Cover of If you bought a big, delicious-looking organic apple at Whole Foods — and then felt guilty about the food waste when you discovered it shriveled up in the back of your refrigerator a month later — you probably didn’t feel guilty enough. Why? That apple isn’t simply one apple wasted; it represents the many apples discarded as a piece of fruit made its way into your local store.

That’s what I learned reading “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It),” a book by food waste expert Jonathan Bloom. Those who cringe at the sight of a half-eaten apple in the Dumpster will be near-traumatized by the amount of food waste documented in this book — because a scary amount food waste occurs at every level.

Take the apple, for instance. In the grove where that apple grew, many perfectly good apples likely went to waste, whether due to overpicky apple appearance standards that force pickers to leave fruits on the tree, lack of farmhands to help during harvest season, or simple economics that made the farmer decide the whole harvesting process would cost him more than the sale of the apples. 

That’s where the waste begins. When the apples are sorted, more get thrown out because they’re not the perfect size or look. During transport — and in the U.S., we’re talking a lot of un-eco transport across the country — more apples go bad. At every stop, more apples are rejected. Grocery stores turn entire apple shipments away for failing to meet beauty or freshness standards. Even after they make it to the store, perfectly good apples get thrown out as new shipments come in. And of course, apple buyers often don’t eat all the apples they bought — creating yet more apple waste.

Multiply that apple tragedy by the number of produce items we buy in stores — then multiply it further by all the pre-packaged items with their confusing sell by and enjoy by dates (stores often throw away perfectly good items simply because their dates have passed) and then add on the pre-made, buffet-type items that are thrown away at the end of the day, and you can see why so much of our perfectly good food ends up becoming waste.

The food waste worriers aren’t crying over spilled milk. The energy in the perfectly good food we throw away every year adds up to about 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the U.S., according to a study by the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. That means “more energy is wasted in the perfectly edible food discarded by people in the U.S. each year than is available in oil and gas reserves off the nation’s coastlines” according to New Scientist, which reported on the study. And let’s not forget all the methane gas created by food rotting in our landfills, many of which don’t have any controls to manage — much less use — the energy created by these pits of consumerism gone gassy.

All that sounds dire, and “American Wasteland” certainly has its depressing moments. Yet Bloom peppers his doom and gloom with a tasty dose of humor and a remarkable sense of optimism. Just as there are many ways food can be wasted, there are many fun ways to prevent food waste — like offering to gobble up strangers’ partially eaten lunches.

That’s what students at Reed College do. Apparently, that school has a “scroungers” tradition, where cash-poor or food waste-adverse students eat off the trays of already full classmates. Bloom, of course, joined the chewy fun:

After about 10 minutes of scrounging, it feels completely normal. It’s like asking your family member, “Are you gonna finish that?” — only with a family of, say, 1,500. I tried to wade in slowly, taking bites where nobody else had. Yet, nudged by others’ examples and my rumbling stomach, my inhibitions faded and I began eating like a veteran scrounger.
Bloom also works at a grocery store, volunteers at a food bank, and flips burgers at McDonald’s as part of his research for “American Wasteland” — and regales us with the stories of each job. He also pokes his head in everywhere — from a friend’s refrigerator to the U.K.’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to give us the full scope of the problem.

All the while, Bloom points to the strange contradictions of  our food and food waste. Why is it that so many Americans go hungry while so much food is wasted? Why is it that the kids at Quitman County Elementary School, a Mississippi public school in an impoverished neighborhood where virtually all students qualify for the free National School Lunch Program, still throw away most of their edible dining hall food as if it’s trash?

To all these problems, Bloom offers a cornucopia of solutions — from big ideas like having a national food-waste czar to small ones like taking home your restaurant leftovers. His suggestions are many and varied: Government can rethink its food subsidies and raise landfill prices, grocery stores can get involved with donation programs and mark down products close to their sell-by dates instead of throwing them away, schools can do everything from taking away food trays to holding recess before lunch to reduce food waste, while individuals can opt for smaller fridges, select funkily shaped produce just to show there’s a market for them, and learn to rely more on their five senses than the  sell-by dates to know when a food item should be thrown away.

My one quibble with Bloom’s recommendations has to do with restaurant leftovers, which he enthusiastically recommends taking home in a doggie bag. I’m less enthusiastic about this food packaging waste creating practice — especially if that packaging is made with Styrofoam or nonrecyclable, one-use materials. Of course, both Bloom and I recommend an even better solution — opting for restaurants with more reasonable portions and ordering less food. Luckily, some eco-minded restaurants have already adopted anti-waste practices — like serving fewer fries with the option for diners to ask for free seconds.

Reading “American Wasteland” was enough to make me redouble my commitment to get all my produce from the farmers market, where there are fewer stops between the farmer and the consumer (and thus fewer chances for food to get rejected and discarded) and less pickiness when it comes to the size and look of produce.

Read “American Wasteland” to get a good look at the food mess we’ve created — and what you can do to become part of the waste-less solution. “American Wasteland” is available in hardcover for $26, and Bloom  continues to blog about food waste at Wasted Food.

Also on MNN:

'American Wasteland': Why so much food becomes trash in America
Author Jonathan Bloom documents how America throws away nearly half of its food -- and provides ideas for wasting less and enjoying more.