How sell-bys steer us wrong

Food waste has reached record levels. In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of food is thrown away. It happens at the farm, in transport, at supermarkets and in people’s homes. Last year, a study estimated that the average American family of four wastes $1,560 worth of food annually.

But there may be a simple solution to help solve the problem: clear expiration date labels. As I write in my final Smarter Food column, a new report argues that revising the convoluted system of date labels would be a simple and straightforward way to slash food waste.

“What we have now is an ineffective, ridiculous system that isn’t serving anyone,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the authors of the report, set to be released Wednesday. It costs manufacturers money. It costs consumers money. It leads us to throw food away unnecessarily.”

To solve the problem, the study, co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, suggests making sell-by dates invisible to the consumer. Those dates are designed to help retailers manage their stock; they offer no useful guidance once the consumer brings the food home. Instead, the authors recommend a uniform dating system with clear language. Wording such as “safe if used by” is clearer than “use by.” “Peak quality guaranteed before” is better than “best by.”

The report also suggests that dates should no longer be used on items that don’t deteriorate as much over time, such as chips, pretzels and beef jerky (which probably never goes bad). In its place, manufacturers might put the more useful “best within XX days of opening,” which would better guide consumers on how to judge the food’s freshness. The authors emphasized that any language should undergo consumer testing before being placed on packages.

What do you think? Should date-labels be changed?

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Is big always bad?

Buffers with native plants on Tony Thompson's Minnesota farm

In high summer, fields of wildflowers bloom at Tony Thompson’s Minnesota farm: gray-headed coneflowers, phlox and white prairie clover. Those plants are designed to do more than just beautify. They prevent water runoff and block nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from spilling into and polluting the Mississippi River.

It’s just the kind of farming that inspires the kind of folks who shop at Whole Foods. That is, until you tell them that Thompson grows 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans from genetically modified seed. That classifies Thompson as an “industrial” farmer — and in today’s debates on agriculture, big usually equals bad.

Size, as I argue in my latest Smarter Food column, isn’t everything. As shorthand, the big-equals-bad equation is convenient. But it obscures an inconvenient truth: Plenty of small farmers do not embrace sustainable practices — the Amish farmers I know, for example, love their pesticides — and some big farmers are creative, responsible stewards of the land. “Tony’s is a fantastic operation,” says Helene Murray, executive director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “And he just happens to grow a lot of corn and soybeans.”

What do you think? Can big farming be good?

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New York chefs in short supply

Simon Doggett/Flikr

New York City has long been considered the nation’s epicenter for all things culinary. The borough of Manhattan had more than 6,000 restaurants at last count. And the city has the most three-star Michelin-starred restaurants in the country — closing in on Paris.

But lately, some cooks have begun to go elsewhere to make names for themselves. Among the reasons for the exodus: Chefs’ obsession with local ingredients is making smaller communities a lot more appealing.

My first piece on NPR explores where New York cooks are going and why. As a longtime NPR obsessive, this is a big moment for me. So listen in!

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A bright idea for grocers

Brightfarms' greenhouses grow tomatoes, lettuces, and herbs

On first meeting, Paul Lightfoot is not necessarily the one you’d pick to drag the grocery business out of the dark ages. The 43-year-old has an earnest manner and a penchant for blue button-down shirts. But he’s also food lover who regularly drives his wife crazy by combing through the pantry and throwing out processed snacks that, in his mind, don’t qualify as food.

After a decade developing retail supply-chain software, Lightfoot is just as comfortable talking about “sales variability” and “disintermediation” as he is about heirloom vegetables. His brain seems trained to zero in on the tiny gaps in a supply chain that, once closed, can over time save companies millions of dollars. That is why, when he turned his attention to distributing fresh produce, he came up with a concept that would promise to accomplish two goals: allow big grocery chains to embrace the craze for local food and also improve the slow-growing industry’s bottom line.

My latest Smarter Food column looks at that concept, BrightFarms, a New York-based company that builds, owns and manages urban greenhouses to sell lettuces, tomatoes and herbs to grocery stores. Launched in 2011, BrightFarms already has a Pennsylvania facility that serves 10 grocery stores and has deals to build seven more in cities that include Oklahoma City, St. Louis, St. Paul and the District.

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Casual restaurants sell stealth health

Okay, it was bright green. But that was the only clue that the kale-banana smoothie I was sipping included a cup of kale leaves and was certifiably “healthy.” The only tip that my chicken, served alongside a medley of baby Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and dried cranberries, was good for me was that it had noticeably little salt. Had I been served the chocolate budin in a fashionable Washington restaurant, I never would have guessed that it had just 211 calories.

And that’s the way LYFE Kitchen prefers it, even though the new fast-casual chain has strict nutrition and calorie standards: At LYFE (the acronym stands for “Love Your Food Everyday”) the kitchen uses no butter, no cream, no white flour, no high-fructose corn syrup, no trans fats, no additives, no preservatives. Every dish, from the fish tacos to the grass-fed hamburger, has fewer than 600 calories and no more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium. “We don’t sell health,” says Mike Donahue, the company’s chief communications officer. “We sell taste.”

The strategy is part of a broader trend, dubbed “stealth health,” in the restaurant industry. Along with LYFE, there are vegan restaurants Veggie Grill and Native Foods Kitchen, Seasons 52 (from Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden and Red Lobster) and Energy Kitchen, which serves lower-calorie burgers and shakes and opened its first District store in January. The trend is based on an obvious truth. While most of us say we would like to eat healthfully, we really don’t want to give anything up, especially when eating out. According to research firm Technomic, about half of consumers go to restaurants to indulge or treat themselves. The sad fact is that in most people’s experience, healthful food — tofu, brown rice and low-fat whatever — is the opposite of delicious.

Read the rest of my latest Smarter Food column here on the Washington Post Web site. And tell me, would you seek out healthy faster food?

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Turning teachers into gardeners

Spring brings one of the best parts of gardening: choosing and buying seeds. It’s a time of excitement and promise, a safe distance away from the hard work of actual gardening. The planting. The weeding. More weeding. Not to mention the disappointment of losing half of your berries or tomatoes or peppers to aggressive squirrels.

It’s the same with school gardens, which have become all the rage since first lady Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn four years ago. No one tracks how many schools now have gardens; the U.S. Department of Agriculture is undertaking a survey this year. But at last count there were 82 in the District alone.

Imagining a garden and tending to it, though, are two very different things. Teachers, already under intense pressure to perform, often don’t have the time or the know-how to plant and maintain a garden, let alone use it in creative ways to teach math, science or art. “That’s the aha moment that is happening across the country,” says Lauren Shweder Biel, executive director of DC Greens, a nonprofit group that advocates for local food in the District. “The infrastructure is there now. But teachers are being asked to bring kids out and figure out how to garden, how to make it relevant to the standards they are teaching — and to cure all societal ills at the same time. They are being tasked with more than they are equipped to do.”

My latest Smarter Food looks at DC Greens program that teaches teachers to be gardeners. Check it out and enjoy.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post column, Smarter Food.
      

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