Meet the MISFITs: Jonathan Bloom / by Ann Yang

Jonathan Bloom is an author and journalist who has been working to tackle wasted food since his first experience volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen in 2005.  In 2010, Jonathan wrote American Wasteland, a captivating account of how food ends up in landfills from farm-to-fork.  This week, Jonathan shares with us why food waste is his muse, writing his medium, and students his joy.

You have been researching food waste since 2005. In the past few years food waste has become an extremely popular topic in the media. Could you describe how you first became interested in food waste? What made you decide to write about it?

I grew up in a household where everyone really loved food, and we tended to organize our days around it. The way that we spent time together was over the dinner table, the lunch table, the midnight snack table—I think you get the idea. And the same held true for visits to my extended family. A love of food and appreciation for it was really inculcated in me from an early age. 

When I started working as a journalist, I was naturally drawn to food stories, but more from a culinary angle. I didn’t really come to the topic of wasted food until 2005 when I had this really serendipitous experience at a place called D.C. Central Kitchen.  I was interning at a news organization in Washington, and they brought all of the us to DCCK for a volunteer day.   I was astounded by all of the wonderful food that they had recovered that otherwise would have been thrown out. It really made me take a step back and start to consider why this food had been forsaken and how much food was not being used in places that didn’t have that kind of food recovery operation.  That really sent me down this path of researching and writing about food waste that I’m still on today. Because once you start thinking about food waste, you see it everywhere you go, and once you see food being wasted it’s impossible to stop thinking about it, or stop considering potential solutions.

"Once you start thinking about food waste, you see it everywhere you go, and once you see food being wasted it’s impossible to stop thinking about it, or stop considering potential solutions."

Can you tell us more about what captivated you when you first volunteered there?  What was it about that first experience at DCCK that pushed you to work on this issue?

What really captured my attention at DCCK was both the quantity and the quality of the food.  I just remember being shocked by how they could feed so many people just from rescued food that otherwise would have been thrown away. I also remember seeing a huge rack of lamp chops being prepared and thinking as a twenty-something, ‘that’s a food that I really can’t afford.’ That we have a food system that is swimming in delicacies like lamb, shrimp and lobster. Seeing that kind of delicious abundance put to use was such an uplifting experience. Kudos to Robert Egger, Mike Curtin and all the dedicated folks for creating and running such an inspiring operation.

At the same time, it provided a window into the underbelly of our wasteful food system. And when I was in Washington, you didn’t have to look far to see the impact of that system.

On a visceral level, it just feels wrong to see food being wasted while so many don’t get enough to eat. That juxtaposition of hunger and waste is incredibly problematic. It’s a complete paradox. That was the real genesis of my interest. The combination of loving food and being confused and disgusted about why we weren’t treating it more carefully. And when you factor in the number of hungry Americans--that really lit a fire under me.  I started researching the topic, wrote my master’s thesis on the subject, and kept going from there.

"On a visceral level, it just feels wrong to see food being wasted while so many don’t get enough to eat. That juxtaposition of hunger and waste is incredibly problematic. It’s a complete paradox."

You’ve written this wonderful book American Wasteland that came out in 2010.  Your book came out before food waste became more of a hot topic.  Why did you decide to write a book? What inspired you to write a book in the first place?

The book was an attempt to shed light on the massive problem of wasted food in America. I was seeking the best way to bring attention to the topic. If I were a filmmaker, I would have made a documentary. If I was in advertising, I would be working on the upcoming AdCouncil campaign now. But I’m a writer, so that was the medium I had at my disposal. Plus, I had always wanted to write a book, so that didn’t hurt either. 

But I did have the sense that, if done right, a book could really garner a bit of attention. Food waste was—and for the most part, is—this major issue hiding in plain sight.  Many people might have thought about wasted food or been aware of it on a subconscious level but not necessarily taken the time to consider the scale and implications of the problem.  So I thought, hey, a book could be part of that solution or at least part of starting a conversation.

Could you describe some of the main findings of your book? What did you find most surprising as you were doing the research for American Wasteland?

Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending here…Just kidding—it turns out America wastes a lot of food! The main finding is that we’re wasting food at every level from farm to fork. And then the book goes through the food chain and illuminates the causes and potential solutions at every level of the system. First of all, wasted food stems from our national abundance—producing twice the amount of food needed. Number two, food is still very inexpensive, which makes fewer people take notice when so much of that food is wasted. Thirdly, our stubborn insistence that food look perfect is another major cause of waste. All three of these root causes could easily be reversed if we really had the will to do so.

Before I wrote the book, what really astounded me was that no one seemed to notice this issue.  I would read articles about problems in the food system or current events in the food industry, and I kept waiting for the paragraph about this might lead to food being sent to the landfill or something like that, but it never seemed to come up. As I mentioned before, it really was a problem hiding in plain site. And when food companies and individuals did notice food waste, they dismissed it as a ‘cost of doing business.’ It seemed like a real no brainer—we should not be wasting 40% of our food supply, yet we we're doing just that.

Another real surprise from the book was that almost everyone has a visceral response to seeing food being wasted, yet only so many people are motivated to do anything about it.  Getting people, businesses and institutions to change behavior is so difficult. Inertia really is powerful. Maybe that shouldn’t have been terribly surprising…

More positively, the opposite holds true. Now that we have started that food waste awareness boulder rolling, who knows where it ends up. Because nobody likes to see food being wasted. There are no proponents of food waste.  There is no opposition to the argument that we should stop wasting so much food. Once the problem receives its due attention, I think we will dramatically minimize it in short time.

Winners of Nat Geo's #UglyFoodIsBeautiful Challenge and statistics from American Wasteland.

What do you make of the sudden upswing in public knowledge and discussion of food waste? Do you think apathy is changing at all, have attitudes shifted and if so is there any quantifiable evidence of that?  Do you think that will change given this rise in interest?

The increased discussion is fabulous. I think there’s more general awareness, but that isn’t necessarily carrying through to individual responsibility or shifting behavior. A survey released last summer by Johns Hopkins’ Roni Neff found that more of us are aware of waste, but most people think it’s those other people that are wasting so much food. There has been a slight improvement in composting, seen through the EPA municipal solid waste data, but it’s a drop in the bucket. Instead of 97% of our food waste going to landfill, it’s now more like 95%. 

We’re at the cusp of a real movement to reduce wasted food in America. And so we’re a tiny bit early in terms of seeing an overall decrease in food waste creation.  I would guess that in five years you’ll see a major impact on awareness and action on wasted food.  I do think apathy is the enemy now. But that apathy is now under attack and it’s just a matter of the follow through—follow through at all levels, within businesses, government, institutions, non-profits, and especially households.  That’s going to be the real indicator of when we’ve achieved something—when you start to see the average American paying as much attention to wasted food as they do to recycling. When folks notice what kinds of food they’re throwing out and adjust buying habits, when they think about how much they’re ordering at a restaurant and consistently take home leftovers and when composting becomes second nature.

"We’re at the cusp of a real movement to reduce wasted food in America. And so we’re a tiny bit early in terms of seeing an overall decrease in food waste creation.  I would guess that in five years you’ll see a major impact on awareness and action on wasted food.  I do think apathy is the enemy now. But that apathy is now under attack."

Why do you think that we’re at the cusp of this movement and wasted food really being tackled?  What do you think has led to this awareness and efforts to solve the issue through a variety of sectors and industries? 

First of all, this attention on food waste is awesome. But my first take is that it’s really kind of overdue, this interest.  But, better late than never! Next, I hope it’s not a fad. Food waste has become a tiny bit sexy, but the solutions will require behavior change and persistence, neither of which is all that sexy.

As to why we’re seeing this kind of attention, I think this groundswell of interest stems primarily from the fact that our food waste status quo makes no sense. So fixing it is total no-brainer. But a large amount of credit should go to the people, institutions and organizations who are tackling this issue every day, raising awareness by writing, speaking and, most importantly, doing

"Food waste has become a tiny bit sexy, but the solutions will require behavior change and persistence, neither of which is all that sexy."

At MISFIT we’re trying to solve this issue through a business model…What do the major changes need to be at a policy level to tackle food waste at scale?

We need to make it less palatable—harder, more expensive—to throw away food. The simple prescription I set out in my book is to ban food from landfills. I think that that one specific action would have a dramatic impact, a ripple effect, back through the food chain and would change how we approach food at all levels.  Right now, because food is fairly cheap when you look at percentage of our budget we spend on it, we’re not terribly careful with it. There is no real consequence to getting rid of food, to throwing it out. It just goes…away. If we couldn’t just take that simple step—if we had to reduce, reuse or recycle our food—we’d probably be more careful with it. And we’d definitely notice our excess more.

This kind of landfill ban is very achievable, as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont all have passed laws preventing some amount of food from being thrown away. As we’ve seen in these states, making it illegal to send food to the landfill also kickstart the composting and anaerobic digestion infrastructure. So in addition to prompting behavior change, it drives investment and job creation. Now I sound like I’m ready to run for office!  

A couple of other policy things—we need to figure out the date label conundrum. Government and industry need to sit down together and hash that out—that whole thing is a mess.  And we definitely need to tackle school food waste, especially in elementary schools.  Not only are we throwing away a decent amount of food and some of that at taxpayer expense through the National School Lunch Program, but we’re teaching kids that throwing away food is normal. We need to do the opposite. There are several policy solutions we can implement to achieve that and teach kids that wasting food isn’t cool.

I also tell people to ignore expiration dates. That’s a slide on my presentation.  I’ve been giving a lot of presentations at schools and college campuses. That’s the majority of what I’ve been doing for the last two years.  It kind of dovetails with what I was saying earlier.  The medium at my disposal for raising awareness was primarily writing.  So first I started blogging on Wasted Food and then the ultimate goal was to write a book, which elevated the discussion and got a lot of press, especially radio interviews.  That orational (and I use that word very loosely) practice and attention brought me to a place where I was sought out to give talks on food waste. And I found I really loved speaking to people about the topic! I love getting the chance to see people get jazzed about the topic and to hear their responses to the issue. That kind of interaction and dialogue is the best part of being a ‘food waste thought leader.’

Here at MISFIT, a really important part of our culture is thinking about creative processing helps us figure out this messy thing we call life.   With your identity as a writer, you really are an artist advocate.  How has writing affected your life?  Why are you passionate about it? How are the creative processes of writing you go through a mode of self-expression?

Yeah I’ve seen your label art, it’s really neat—I like how you’re creating beauty in many ways, the ugly fruit you’re making into lovely juice and the art on the labels, so kudos on that. 

Commence navel gazing: First of all, I’m much more passionate about the issue of wasted food than I am about writing. Second, I consider myself a journalist more than a writer. And I don’t think of journalists as artists; I think of them of as frustrated souls. Or perhaps super analytical people, but that is mostly the same thing. Did I mention introverted and curmudgeony??

OK, I’ll try to be a little more positive. I really like learning about new things and sharing them with others.  I also like food and I hate wasted food, so the confluence of those three is learning about innovations in the fight against food waste and sharing them with others and doing so by writing about them.  That kind of exercise is validating, and hopefully it brings some value to the world in the form of sharing those best practices for fighting a problem that I’d like to see greatly diminished.  What a terrible, writer-ly sentence! I’ll try to be a bit more plainspoken.

I do like sharing these ideas—via twitter, blog, articles, or lectures. And I hope that they are useful to people. There’s a contagiousness of action when it comes to fighting food waste. Once folks see and hear about their friends, family or neighbors, composting, for example, they’ll get on board. Once people see they are part of the food waste problem, they’ll find their own solutions. They’ll find what works for themselves.

And hopefully, my writing and speaking on the topic is or has been a part of that awakening process. It’s a process that individuals and institutions are going to have to undergo at some point as both food prices and agriculture’s environmental impact increase. I’m not a scientist, but the planet is not getting any bigger. Meanwhile, the global population is. Given those two facts, we’re going to have to tackle food waste sooner rather than later. Period.

a tune for you—about chicken stew

This song makes me smile. Not only was Rufus Thomas funky as all get out, but he proves to be a real leftover lover with his talk of making chicken stew!- J.B.