Berlin is a terrific city out of which now comes an important trend: wiser use of food. For example, through a network of food-sharing centers, Berliners can now give leftover food to others who can use it as well as receive food that others donate. It’s all free. Thousands of people in Berlin and other German cities are becoming volunteer “food savers” who regularly go to stores, restaurants and other locations to collect and help put to good use tons of food that otherwise would be thrown away.
There’s more. If you are a Berliner interested in visiting nearby farms to gather (at the cost of only your labor) food that otherwise would rot in the fields, there are websites to help you. If you think that imperfectly shaped apples for free are better than perfectly shaped apples with price tags, Berlin is the city for you. The main goal in all of these activities is to promote health and thriving by reducing the amount of wasted food. This trend is visible in numerous cities in the world, including in the U.S., but Berlin seems to be leading the way.
The need is enormous. Studies suggest that at least 30-40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted. The waste occurs at every level, from farm to fork to landfill. Americans likely waste about 50 percent more food per capita than we did in the 1970s, and food waste now costs our economy an estimated $165 billion per year. The environmental damages stemming from this much wasted food are significant, including freshwater loss, unnecessary use of chemicals, land and energy and climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions from food rotting in landfills.
Finally, this degree of societal indifference regarding the stewardship of food almost certainly contributes to a range of social problems, starting with a food system in which some Americans don’t have enough food and many others have too much food that’s unhealthy. Food, like love, is a human fundamental. We likely risk something important — something large and perhaps ultimately spiritual — when we act as if wasting it is not a problem.
There are arguments for waste, of course. Waste often requires less immediate effort than thrift. Particularly for Americans, living as we do in a young country blessed with astonishing natural abundance, wastefulness has often seemed worth the bargain. In earlier generations it was often said, and not only by the French, that a French housewife could feed her family for a week with the food that an American housewife threw out in a day. When Edward Bok, as a young boy from the Netherlands, first arrived in America in the 1870s, what shocked him most was learning that America was “a land of waste”: “The butcher’s waste filled my mother’s soul with dismay. … There was literally nothing in American life to teach me thrift or economy; everything to teach me to spend and to waste.”
Today, teachers report that in U.S. high school lunchrooms, some students after paying the cashier simply leave any returned coins on their trays, so that the money can be easily tossed into the trash afterward along with debris and uneaten food. In a land of plenty, the stewardship of small amounts — arguably the essence of the ethic of wise use — can seem trivial and restrictive.
Waste can also be an assertion of status. Waste says, “I am big, I have plenty!” Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe in part this phenomenon. Anthropologists report that many societies develop celebrations (such as the “potlatch”) in which leaders compete with one another in part to see who can destroy the most wealth, by burning it or throwing it into the water. Whoever wastes the most is the biggest man. Similarly, waste and tolerating waste can be ways of asserting dominion. Waste says, “I control this sphere, it’s mine!”
On the other hand, there’s my parents, now retired and living in Madison, Mississippi. Most of their vegetables come from their garden. Most of their meat and fish my father gathers as a hunter and fisherman. Paying full price at the supermarket is something they’d hardly consider — they regularly bring home large quantities of slightly misshapen produce or slightly out-of-date milk, most of which is free or nearly free, and much of which they share (along with their garden bounty) with a circle of friends and people in need. The grocers are happy to work with them. They’ve canned, preserved and frozen enough food to last several winters. They regularly “eat down” their refrigerator, treating leftovers as a treat and a privilege. What little food waste comes from their kitchen is composted and returned to the garden.
Just like they’re doing in Berlin, with a Southern accent.
David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.