It’s never been easy reading the news, but in the opening years of the 21st century it sings a particularly grim and relentless tune: water, air and soil caked with human grime. Too much of this, not enough of that, we cannot continue.
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This time, the headline comes from Mother Jones, and it summarizes a British study that found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that our global food system is a black hole of waste: sucking water, sucking energy to produce calories and nutrients that, in enormous volume, go down the drain. The good news, the report mused, is that if we can solve the wastage, we can perhaps even double our food production on existing resources.
There’s bad news too, though. New verse, same as the old: “This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands,” the Institution of Mechanical Engineers wrote in the report.
And the urgency of this, as global population grows. If the big picture is written in millions of tonnes and billions of liters, and managing those figures, the small picture is as blunt as this: “A human being,” Orwell once wrote, “is primarily a bag for putting food into; the other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards.”
It’s not an elegant description, though undeniably correct: what we eat is the foundation on which all else rests. And yet, in the richer countries of the world, we too often treat our food with the same casual disdain as a gum wrapper, or a soggy newspaper: we waste, we guzzle. We take a thing that took incredible resources to create, and then shrug and throw it away.
My first thought is to wonder how we can so disrespect our food. My second is to remember: I used to disrespect it, too.
For most of my life, I had a terrible relationship with food.
This is not to say that I had a bad relationship with eating: on that end, I was just fine. I ate, easily and often. I ate whenever I was hungry. I ate without thinking, without ever once debating, unless the debate was whether to get an extra soup, or fries.
Because I’ve always been very thin, I never had to endure the negative public judgment on my eating that people with other body shapes endure: if anything, I was encouraged to consume with something like abandon. “Oh, you look like you could use it,” someone well-intentioned would say.
As if a double-bacon cheeseburger is something anyone ever really needs, anyway. But there, exactly, is the crux of the problem.
Like most people in Canada — or rather, like most who didn’t grow up in poverty — I grew up in a time of plenty. We never had to feel the stress of scarcity: after soccer practice, a pile of deep-fried matter from McDonalds. For movie night, a couple of pizzas with extra cheese. For a trip to the supermarket, a cart piled high with packaged meals and cans of Coke, boxed pastas, a big bag of fruit, cookies, marshmallow cereal, stuff that comes in brightly-coloured bags.
We are lucky people to have had all that. But we are not lucky for what we did, and didn’t, learn.
Like an increasing number of people of my generation, I never learned to cook. Dinner at home was a dance of packaging and microwaves, or maybe a smear of Skippy peanut butter; dinner out was a burger in the car, shoved in my face on the way from here to there. It wasn’t healthy but it tasted good, it filled an immediate need before being forgotten.
This is what I mean when I say I had a bad relationship with food: it was never a thing of value. It was a cheap and constant feature of life, piled on me from every corner. I consumed it thoughtlessly, with a casual disdain. And every couple of weeks, I’d go through my fridge and toss the leftovers I didn’t care enough about to save.
As much as 40 per cent of the calories in Canada’s food system wind up this way.
The disrespect so many of us have learned to have for food isn’t just unhealthy; it’s unsustainable. It rests on a system in which vast quantities of resources are invested to create something entirely disposable, and all environmental signs point to the idea that it cannot last.
But it can be undone. It was for me: one day, in a fit of pique over the critical unhealthiness of my diet, I signed up for Fresh Option.
Based in Winnipeg — but there are similar undertakings in cities across Canada — the set-up is very simple. Each week, the company delivers to me a Rubbermaid bin filled with fruits and veggies: almost always organic, very often local. The selection varies, and you can customize your order to exclude things you know you cannot eat.
My first bin terrified me: it seemed so little for $35, the fruits and vegetables so few. How was I to live on this?
To be sure, the small bin isn’t intended to be your full nutrition — you supplement it with other things. But faced with the conundrum of making the contents last, I started teaching myself to cook. It didn’t come naturally to me, and the more surprising (to my restaurant-raised eye) veggies often left me scrambling. Hey Google, “what is a leek?”
During one more embarrassing moment in those first Fresh Option weeks, I turned to Twitter to help identify a mystery vegetable. Turned out it was a beet.
Over a year later, and I’ve learned a lot of things. I can now make a wicked, hearty beet borscht almost in my sleep; my Ethiopian-inspired vegan cabbage and potato stew is not to be believed. So I’m eating better, mostly. Not as many chips, a whole lot more fruit. My body thanks me for it.
And along the way, a funny thing happened: I started to truly love my food.
For months, I’d arrange each week’s delivery of fruit carefully in the bin, and sit by the open fridge, admiring them. Three apples, a pound of bananas, a couple of oranges and a pear. Slightly bruised and undersized from the supermarket versions I was used to, but perfect in their way. I’d make careful notes about which one I planned to take to work, and when I finally bit into them they tasted like a summer day.
The idea of throwing them away suddenly felt like dying.
Look, we don’t often give much conscious thought to the things we hold in value: diamonds are expensive because they’re diamonds. A perfect dress is valuable because it fits so well on you. But as with all things, our sense of value starts with psychology. When things are expensive, our brains get drunk with pleasure; retailers have long known that if you arrange anything to look close enough to rare, people suddenly want to buy it.
For me, experiencing food as something not overly plentiful, but not close enough to scarce, taught my brain to see the value of it all.
I don’t waste near as many calories, now. I no longer mind paying more for fruit than I do for cheap packaged food: through Fresh Option, through returning to the roots of cooking and eating produce fresh from the farm, I learned to treat food as a precious resource.
This, then, must be part of the way forward on waste and food misuse: not just better agricultural technology and technique, but healthier attitudes too.