Trash talk


Photo by Andy Sarjahani via Wasted Food

It was a simple action. One delivered without a second thought.

It was the kind of thing we all do in one way or other every day.

Until someone else watching sees it a different way, and maybe says something, and then maybe something changes.

Or not.

I watched a person I know, and have always liked, casually toss away food as if it were scraps of paper.

I’m not talking about potato salad left on the picnic table on a 90-degree day or something green and mysterious at the back of the refrigerator. I’m talking just-opened, barely consumed food rendered trash-worthy within seconds.

She tossed this food away with such abandon, declaring it one of such a large quantity that it didn’t matter. She has two refrigerators of food. Two. She buys in bulk. She lives a very comfortable life.  

I watched this and felt sick in two ways. First, I teach my children to be conservative with food. What you don’t or can’t eat, put away immediately for later. Do not take what you cannot eat. Second, we are in an economic crunch right now, one in which being careful and conservative with everything consumes my day. Throwing away good, edible food is not an option in my house.

It reminded me of the Beanie Babies craze of the 1990s. People, in their fervor for these silly stuffed animals that supposedly were going to retain their value like gold bullion, lined up at McDonald’s restaurant drive-through windows to order Happy Meals containing the mini Beanie Babies. The photographer for the newspaper I worked for at the time was sent to a local Mickey D’s to capture the phenomenon. He told us that these people waited in long lines, bought their Happy meals, threw out the food and kept the stuffed animal. The trash cans were overflowing with discarded food.

Folks, that’s effed up. It was back then and it still is today. I know McDonald’s Happy Meals are not fine dining. I know they lack nutritional value. Does that justify throwing it away in mass quantity? Wasn’t there a way to get that food into some hungry folks nearby?

Don’t think I’m trying to paint myself as some saint. I’m not. If I were an activist, I would have said something to the nice woman who casually tossed containers of yogurt into her trash can. I was a guest in her home. It’s her food and her money. I suppose she can plaster her walls with it if she want to. I was not about to pull a Costanza and fish for the yogurt amid the watermelon rinds and soiled napkins.

But I didn’t say a word to her. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

I realized today: I’m acting like my grandparents, my depression-era grandparents who saved paper and pencils and glass jars and those twisty things that keep the bread bags closed. They recycled, repurposed and reduced before it was vogue. They darned their socks rather than buying a new pair at Target. They ate leftovers. 

This puzzled me for years. My grandparents lived a very comfortable life. They had a beautiful home, two new cars, my grandma wore diamond rings on both hands, they took two trips a year, and had two refrigerators of food in their house. Why save every paper bag and clip coupons?

Apparently, there was a time in their lives when things were not that way. When they had to do what they had to do to survive. That time shaped the rest of their lives. Maybe that careful, conservative behavior allowed them a comfortable retirement. Maybe it led to their unflagging generosity, their wish to make sure no one went without.

As I grumbled over the dinner leftovers I found tossed into the garbage disposal the other night, I wondered the real source of my anxiety. Just two years ago I ate lunch and dinner at restaurants at least twice a week. We had so much food in the house we didn’t now where to put it all. We considered buying an extra cabinet. I gained more than 20 pounds during my affair with food. We bought wine by the case. If we ran out of something, we simply went to the store to get more. 

There was always another paycheck, or overtime opportunities, or freelance work to take on. Interest was compounding in our savings, and the company matched our 401-k contributions. My lifestyle was one of a bottomless pit of want and an endless fountain of supply. Did I throw away food without a thought?

I suppose I am learning my own lessons.

Am I angry that this woman I like is so fortunate that she can toss food without flinching, or am I angry because I conducted my life in such as way as to let the well run dry?

Food — or not — for thought.