You Gonna Eat That?

Ahhh, the all-American, all-you-can-eat buffet. Nowhere else do we revel in our own waste with such joy. Overstuffed but determined to sample the cornucopia of desserts, I waited behind a woman at one last weekend. She was scrupulously carving "just a sliver" (as my grandma used to say) from a hefty wedge of chocolate cake. “Take the whole slice and leave the rest on your plate like everyone else,” commented a man nearby. Well, it would make the line move faster, I thought.

Though our capacity to toss away mountains of food is laid bare at the buffet, usually it manifests itself more incrementally--an untouched side of broccoli here, a few spoiled bits there. But all that gets scraped into the trash adds up: half of all food produced worldwide is wasted, according to a policy brief released last Thursday during World Water Week. In the U.S. alone, the 30 percent of food that’s thrown away also squanders the 40 trillion liters of water used to produce it, reported the Environmental News Service. That’s enough to nearly meet the household needs of North America's entire population.

Even in the face of rising grain prices, severe droughts, and global food scarcity, no one seems too upset at this egregious wastefulness. In poorer nations with less efficient food production and distribution, many crops don’t ever even reach the consumer. But in developed nations it’s those groceries that spoil in the fridge--after they’ve been watered, harvested, processed, packaged, shipped and refrigerated--that matter most. Oh yes: then they’re off to a landfill, where their decomposition generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Reading this statistic, I tried to envision a less wasteful buffet before quickly realizing that these words are an oxymoron. The whole appeal of those bountiful serving trays is the impossible task of sampling all their variety. I realized that it’s the culture of the buffet—one that demands this variety and plenty at all times—that underlies the waste we produce. This way of life extends far beyond the dessert table, into supermarkets, restaurant kitchens and our own refrigerators.

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