Tar Heel: Jonathan Bloom wants you to save your leftovers

Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland”, photographed at his home in Durham, N.C. on Friday, November 20, 2015.
Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland”, photographed at his home in Durham, N.C. on Friday, November 20, 2015. rwillett@newsobserver.com

This week, America will enter its most gluttonous season, starting with the turkey-and-side stupor of Thanksgiving and continuing through the finger-food laden holiday parties and on to Christmas feasts and late-night New Year’s snacks.

Jonathan Bloom’s concern isn’t the quantity of food that will be consumed in the coming weeks. He worries about what’s left on the plate.

Bloom has spent the past decade chronicling and combating the problem of wasted food, parsing the causes and implications of a startling statistic: America throws away about 40 percent of its food supply.

His 2010 book “American Wasteland,” now in paperback, crystallized the problem of food waste, which has become more widely recognized since he started his research as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill. In September, federal agencies announced a goal to reduce food waste by half in the next 15 years, and the Environmental Protection Agency has compiled a hierarchy of strategies to combat the problem.

Bloom has continued to attack the problem as a speaker and consultant, discussing with everyone from schoolchildren to entrepreneurs to legislators everything from eating misshapen fruit to understanding “best by” dates to creating laws that discourage putting food in landfills.

“Jonathan is the original pioneer in the U.S. food waste movement,” says Dana Gunders, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has collaborated with Bloom on research projects. “His investigations sounded the alarm on what was previously an unknown and completely amorphous topic, and is now one of the primary concerns of our food system.”

Saving leftovers

Bloom grew up outside of Boston, and says he inherited his distaste for wasting food from his family. They didn’t lack food, but older relatives who had come to America from Eastern Europe brought with them an aversion to waste that crossed generations.

“We saved our leftovers,” he says. “The idea of not taking food home from a restaurant was preposterous.”

He earned an undergraduate degree in history, but after working briefly as a research analyst struck out on his own as a freelance writer. Based in Boston, he wrote articles for the Boston Globe and other publications on a number of topics, including food. He eventually ended up in the journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill, which led to an internship with Bloomberg News in Washington, D.C., and a volunteer day at the D.C. Central Kitchen that inspired his study of wasted food. There he saw the Kitchen redistributing food discarded by restaurants and stores to people who need it.

“Seeing the sheer quantity but also the quality of the food that otherwise might have been deemed trash prompted me to start asking questions,” Bloom says.

That initial research turned into his master’s thesis that discussed food loss at farms, stores, restaurants and homes. After graduation, he turned down a job with Bloomberg to expand his research into a book, even before he had a contract.

For a year, he plugged away at the topic on his own, creating a website, wastedfood.com, where he continues to post information and articles. He started getting media calls, and eventually a book deal. At the time, he says, he was practically the only one focusing on wasted food.

“It was this giant problem hiding in plain sight,” he says.

For the book, he worked at several places that gave him insight into the problem, including a caterer and a grocery store, where the first thing he was asked to do was throw away large boxes of lettuce whose “best by” date was the next day.

He said he found some resistance to discuss the topic. In the end, he learned to focus on solutions.

“You have to treat this with delicacy sometimes, but for the most part it’s just plain common sense,” Bloom says. “Let’s find a solution so that we’re not throwing away as much healthy, edible food.”

Working locally, nationally

Wasted food is not just an economic issue. It also affects the environment, because transporting food uses water and gasoline that is lost when the food is wasted. It is also an ethical issue in a society where some starve while others throw so much away.

Bloom approaches the topic from all these perspectives with a focus on the positive – teaching people to appreciate their food. Growing your own food in a home garden, or even just preparing food at home more often, for instance, brings you close to the process, and less likely to throw out what can still be eaten.

At the retail level, he’s helped push for programs that deliver unsellable but edible food to food pantries and soup kitchens. Lately, he’s consulted with companies that sell “ugly” produce – edible food that is thrown away because its appearance doesn’t meet consumers’ standards.

“We want all of our food to look beautiful,” he says. “Anything that’s the wrong shape or size or color is cast aside.”

He’s part of an advisory group working with N.C. State researchers on ways to use food products that might not have commercial appeal. He’s also working with a nonprofit that helps schools collect items such as unopened milk or untouched produce for food pantries; he hopes to get the program started in some Durham schools soon. He also has been consulting with a Maine congresswoman on a bill that would minimize food waste.

Samantha Buckner Terhune, who helps direct UNC-CH’s honors seminar on food, says Bloom’s book and frequent lectures have made her students more conscious of the ways our food system creates waste.

“It’s an important problem, and he’s done as much as anyone to bring it to the forefront,” she says.

Every year about this time, Bloom gets called upon by the national media to offer tips for stemming waste over the holidays.

One day, he hopes, there will be so little waste, there won’t be anything else to say.

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Jonathan Bloom

Born: November 1976, Wellesley, Mass.

Residence: Durham

Career: Author, consultant

Awards: Green Matters Award, International Association of Culinary Professionals

Education: B.A. history, Wesleyan University; M.A. journalism and mass communication, UNC-Chapel Hill

Family: Wife, two children

Fun fact: One way Bloom highlights the need to eat imperfect-looking produce rather than throw it away is by posting misshapen fruits and vegetables on Instagram under the hashtag #realfoodhascurves.