So we’ve been talking about things like fair trade, social justice, moral responsibility and the conscientious s capitalist. Often we get to arguing about where we should draw the line, who should decide what is ‘enough’, what is ‘too much’ and whether this is really just talk of pie in the sky.
I’ve never been involved in overseas or inner city missions and I live in one of the richest counties in the US. I own four automobiles, including my children’s. My house has cable TV and internet and air conditioning. We have three television sets, two computers, a dishwasher, washing machine and dryer, microwave oven, electric range, DVD players, XBox and PS2, multiple stereos and Lord knows how many defunct cell phones. We eat out at least a couple times a week and like to take drives in the country. I definitely would not hold myself up as an example of someone living a life of mere sufficiency.
So how am I leaving a bigger (or smaller) footprint on this planet than others? Where can I change? Honestly, I’m not ready to give up much, if any, of the things that I just rattled off. Other than turning the water off when I shave or brush my teeth, I can’t think of too many more ways in which I can make a difference. We’ve recycled for years and we keep a close eye on the thermostat and other appliances (because of the money). Now we look for certain labels in our garments or on our boxes, bottles and cans before we buy, but if they’re not available (or too expensive) we usually purchase what’s there.
But I waste quite a bit, and I always have. And most of you folks do as well – it’s just not in ways that are very visible. Some of you know I work in the culinary business and you probably can guess that my industry is responsible for a lot of wasted food. But before you start railing against McDonald’s and Red Lobster you must remember that they are driven by profits and none of them like throwing away food. The market (us) has demanded that a large line for waste be included on most food service P&L’s. If the operation is within budget then waste is not considered excessive. But it’s still waste. Nobody likes it.
The classic visible example of industry conservation has been the disappearance of the obligatory water glass. I remember years ago when (during a drought) we began serving water by request only. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who thought this was a personal affront. After all, how much can a glass of water cost? So you try explaining that it’s not just the 10 ounces of water in the glass, it’s the water used to make the ice as well as the water used to clean the glass (probably another 10-20 ounces).
Of course on top of that there is the energy needed to make the ice and run the dish machine. More soapy water goes down the drain, requiring energy demanding treatment or perhaps running off into the aquifer. The more glassware that’s used the more breakage occurs and the more glass goes into the landfill. More energy and resources are used to make more glasses. And don’t forget – half of the folks never touched their water, so it was often for nothing.
I used to spend an occasional shift working the dish machine just to get a feel for what was coming back from the dining room. This is how I found out that nobody was eating the dill pickle spear we served with all of our sandwiches. When I decided to pull the pickle off of the plate (and take 50 cents off the price) the uproar was loud and angry. Over a pickle. You would have thought the consumption of pickles was protected in our constitution. It was obvious that some people feel an entitlement to some things they become used to. Even fermented cucumbers that they don’t eat. (I stuck to my guns though – pickles ain’t cheap.) How many sandwiches have you seen come out with a slice of tomato, lettuce and onion on the side? I’ll bet at least half of those sides get tossed in the trash. But presentation is king and we all know that people ‘eat with their eyes’. But really they eat with their mouths and their mouths rarely eat the garnish.
Have you ever seen a salad ordered, with dressing on the side (dieters love this trick) but the server presented it dressed? I don’t know how many salads I’ve had to remake because of that unforgivable mistake. But then to see the same diner now take the ramekin of dressing and dump it all over the salad anyway…..jeesh!
How about the burger that should’ve been rare to medium rare and it came out just plain old medium rare? Many people who order in this fashion don’t have the correct nomenclature down. I’ve had customers who didn’t know the difference send their burgers back two or three times. At that point I would personally cook the burger and present it myself; just so all questions of doneness would be resolved. But two perfectly good hamburgers were now in the trash (or going down the drain).
As much flack as the QSR segment gets for ‘supersized’ foods the real culprit behind huge restaurant portions is the Cheesecake Factory. They started this long lived national trend of plating up excessive quantities. Now everyone does it. Real American food, served real big under real big ferns. The funny thing is, probably the most productive and efficient cuisine is from France. French chefs became the best at what they do because they did not have access to cheap and abundant high-quality food. When you are serving cow spleen you better know how to make a good sauce
So maybe you don’t dine out, you do your cooking at home. Do you think that Superfresh is going to sell every one of those tomatoes or bananas or heads of romaine that they put out on display? What about the chicken, beef and pork that we pick through, putting those with the oldest dates to the bottom of the pile? Or the fish that must be fresh, fresh, fresh? (even though only frozen fish is truly fresh in most grocery stores or restaurants). The look of abundance is inviting and appetizing – think of each grocery department as a great big cornucopia of foods. To achieve that effect a lot more perishable food must be displayed than is prudent or necessary. The consumer market demands this look while the food markets’ dumpsters need to be emptied daily.
Many schools receive a Federal partial subsidy for free lunches they provide poorer students. In order to qualify for these subsidies each child must be served the mandated components of a nutritional meal, whether they eat it or not. So quite a lot of vegetables and fruit end up in many school’s trashcans. To demonstrate a higher level of respect for high school students it is required that they be offered a varied choice of entrees at lunch time. This means that more food is prepared than would otherwise be necessary (who knows what dish will move on a particular day and of course no one wants to run out of anything). Salad bars are being strongly encouraged, but of course salad bars and buffets are very wasteful – nothing can be saved from a self-serve line – even in restaurants or at catered events.
So, there seems to be much more to this problem of personal excess than meets the eye. And we have only touched upon three segments of one American industry. Maybe we can be more globally and locally responsible while saving some of our money as well.