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home : columns : columns December 13, 2017

10/24/2017 1:18:00 PM
A Bronx Cheer

A few days ago I happened to be in the grocery store, buying some stuff to nibble on during the American League Championship Series, when I noticed a young man - I'm in a post-season mood so I'm going to call him Billy Martin - re-stocking the older fruits and vegetables. He was doing a tidy, efficient job of it, and I was intrigued.

The old stuff went into a box on the bottom of his cart, and with admirable speed and finesse the new stuff was shuttled into the display. Billy Martin is a man who knows his trade. And, in full disclosure, I've done good business with Billy in the past. Once, we needed fresh dill for pickling cucumbers, and Billy delivered - the very next day.

I was suddenly curious to know where all of that old food eventually wound up, so I walked over and asked Billy Martin what the story was. "We throw it all out," he said, which was surprising, and struck me as both tragic and revealing on many fronts. So I asked Billy - stupidly, it turns out - if I could take some of the old food, or all of it even, off his hands. I was thinking that our chickens would make short work of the stuff, and that the horses would love to tear into a few mildly bruised and perfectly edible apples, but I had forgotten what century we live in.

"We can't," Billy told me, shaking his head, and then went on to explain that they had done just such a thing, in the long ago, until someone, somewhere, fed cast-off apples to her horse and the horse died. We have no definitive word on whether or not the apples were actually to blame - and one is suspicious of the claim - but the lawsuit for damages that followed put the eternal brakes on doing something useful with older food.

Grocery stores around the nation, getting a strong whiff of liability in the wind, shut down the practice.

Let's review: A woman asked a grocery store for free, or greatly reduced, apples that were going in the trash. She took them home and fed them to her horse. The horse died. She sued the store. The store likely paid off - whether the claim was legitimate or not it's generally cheaper than fighting the lawsuit (see Modern Police Work for further explanation) - and outlawed the practice.

Billy described to me a particularly sad scene, which I had no trouble envisioning, wherein a long-time customer, an elderly gentleman who had been taking old produce off the store's hands for years, came in expecting to pick some up, when Billy had been forced to explain the new policy. It was as if, and this is my own imaginative reconstruction, the kindly old man had been brutally struck by the fungo bat of modern litigious reality.

This episode of the Old Produce Conundrum got me thinking about how much produce gets thrown out in America. It's probably impossible to quantify with terrific accuracy, but one conservative estimate places the number at around 60 million tons per year. That's 120,000,000,000 pounds of food every year. I think that number is Gazillion - wasted. An estimate on the worldwide waste of otherwise usable produce puts it at around 1.6 billion tons per year.

In many cases, there is nothing wrong with the food at all, except that it has a blemish of some sort, which reduces the ability of stores to sell it, so it either rots in the field or is abandoned in warehouses and eventually tossed. That is what is known as the "downstream problem," in case you were wondering.

We probably shouldn't be too shocked by all of this waste, given that in the U.S. we consume nearly 20 million barrels of oil each and every day. A barrel of oil is considered to be 42 gallons, so that means we are consuming 840,000,000 gallons of oil PER DAY.

One is left to wonder exactly how long that kind of consumption and waste can actually go on before the trap door opens up and we all fall through it.

We are not a country that lives lightly or even, apparently, with any notion whatsoever that we are heartily taxing the planet's ability to sustain the 7.6 billion people who live on it. And that number, by the way, is expected to reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100.

If you think it's hard to make a left turn in Sisters now, just you wait.

Anyway, it's October, playoff time, and I am a fan of the notoriously evil New York Yankees. I can be that because I was raised in what my friends and siblings fondly referred to as the BFE, which is shorthand for saying a long way from anywhere, and we could choose whatever teams we wanted. The point is that Yankees fans have perfected what is known as The Bronx Cheer. This is an utterly sarcastic round of applause aimed at Yankees players who are not performing well. Dellin Betances, who in the playoffs has been suddenly unable to find the strike zone, earned his first Bronx Cheer in Game 2 of the ALCS by walking two batters in the top of the 9th - with an eight-run lead.

So in that spirit, after my visit to the grocery store and an inspired study of our American wastefulness, I'm offering up a hearty Bronx Cheer to that nameless woman - condolences to the horse - who sued a store over the free apples she wanted, and ruined the game for everybody else.

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