Waste Not

Image courtesy of Joel Robinson

Last night I watched what might be a thought-changing, if not life-changing program: “The Big Waste”, on the Food Network. In it, four of the network’s star chefs explored ways to turn food that would otherwise have been thrown out into a gourmet dinner for 100 people. In the course of the 1-hour special these chefs visited grocery stores, specialty markets, farms and even “dumpster dived” through bags of trash on the street.

For a summary of the program, you can check out this post on the blog “Eat Drink Better”. But really, you ought to watch it for yourself (additional date and air times appear at the end of this post).


My first thought, after getting over my initial shock and disbelief, is that there has got to be a connection to Torah in all this. Because, you know, that’s just how my head works.

For long-time readers, you may recall that I touched on this idea way back in a D’var Torah (sermon) I wrote for the Torah portion named “Eikev“:

If we continue to shove resources into the gaping maw of our society without regard for whether we need it or not then we not only use what may be difficult to replace but we also pollute – spiritually and physically – whatever is left over. If we observe the commandments – the ones that deal with respect and love and fair use – when we consume stuff and interact with others then blessings will flow. And if we don’t, they won’t. It is we ourselves who are handing out the reward or punishment mentioned in the Shema.

But Torah doesn’t just stop with a “don’t waste your food because starving children in India would love this” message. Our ancient texts actively – in the strongest possible terms – speak out against destroying or wasting food. Mark Kaplan pulls these facts together in a post on the blog “Let’s Get Fresh“:

When you besiege a town for many days, waging-war against it, to seize it: you are not to bring-ruin on its trees, by swinging-away (with) an axe against them, for from them you eat, them you are not to cut-down – for are the trees of the field human beings, (able) to come against you in a siege?”   (Deuteronomy 20:19)

This command that the Israelites refrain from destroying the fruit trees of their enemies during war-time becomes the foundation for a comprehensive, and quite radical, set of teachings around the prevention of waste.  For example, Maimonides (1135-1204) teaches that “Not only own who cuts down food trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes buildings, stops up a spring, or destroys food on purpose violates the command: ‘You must not destroy.’

While we can intellectually understand that this is a bad idea, Judaism isn’t just about doing things because they feel good or feel bad. Sometimes we’re given rules to follow that make no sense at all (“Chukim” such as keeping kosher, not wearing wool and linen together, and the whole weirdness with the red heifer.) So we can’t just observe the commandments if and only if they make sense. Likewise, we can’t assume the punishment or reward is going to be logical. The reward for shooing a mother bird away from the nest before taking her eggs is “Long life in the Land” – this is the greatest reward expressed in Torah and is the same as for “honoring your father and mother”. Why are the two equivalent? Nobody knows for sure.

So what’s the punishment for destroying food? Dr. Moshe Gartenberg and Rabbi Shmuel Gluck point in this post that the penalty is an early death. Whether that makes intuitive sense to us or not, it’s clear that from the Torah’s perspective, destroying food is a bad idea!

After watching the show, I found it hard to understand how, in a country as focused on profit as America is, producers and sellers would be so willing to just see such a large portion of their inventory go to waste.

However, I also noted a certain culpability on my part as a consumer and as part of the consumer ecosystem:

  • A bagel store owner I know will throw out day-old bagels rather than sell them because she doesn’t want half-price products to “compete” with full-price fresh products.
  • That same bagel store owner cannot donate them to a food center because they can only accept sealed and mostly pre-packaged food due to issues food banks experience with people having allergic reactions and then suing the food bank.
  • As shoppers, we’ve been trained to expect perfect food and will only purchase “poor quality” food (which, as the show points out, is anything but) if it is reduced price. So once again the store has to choose to either compete with itself for a lower profit, or trash the items that won’t sell.
  • As a society we aren’t putting the infrastructure in place to allow producers to deliver their “second rate” goods to the right location in the right timeframe.

So we find ourselves standing amidst a sea of food while a significant portion of our population goes hungry every day. How many? Once again, Mark Kaplan spells it out on “Let’s Get Fresh“:

For 1 in 8 Americans, hunger is reality.  According to Feeding America (the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief organization), in 2007, 36.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 23.8 million adults and 12.4 million children.  (And these numbers are before the economic downturn!)

At the same time that so many Americans are going hungry, we are wasting a shocking amount of perfectly fine food.  The USDA estimates 96 billion pounds of food are wasted each year in the United States.  Feeding America estimates that if we could recover merely 5% of the food wasted each year, we could help feed 14 million people.

Torah acknowledges that this apparent contradiction can happen, in a series of almost sequential statements in the portion Sh’lach:

  • There shall be no needy among you — since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion (Deut 15:4)
  • If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. (Deut 15:7-8)
  • For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.  (Deut 15:11)

There shall be no needy, but if you find them, help them, because there will always be those in need.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to start getting the bulk of my sustenance from trash bags in the style of the Freegans showcased in this program, but I am certainly willing to take a closer look at how I’m treating the food I consume. Because every day when I say the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after a meal), I am struck by one of its final statements:

“I have been young and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous forsaken and their offspring begging for bread” (Psalm 37:25).

It’s inconceivable to me that the author believed that statement to be literally true. It was, I believe, a statement designed to be so outrageous that it would stop us up short and make us think, reconsider, and change until it was, in fact, true.

The Big Waste, on The Food Network
“The Big Waste” will also air on January 9 at 1:00am ET/PT and January 14 at 4:00pm ET/PT

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