Notes from a Non-Parent 4 – Thanksgiving Edition

Skip the Excuses: If You Waste Food You’re an Asshole

Q: How many Americans can legitimately claim they’ve never been told not to waste food?   A: You don’t know any.

When I was a kid, being told I wouldn’t be excused from the table ‘til my plate was clean was a “cold rule.” Though sometimes lacking context, cold rules were made clear through enforcement, repetition, and amplification: “Don’t touch the stove,” for example, is an easy one. “Don’t insult the skeletal West African baby I want you to envision by leaving food on your plate” was a little harder to get behind. Yet some variation on the admonishment, “Do you know how many children are starving in this world?” was overheard in the home of every playmate and acquaintance I knew. We all sat there squirming until we resentfully swallowed enough disgusting and now-cold whatever-it-was to set us free.

So where does a child take these experiences? Out on the food, of course. I took them out on my mom’s quiche when I threw it away behind her back; I complained about runny eggs and mushy peas. I resented the crap out of spinach, liver, and broccoli and was spitefully jealous of Tommy Allison, whose parents allowed Wonderbread into their home. On the other hand, Stephen Goldman, who was forced to eat those hideous lumps of soaking wet Matzo, hated wet bread as much as I do. The fact is, though, every last one of our parents warned us not to waste food – and for good reason.

Today “the ‘clean your plate’ ethic has evolved into ‘eat what you like.’” cites the obesity epidemic, increased portions, and a diminished valuation of food as key to this disturbing cultural shift, but having just come from the mall where I lamented the stick-thin target market for menswear I’d add a national obsession with thinness as well.

Where will this lead and what can we do about it? Do we reengage the cycle of cold rules and imaginary starving baby friends from Uganda? Or is there another way of comprehending the scope of this problem?

For most of us, frames of reference have to be relevant to be meaningful. So discourse on the energy and resources used to produce the food that we Americans only wind up throwing away works best if its couched in terms like those used at “more energy is wasted in the perfectly edible food discarded by people in the U.S. each year than is extracted annually from the oil and gas reserves off the nation’s coastlines.” Righto. If that doesn’t set the context for food waste, especially given all the resources deployed to clean the 2010 Gulf BP spill, I don’t know what will. From processing, transportation, food sales, and storage, Americans use a lot of energy to create and cook food we don’t even eat.

Maggie Koerth-Baker recently reviewed studies claiming that Americans consume, on average, 3774 calories every single day. But she found that, according to environmental scientist Gidon Eshel, “we really only eat about 2800 calories per day. That whopping 3774 includes both what we eat—and what we waste.” That works out to about a pound of food every day for every American, says the New York Times.

If coercing your children into cutting waste by imagining starving babies makes sense to you, do it. It’s lazy, but you’re probably parentally lazy elsewhere, too, so don’t sweat it. Just remember that you may be doing little more than perpetuating a failed cycle, thereby squandering the lessons you (thought you) learned as a kid.

Instead, I present for your consideration Anti-Waste Campaign Version 2.0. Take advantage of the fact that everyone and their mother goes on and on these days about reducing energy consumption, conserving electricity, and taking “small, individual steps” to save the planet. Your children are gettin’ it at school anyway, as well as in the media and from gabby celebrity do-gooders. So let them do most of the work! All you have to do is start reinforcing the “don’t waste energy” schtick. Chances are your household budget already has you doing some of that, but now you can apply it to food as well. It’s simple. And if you prefer a nationalistic bent for authenticity, just implore your kids not to contribute to America’s looking like a giant food court full of grunting, careless hogs. The point is, starting by promoting energy efficiency is less demanding than beginning food-centric conversations because your children are already learning the language.

I’m not suggesting that using poverty-stricken countries and starving babies isn’t effective –those are cherished memories of childhood family dinners. But rote methods and cold rules are no longer enough. And no matter what it takes to stem this giant tide of excess, we really have no excuse not to start living differently. Let’s all stop acting like no one ever told us not to throw food away.