaway culture sends much of our food to landfills.
Globally, 30 to 50 percent of food gets thrown out, The Economist recently reported. Bloom's book focuses on the 40 percent of food waste that comes from the United States alone.
"I'd say we are among the most wasteful countries in the world, if not the most wasteful," says Bloom, who writes about this topic in his Wasted Food blog. "Food is abundant in this country. We take it for granted, and we don't really value it."
The nation's waste comes from every step of the food chain, "from farm to fork," Bloom says. Despite rising food costs, he notes, food still makes up a relatively small percentage of household budgets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 6.9 percent of household spending goes toward food, as this Nielsen report shows.
I caught up with Bloom to ask him about the effects of all this food waste and how we can keep from adding to it.
SA: How has our country come to waste so much food?
JB: We just haven't had those values [of really being careful with food] passed down from generation to generation. There isn't that emphasis on reusing your leftovers. Another trend is that we've become pickier about what we eat. We don't want to have to trim off any bad parts. We just want our food to look perfect. And that goes hand-in-hand with food knowledge. People might not know that you can just scrape off a little bit of the mold from the cheese or use your paring knife with an apple to cut off the bad parts. The prevailing attitude seems to be "when in doubt, throw it out," but in my perfect world, we give our food the benefit of the doubt.
SA: What are the environmental effects of all this waste?
JB: There are two main factors. There are all the resources that go into producing food, like oil and water, which are both increasingly scarce. So to then turn around and throw about 40 percent out means that all those resources go for naught. The second part is the methane impact. Basically, to send food to a landfill, it'll have to create methane, which is a greenhouse gas that traps 23 times as much heat [in the atmosphere] as carbon dioxide.
SA: How does wasting food affect our wallets?
JB: The average family of four throws out about $2,000 a year in food, so there's real room for improvement there.
SA: What can we do to minimize our food waste?
JB: We can shop smarter and not bring so much food into our homes. Serving more reasonably sized portions and using smaller plates will help that. Learn to really love your leftovers. It's a great way to save time and money and avoid waste. Make friends with your freezer. [It's] kind of a waste-delayer. So if you know you're not going to get to something, you can throw it in the freezer, and it gives you some extra time.
SA: What do you think it will take for people to reduce their food waste?
JB: My idealistic side thinks that once people learn about the environmental impact, they'll be better at avoiding waste. My realistic side thinks it will come down to money. When food becomes more expensive, we'll become less wasteful.
Read more: 12 Ways to Cut Your Food Bill