• Jonathan Bloom writes about why we waste food, why it matters and what we can do about it. This is his blog.

Researching the Remains: A Leftovers Q&A with Food Historian Helen Veit

Last month, Michigan State University history professor, Helen Veit, wrote a killer piece for The Atlantic on leftovers. While its title—“An Economic History of Leftovers”—won’t send pulses racing, its contents will. In fact, the piece should be required reading for anyone with a refrigerator. Yes, that means you. As a Tupperware-toting leftover lover, I just had to hear more about the process of researching and writing about this oh-so-polarizing topic. And with Thanksgiving’s surfeit of surplus nearly upon us, what better time to ponder leftovers than now?

Jonathan Bloom (JB): You’ve mentioned that researching leftovers was not terribly easy- why was that?

image courtesy of Helen VeitHelen Veit (HV): Researching the history of leftovers was challenging for a couple of reasons. In the nineteenth century, people didn’t use the word “leftovers” or any other consistent term to describe food left behind from one meal to the next. People then dealt with leftovers all the time – constantly, in fact – but I had to do a lot of reading and skimming in early cookbooks to get a sense of people’s different strategies for using up leftover food. Even once the term “leftovers” was coined around the turn of the twentieth century, discussions of them appeared all over the place, not just in cookbooks or articles focused on leftovers exclusively. So I had to hunt for them.

JB: The advent of home iceboxes and, later, electric refrigerators brought revolutionary changes for leftovers. How did they alter our approach to leftovers in mindset and practice?

HV: Refrigeration transformed the way people approached leftovers. Cold storage let people preserve the same foods for days on end, even highly perishable foods like dairy, eggs, or meat. This meant that the identical meal could appear on tables over and over, making it more obvious to people that they were eating leftovers (instead of, say, having a stew incorporating scraps from yesterday’s dinner). Iceboxes and refrigerators relieved the pressure of having to use up foods immediately, but in turn this meant that a forgotten container of leftovers might languish in the back of the refrigerator for weeks. Another big result of home refrigeration was that within a single generation, American cooks stopped using a whole repertoire of home-preservation techniques like salting, smoking, drying, and pickling.

JB: Could it be that at some point, leftovers were actually…cool? When was that and what prompted that status?

HV: Working with leftovers – especially coming up with novel ways to repackage them, such as transforming them into an altogether new dish – was pretty fashionable for middle-class cooks in the middle of the twentieth century, roughly from the 1930s through the 1950s. Making leftovers appealing (and even fooling reluctant family members into eating them, if necessary) was a way for home cooks to show off their kitchen chops, their creativity, and their good domestic management skills.

JB: From what you discovered, what one person was the most significant proponent of leftovers?

HV: A lot of cookbook writers were singing the praises of leftovers in the mid-twentieth century, but one who sang louder than others was a cookbook author named Ruth Berolzheimer. Not too many people know about her today, but she was enormously popular in the mid-twentieth century. She was so popular, in fact, that she is still one of the bestselling cookbook authors in American history. Berolzheimer loved leftovers. She wrote at least one cookbook devoted exclusively to them – 500 Delicious Dishes from Leftovers, published in 1940 – and leftovers show up all the time in her more general cookbooks, too. She was an apostle of the idea that leftovers could be glamorous and cool, and that using up leftovers was a testing ground for cooks’ ingenuity.

JB: What’s one thing you enjoyed about researching leftovers and one that you didn’t?

HV: This project was really fun, and I can’t think of a low point. I can easily think of a high point, though: my favorite single moment was when I got to look through every single edition of The Joy of Cooking in the great culinary collection at Michigan State University.

JB: As a food historian, how do you assess public opinion on a certain topic, in this case, leftovers?

HV: Assessing public opinion – what regular people thought about any topic – is one of the trickiest things for historians to figure out, since most people historically did not leave written records about their thoughts on food or anything else. In this case, I did a lot of reading in newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, radio transcripts, home economics texts, and reports from government field workers. I also did some reading between the lines. For example, when I noted that in the 1960s people in large numbers started making jokes about the dreariness of leftovers and cookbook authors started feeling that they had to urge readers not to disdain leftovers, that was a sign to me that public opinion about leftovers was shifting.

JB: Are you a leftover lover? If so, what are your go-to moves? If not, what’s wrong with you?!? (kidding)

HV: As you guessed, I hate wasting food and I do my best to use up leftovers before launching into new cooking projects. My go-to move is lunch. Any leftovers from dinner get parceled out into lunchboxes, which usually makes for a healthier and cheaper meal than you’d get by eating out or turning to convenience foods, anyway. If I just have leftover odds and ends, I try to incorporate them in something like a soup or a stir-fry. This being said, however, I don’t mess around with food safety, and if a container of leftovers got overlooked for more than a few days, it goes into the compost.

JB: Your next book, Small Appetites, will be about how American children have become increasingly picky eaters. In your research, have you uncovered any guesses on how much pickier today’s children are and, thus, how much plate waste has increased in the last 50 or 100 years? And have you seen anything about decreased tolerance for leftovers amongst kids?

HV: Absolutely. Chronic pickiness was rare among children a hundred years ago and before. Obviously, that’s changed. Today, a child turning up his or her nose at a plate of food is a regular occurrence in many families, and that rejected food often gets thrown away. One thing that’s changed over the last hundred years is that food has become ever cheaper and more widely available for Americans, and tolerance of both plate waste and picky eating have increased as a result, for both children and adults. The idea that children don’t like leftovers has also been around for a while. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, a powerful stereotype emerged about husbands and children not liking the leftovers that overeager wives and mothers were foisting upon them.

November 22, 2015 | Posted in History and Culture, Leftovers | Comments closed

Visualizing Global Food Waste XXVI

I do love a good infographic…Feast your eyes on these informative graphics, courtesy of these committed Australian restaurateurs.

As you can see, those are some tall, tall waste bins in the Food Losses and Waste Per Capita graph! They represent the poor infrastructure (poor storage, technology, and roads, etc.) throughout much of the developing world that dooms so much food to be lost in places where it is most needed, sadly.

November 9, 2015 | Posted in Infographic, Institutional | Comments closed

Imperfect Implications

We all love the fun pictures of produce oddities, epitomized by the  @UglyFruitandVeg feed and sold in the East Bay by Imperfect.  Yet, a new study from Minnesota raises some interesting questions on how increased adoption of  “off-spec” fruits and vegetables might impact farmers’ bottom lines.

On the plus side, new markets for produce with slightly subpar size, shape or coloring could mean new revenue streams. Then again, it could also hurt prices growers receive for their ‘perfect’ items, the so-called #1 produce.

That conundrum is reflected in the (sub)title of the research project, Beyond Beauty:   Opportunities and Challenges of Cosmetically Imperfect Produce. This research, undertaken primarily by JoAnne Berkenkamp for Tomorrow’s Table took two forms—a survey of 138 Minnesota farmers and one-on-one interviews with many of those growers. Berkenkamp then distilled findings from both into a presentation (view slides only here).

Market cannibalization is the key issue illuminated in this study. The real question: can the produce market absorb more product without pushing prices down? At the same time, there are other unknowns. Would increased acceptance of imperfects create markets for local growers to reach consumers with smaller budgets? Would less stringent cosmetic standards from retailers mean less pressure on growers to overproduce—to ensure enough ‘supermodel’ fruits and vegetables—and potentially lower input costs, financially and environmentally.

Berkenkamp noted (by e-mail) that this research complicates what had previously been a straightforward progression—the more uglies sold the better. The study highlights the need for further research by ag economists on the impact of expanded sales of imperfect produce and more thought on how we proceed in marketing those foods.

Some of the study’s other notable findings include:

  • An estimated 75 percent of Minnesota’s imperfect produce is plowed under, composted or fed to animals.
  • Growers are quite interested in selling more cosmetically-challenged product—82 percent of those surveyed were moderately or very interested.
  • One tomato farmer said that about 60 percent of her tomato crop used to be cosmetically imperfect, which prompted a shift to indoor growing.
  • The most commonly stated barrier to marketing imperfects is…a lack of an attractive market. Cost of labor, lack of available labor and being too busy around harvest time are other leading barriers.
  • Crops with the best prospects for expanded sale of imperfects are tomatoes, cukes, apples, zucchini, squash, watermelon, potatoes, cauliflower, pie pumpkins, and peppers.

Finally, Berkenkamp stressed that the findings are specific to Minnesota. While there parallels to be drawn to other states, all farming circumstances and cultures are somewhat unique. Just like every piece of produce.

November 6, 2015 | Posted in Farm, General, Stats | Comments closed

You Gonna Eat That Crust?

Our long, national, nightmare-ish data gap on food waste is finally over.

For pizza, at least. A recent survey by Pizza Inn found that 73 percent of Americans eat their pizza crust. Put another way, 27 percent waste their crusts.

Or do they??

In another finding, roughly a quarter of Americans (24%) say that they’ve asked for someone else’s pizza crust. And that doesn’t include those too shy to admit so in a survey. Meanwhile, “19 percent of people have gone as far as stealing someone’s crust off their plate!” Right off their plate! Quite the crust caper.

Despite the possibility that Pizza Inn’s funding may have biased the findings, the survey provides quantitative backing and inspiration for leftover lovers nationwide. It also suggests, apparently, an oh-so-American solution for reducing crust disdain:

More than half (55%) of those who don’t always eat the crust say they would be motivated to eat it if it were stuffed with cheese.

There are few problems that ‘add more cheese’ doesn’t solve. But in better news, 54 percent of Americans consider pizza the best leftovers. In your face, Chinese food!

Finally, parents who always eat their crust are more likely than those who don’t to say that their child always eats the crust. But anyone who has been to a kids’ birthday party knows that most of them are lying.

October 6, 2015 | Posted in Leftovers, Restaurant | Comments closed

Something To Shoot For: US Sets Food Waste Reduction Goal

Today, the USDA and EPA joined forces with charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, food companies and local governments to set the first ever national food waste reduction goal. For sure, it’s a happy day in the land of wasted food. Yet my initial elation is now tempered with a few reservations.

The Great: It’s a whopper! The goal is a 50 percent reduction of wasted food by 2030. I remember when it was thrilling to have the Secretary of Ag merely mention food waste. Now he’s setting an ambitious reduction goal!

The Bad: There are no real plans or penalties. Accordingly, this goal will succeed or fail based on whether or not the food industry opts in. Draw your own conclusions there, but know that said industry is quite attuned to consumer demand. So make your opinions known early and often!

The Ugly? The timing of the announcement feels a little fishy. In a week, world leaders will descend on the UN General Assembly in New York to finalize the Sustainable Development Goals, a fact mentioned in the first paragraph(!) of the USDA press release. Obama Administration representatives can now trumpet its commitment to reducing food waste without having made any real commitments.

To sum up my thoughts on today’s mostly very happy day, here’s my quick #HaikuHotTake:™

Broad coalition

A noble, ambitious goal

But where are the teeth?

[Editor's Note: I changed 'Good' to 'Great' to properly reflect the scale of the announcement.]

September 16, 2015 | Posted in Campaigns, Stats | Comments closed

Q&A: Scanning Away Food Waste?

Chances are you encounter radio frequency identification (RFID) technology quite often. You’re doing so when you use a proximity card at work or a hotel, track a package, check out library books, or become a scannable human. Within the food industry, RFID tags track food shipments’ progress at the pallet and truck level.

The global packaging company Avery Dennison is now working to bring that technology to supermarket shelves. Avery Dennison recently claimed that RFID tags could minimize retail food waste by 20 percent, which would yield savings of US$22 billion globally. James Stafford, Global Head of RFID Development, answered some questions on a technology that may just become embedded in your life in the near future.

Jonathan Bloom (JB): You’re now testing RFID technology with food retailers. What insights have you gleaned from the real world application of the technology? Any surprises thus far?

James Stafford (JS): Our key insight is that with fast-moving short life foods, there is very little opportunity to check the accuracy of deliveries and consistency of sell-by dates throughout the chain. RFID offers the opportunity to get accurate information at very fast read rates.

JB: Avery Dennison has claimed that RFID tags can reduce food waste by 20 percent. In plain language, how can tags achieve that reduction and what is behind that estimate?

JS: RFID gives retailers the opportunity to check that they have the right products, the right quantities and most importantly, the right dates, at every stage of the chain, at minimum labor costs. This visibility of accurate data will enable better management of the process and avoids products ending up as expensive waste, which can often be as high as 10 percent of the sales value of the turnover at a retail location.

Early stage adopters will likely be retailers managing high volumes of refrigerated, perishable, short shelf life foods. These retailers have the constant challenge of managing availability of fresh products for their customers, while avoiding excessive quantities of products going past their sell-by date and ending up as waste.

This challenge is compounded by multiple deliveries all with different dates that need to be accurately date-rotated in distribution centers and in-store. At the moment, retailers have few tools to help with this process, and have to rely on visual inspection and the workforce. This inevitably means that a compromise has to be made between levels of checking and labor costs in a high-volume area.

We believe that with greater visibility of potential waste situations through RFID scanning, promotional action can be taken to ensure food is sold to consumers rather than ending up as waste. If we couple this with process and control improvements as a result of identifying errors in picking, distribution, stock rotation, and expected shelf life, we consider that about a 20 percent reduction in overall food waste is a realistic target.

JB: At present, food-borne illness recalls prompt vast amounts of healthy food to be discarded. How useful would RFID tracking be when it comes to avoiding unnecessary waste here? And are those potential savings included in the 20 percent or would they be additional?

JS: We have insufficient information to comment on this area, but any potential savings would be in addition to the 20 percent mentioned above.

JB: Cost has long been the main barrier for RFID adoption in the low-margin supermarket industry. What is the per-unit cost now and what price point would you need to reach to realize widespread adoption?  Do you have any way to compare the per-unit price to the savings from avoided food waste?

JS: Unfortunately, we do not disclose pricing. We recognize that foods are extremely price sensitive, and understand that RFID deployment decisions will always be made as a result of a strong business case that provides a sound ROI (return on investment). However, food waste has a significant impact on food margins, and its potential reduction through RFID creates an opportunity to offset costs through margin improvement.

JB: Testing thus far has focused on the more expensive items like meats and seafood. Can you imagine a day when RFID tags would be used with all food products or would it ultimately be at pallet or carton level with some food items?

JS: We think the major interest in the near term will be on short-shelf-life foods. More expensive items will justify the cost of item level tagging, but cheaper items such as dairy and produce also need an RFID solution that delivers visibility throughout the chain. Certain retailers in Europe are already tagging returnable transit trays or totes, and we are currently involved in pilots that involve tagging of returnable trays and disposable cartons.

While this does not offer quite the granularity of data provided by item-level tagging, it is a viable intermediate step, which also offers further benefits of enhancing productivity in the distribution chain by speeding up receipt and dispatch processes.

JB: RFID-tagged grocery products will have other benefits, too, right? Could they help consumers trace the origin of food items?

JS: At the moment, consumers don’t have the technology in their phones to read the information on the type of RFID tags used, but of course, this could change in the future. RFID tagging offers the opportunity to trace products from farm to fork. From the individual animal, or fishing boat or fruit orchard right through to the consumer packaging.  How much of that information is useful to consumers, or conversely a distraction, remains to be seen, but the potential is there.

JB: If RFID tags are adopted widely, will grocery aisles become radio wave gauntlets?

JS: People’s exposure to radio waves is strictly controlled by government regulations in all parts of the world, and the RFID industry operates safely within these regulations. It is worth pointing out that the RFID tags used on consumer items are completely passive, contain no batteries, and emit no radio waves themselves, until exposed to radio waves from an RFID reader. Only when exposed to such a reader are they able to transmit a small part of the energy received as a weak radio transmission and only for a very short period of time.

JB: Are there previous supermarket advances to which you’d compare RFID tags? And where in the process of adoption are we?

JS: The obvious answer is the barcode, which started in the USA in 1974 and reached the UK in 1978. However, widespread adoption took another 15 years, and there were many people at that time that doubted that the technology would catch on in retail. Reliable equipment had to be developed and coding standards universally agreed.

Today RFID is in a similar position to early barcodes, but with the advantage that the technology is reliable, standards established, and prices for equipment and tags have fallen. The unique information within an RFID tag, which is far more detailed than the data contained in a barcode, will create new opportunities to improve inventory productivity, margins, store operations execution, and the overall customer experience. The old compromise between speed and accuracy disappears. Now retailers can get real-time information on inventory at a speed that was impossible in the past. We believe this will create a paradigm shift in the management of fast-moving consumer goods, such as foods.

JB: When might the first RFID tags hit grocery stores in the US?

JS: Hopefully you won’t have to wait too long! We expect to see some RFID pilots in the U.S. in the first half of 2016. And I would expect this to be happening at least at carton or distribution unit level by 2017.

September 15, 2015 | Posted in Q & A, Supermarket, Technology | Comments closed

John Oliver Hates Food Waste (and Chard)

Sunday night, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled food waste. For fans of the comedian and the show, that is a wonderful thing. For first-timers, know that there is plenty of explicit language.

Last Week Tonight sure does a nice job of tricking us into learning. Their treatment of food waste did not disappoint. What began with an indictment of America’s predilection for all-you-can-eat everything transitioned into a full examination of the absurdity of wasting 40 percent of our food supply in the face of 50 million food-insecure Americans. 

I was heartened that the story included the environmental impact of food waste, including methane (that’s my voice in the clip). Same goes for their mention of the water squandered to create food not used, especially in light of  the ongoing drought.

Meanwhile, I’m glad that Oliver illustrated the hollowness of date labels (as things that look official but can be ignored, like a kid playing dress up in a cop outfit). And I loved that he debunked the myth that food donors can be sued when people get sick, exposing it as a false fear (like the swimming cramp after eating).

The piece gave some well-needed publicity to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Oliver voicing the main provision of that law was both a national service and a personal thrill. Meanwhile, Oliver exposed how the Senate hindered future food donations by turning the America Gives More Act (HR 644) into a zombie bill, nixing permanent tax incentives to small businesses and farms who donate food.

A few phrases really went down smoothly: “Farm to Not-a-Table,” “Wining and Dining raccoons,” and “produce body shaming,” (which reminds me of my attempt to promote wider acceptability with #realfoodhascurves). I also liked how Oliver dismissed the lawsuit myth by mocking the idea of ‘all those high-powered lawyers representing the hungry.’

The only thing missing was a call to action, as the show’s main stories often include. But as one of the show’s researchers told me, simply shedding light on food waste and its triple costs (ethical, economic, and environmental) will likely prompt many viewers to examine their own habits. Or at least never eat at Carl’s Jr./Hardees again. Maybe even both!

One statistical note: The finding that the US fills 730 stadiums with food waste annually stems from my finding on the daily filling of the Rose Bowl. It’s basically that we fill the Rose Bowl two times every day. When I was doing my original research in 2009, I found that we almost filled that stadium twice every day. It was about 197 percent per day, so I said we filled the Rose Bowl once a day to give a conservative estimate. In the intervening years, the growing population and steady waste rates combine to make that two times per day estimate solid.

July 21, 2015 | Posted in General | Comments closed

Letter Rip!

Now that the summer produce season is in full swing…

We  really need your help in creating an alphabet out of fruit and vegetables. Just to give you a sense, here are some previous examples. Once we get all the letters, we’ll create an awesome alphabet poster.

So please tweet your letter-like garden and market oddities to @WastedFood and @PDXFoodRecovery with the hashtag #alphabetproduce. Send whatever you come across, but you’ll be our hero if you find a fruit or vegetable that resembles an H or X!

July 20, 2015 | Posted in Alphabet Produce | Comments closed

Watching the 5,000

Carolina Dining Services recently published this recap of their fabulous Feeding the 5,000 event at UNC. Have a look–it’s four minutes well spent. Experience the day and all the work that went into it.

June 24, 2015 | Posted in College, Institutional, Repurposing | Comments closed

Survey Says…

There has been plenty of attention on wasted food in America recently, but very few assessments of how Americans feel about the topic. That changed yesterday with the publishing of the first national consumer survey on wasted food in the US.

There’s an abundance of findings to be gleaned from the Johns Hopkins report, which surveyed 1,000-people. Let’s start with the good news: Americans have a decent sense that we waste a whole lot of food. A sizable portion (45 percent) of respondents knew that 40 percent of American food is wasted.

Even better, participants are keen to do something about the problem, said study leader Roni Neff, PhD. “Americans are ready to address wasted food. They are relatively aware, concerned, and want to do more,” Neff said. “43 percent said it would be easy to reduce the amount of food their household wastes. So we have a real opportunity to build on that interest.”

It’s worth noting, though, that such survey talk is cheap (and prone to exaggeration). Anyone can underestimate their wasteful habits or pledge change to minimize wasted food. The report did not seek to correlate words and deeds.

While Americans are aware of food waste in general, they don’t think they are particularly wasteful. A hefty 73 percent of respondents felt that they waste less than the average American. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure that’s not statistically possible.

When it comes to motivations for reducing food waste “saving money” and “setting an example for children” were the two leading factors. Much less of a motivator: “greenhouse gases, energy, and water,” which came in dead last, after choices like “managing household efficiently” and “guilt about waste in general.” As Neff noted, we now know that the environmental impact of food waste is a weak spot in public awareness.

The survey also asked what changes supermarkets and restaurants could make to help them minimize wasted waste (Listen up, Food Waste Reduction Alliance). Packaging topped respondents’ minds, with “more resealable packages” and “more variety in product sizes” the top two responses for retailers. As for helpful restaurant changes, the runaway winners were “offer half portions” (paging Dr. Halfsies) and “routinely offer containers for leftovers.”

One somewhat disturbing finding was that composting can undercut the food waste reduction. Of respondents who compost, 41 percent said wasting food doesn’t bother them because they compost. Here’s proof that composting can be a hindrance to reducing wasted food, a widely accepted higher priority.  “I expected this to be an issue but did not expect this magnitude of a response,” Neff said. “This finding has real implications for composting programs and how they communicate with participants.”

But let’s close on a positive note: when it comes to food waste, we’re all in this together. Neff’s research found that attitudes and stated behavior around wasted food remained steady across gender, race, generation, income and educational lines. So in effect, we’re one nation, indivisible, with food waste progress needed for all.

June 11, 2015 | Posted in Composting, Household, Restaurant, Stats, Supermarket | Comments closed
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