Anthropologist Suggests Ways to Stop Wasting Food

If you're feeling guilty about all the food you ate on Thanksgiving, don't dwell on it. Instead, anthropologist Timothy Jones would like you to think of all the food you wasted! Jones says Americans throw away nearly half the food they grow.

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Now that you know how much you might have paid for your Thanksgiving dinner, here's a story on how much food you waste. Research shows the average family wastes nearly $600 worth of food a year.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports on the problem and gives some tips on how to use more of what you buy.

TED ROBBINS: When Tim Jones opens his refrigerator, he's not looking for what he wants to eat, he's looking for what he needs to eat.

Professor TIM JONES (University of Arizona): So I'm going to check out first the greens. See that lettuce is - I'm going to have to have salad tonight.

ROBBINS: The head of lettuce is a little brown, but that won't stop him from eating it.

Prof. JONES: Just slice off the top edge, and underneath it's not going to be brown.

ROBBINS: In the U.S., Tim Jones says, that kind of salad surgery is all too rare. Jones is an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona. For decades, he has studied food waste, most recently under a grant from the Department of Agriculture. He's dived into dumpsters and been a fly on the wall in kitchens. He says most people have no idea how much food they throw away. Take one couple he observed after a dinner party.

Prof. JONES: They got a big platter of spaghetti with meatballs that they were serving off of to the individuals. And only about half of it got eaten. And they're telling me how much they don't - no, we don't waste food. We never waste food. Simultaneously, they're dumping the spaghetti and meatballs into the garbage.

ROBBINS: Brown-skinned bananas, day-old rice, half-eaten turkeys - the list is endless. And it all started, says Tim Jones, about a century ago. That's when the government and health educators began teaching people how to avoid food that might make them sick.

Prof. JONES: They taught this concept about, if it's perfect on the outside -you know, if the skin is perfect on the apple, then you know the apple is probably pretty good.

ROBBINS: Today, lots of grocery stores can't sell blemished fruits or vegetables. People also buy more food than they really can use before it spoils. Jones calls it the Costco phenomenon. And some people are throwing away fresh food just because they don't know how to cook it.

Ms. SIGMA COLOGNE(ph) (Tucson Food Coop Member): I don't know. What do you do with your turnips?

ROBBINS: Tucson Food Coop member Sigma Cologne has turnips with the greens attached. She might toss the tops if the Coop's Amy Schwem wasn't there to give advice.

Ms. AMY SCHWEM (Tucson Food Coop): The first thing I'd do is I cook the greens, because they're more perishable, and I want them right away. And I usually -then I just use the greens like - I use that to put in cooked dishes throughout the week.

ROBBINS: Tim Jones says that fruits and vegetables are the single biggest category of wasted food. And remember, he goes through garbage, so he knows. It's because people think they'll eat them, then they don't.

Prof. JONES: They see themselves as being healthy people, so they buy those fruits and vegetables because that's what healthy people do, right? They eat lots of fruits and vegetables. So they buy those, usually on a Sunday, let's say. And then all week long they get home from work, tired, they have prepared foods that they do have. And finally the next weekend when they get around to finally having some time, let's say on Saturday, and they go in there and open it up and most of it's already mush.

ROBBINS: So this modern anthropologist's first suggestion for not wasting food: shop on Thursday or Friday. Here are the rest. Buy only what you know you'll use. Cut away food blemishes instead of throwing away the whole thing. And freeze leftovers. They'll stay good for a long time.

Prof. JONES: There are people who ate mastodons 10,000 years old that were frozen. And they were fine.

ROBBINS: Finally, during the holidays, you might stop worrying that there won't be enough food for everyone. When was the last time that happened? Cook what you know people will eat. Otherwise, you're just cooking for the garbage can.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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