Our Sloppy Selves

Two recent news items for your consideration.

First, a story from the New York Times Green blog about “Think, Eat, Save,” a global initiative to combat the various ways in which the world squanders valuable food, be it through poor harvesting, poor transportation or simply poor shopping habits.

(A representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization makes the point that one quarter of the food we waste annually would be enough to feed all the world’s hungry.)

And second, the suggestion by bioethicist Daniel Callahan, as part of a new paper, that the solution to America’s famed obesity epidemic is to stigmatize the overweight as much as possible—a practice otherwise known as “fat-shaming.”

A former smoker, Callahan writes, “The force of being shamed and beat upon socially was as persuasive for me to stop smoking as the threats to my health […] why is obesity said to be different from smoking?”

Taking these two snapshots of today’s world in tandem, we are left with a doozy of a mixed message:  In our culinary activities, we Americans have simultaneously managed to be extremely wasteful and extremely gluttonous.

Perhaps this is what we mean by “American exceptionalism.”

Of course, there are all sorts of avenues we might traverse in order to reconcile our culture’s weird, complicated and unholy relationship with food—hopefully in the service of national self-improvement.

For instance:  Why not view our massive national waistline positively by concluding that, when our mothers commanded us to finish our supper because there are children starving all over the world, we obeyed?  As the numbers thunderously suggest, we finished our supper and kept on going.  Way to go, us!

Please do not think me overly flippant in saying this.  Eating at restaurants growing up, I always made a point of licking my plate clean, knowing that whatever food didn’t end up in my mouth would end up in the trash.  I figured the former was preferable to the latter, and food is delicious, so it was a win-win—environmentalism used as a cover for my natural piggishness.

Even as I have since reigned myself in, discovering such wondrous innovations as the doggie bag and basic table manners, I find myself nonetheless casting a critical eye upon the heaping piles of uneaten, perfectly palatable grub my fellow primates manage to accumulate.

At a movie house, for instance, once you’ve shelled out an hour’s wage for a single bag of popcorn, wouldn’t you then at least go to the trouble of gobbling up more than three or four handfuls of it?  The number of nearly-full bags one finds as the end credits roll is striking.

Having dispatched with all this, I cannot quite hear myself recommending mindless face stuffing merely for the sake of saving a few square inches of landfill somewhere down the road.

For any halfway-savvy consumer, this is a false choice.  The real trap door out of the waste-gluttony loop is nothing more complicated than buying only the food you intend to eat and not eating too much of it at any one time.  Voila.

Accordingly, one can understand the sentiment behind Daniel Callahan’s proposal for an all-out assault on obesity, rendering supersized appetites a socially unacceptable public health pariah.  If Americans could be made to curb their culinary urges before they begin, there would be far less food available to waste.  Two birds, one stone.

For his part, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick last week introduced a budget proposal for his state that includes raising taxes on candy, soda and cigarettes, begging the inevitable and crucial question about what role the government ought to play in sorting out all of this hullabaloo.

One could argue that even if the state has no business telling you what you may or may not consume, it nonetheless has a direct and vital interest in controlling the nation’s annual waste deposits—a task that simply cannot be handled by individuals alone.

This is the balance we ought to strike if we are to reckon with our twin manifestations of sloppiness, as we very probably should.  So long as we have only one life to live and one planet on which to live it, let us do so with the utmost care and precision.

It would be a waste not to.

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