Less Food Waste in the “Good Old Days”?

Food waste is big in the news, and that’s a good thing. The issue is now considered one of the key components in reducing hunger—and many think waste reduction programs will also help with environmental, health, and sustainability issues. This Washington Post article says that “cutting down on food waste is a big concern for experts in global food security.” 
The new book (Food Waste Across the Supply Chain: A U.S. Perspective on a Global Problem) cites experts from academia, government agencies, industry sectors, and NGOs by compiling papers presented at the Food Waste Conference held at the University of Pennsylvania. The authors believe that evidence-based data will lead to practical solutions and meaningful change.
We Waste How Much?!
U.S. consumers are high on the list of food waste offenders. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food is wasted each year. “It’s enough to fill the Sears Tower 44 times,” he points out.
A drive-thru of the internet will bring you a smorgasbord of statistics regarding world hunger and food waste, but one line that caught my attention made we wonder how (and if) things have changed since I was a youngster on the farm. According to the National Institute of Health, American consumers waste 50% more food now than in 1970.
Why We Wasted Less in the “Good Old Days” or Did We?
So what was different about those days before McFastFood, processed gourmet items, and mega supermarkets? Maybe it’s because when we sat at the family table we had slow food, farm produce, and whatever the little grocery store in town had on special. Maybe we just didn’t have the opportunities to waste as much. A few points to consider:
#1  We usually had similar items at each meal—meat, potatoes, bread, and a vegetable. When referring to his assembly line cars, Henry Ford supposedly said that customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black. After Dad had one of our steers in the feedlot butchered, we could have any meat type we wanted as long as it had once “mooed.”
#2  The small-town grocers also had limited choices back then. The cereal aisle was not a kaleidoscope of colors and cartoon characters. “Do you want Cheerios or Wheaties?” Trix, Coco Puffs, and Count Chocula had yet to invade our rural backroads.
#3  Fruits and veggies were seasonal. I didn’t know what a papaya was until my wife and I went to California on our honeymoon. When our strawberry patch was ready, we had red-stained fingers for a month, and if you went to the work of digging carrots in the garden, you ate even the “ugly” ones. When we sat down in late summer, we could have any vegetable we wanted as long as it was sweet corn on the cob.
#4  There were no “sell by” or “use by” dates on items. Mom kept our fridge free of those fuzzy, green things that sometimes lurk in the back, and most folks just used the sniff test and a bit of common sense. At school, you could tell the milk was off if it came chunky style in the carton. Some of the kids figured the food was “World War II surplus,” but we were too busy yelling and acting like the Three Stooges to worry about food gremlins.
#5  Most families had a “clean your plate” policy. Some had the strict “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding” edict, while others used pathos with the line about starving kids in the world. One old farmer we heard of used to lick his plate clean, turn it over, and say that it was fine to leave there until the next meal.
#6  “Whole food” meant that most items were fully used. For example, the hog butchers claimed that “the only part of the pig not processed was the squeal.” If there were leftovers, we saved them to eat later (garden beans went noodle-like by the second day), or we had built-in disposal systems—hogs, dogs, and cats. As Dad says, “Our chickens would eat anything from orange peels to sawdust.”
I’m not convinced we were that much better at food use when I was a grade school kid in the late 50s. But things were certainly easier then. We didn’t have so many choices; we knew where our food came from and what it was; and we had less waste at the end of each meal. Even those peas my brothers and I flicked at each other when the folks weren’t looking served their purpose.
by dan gogerty (top pic from leanpath.com and bottom pic from Life mag. on pinterest.com)

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