We all feel a tinge of dismay, when we pull a rotting tomato out of the refrigerator, or pop open a foul smelling jar that might have held dinner. But for our commentator, Alex Alper, a returned peace corps volunteer, wasting food is more than a nuisance: it’s the cause of a crusade.
I started to notice it not long after returning to the states two years ago. I’d go out to dinner with friends. Everything would be going great, but as the meal would wind down, I would start to get a little nervous.
As everyone took their last sips of coffee or wine, I would stare at the leftovers: Some wilted bits of lettuce, a piece of hamburger bun, some cold French fries saturated in ketchup.
The waiter would come to clear the plates and I would pry the plates from his hand.
“We need just a few more minutes with that,” I’d say.
“Alex, we’re done,” my friends would say, as I frantically ate the rest.
“Me too, I’m stuffed.” I’d confess. “but I can’t help it.”
And I couldn’t.
After three years in Peace Corps West Africa, I’ve had this socially awkward affliction: I cannot let food go to waste.
It’s not impossible to manage: I can walk past an abandoned cheeseburger on an empty table. I can go to a lunch interview and not ask the interviewer if he wouldn’t mind me eating the olives he picked off his pizza. I’ve gotten so much better, I can even let a waiter take uneaten bread or rice from my own plate.
But it’s been a hard road back.
In Guinea, I watched my neighbors struggle through the rainy season. That’s when last year’s harvest of rice and manioc is almost gone. They call it “la saison du souffrance” or the season of suffering.
But suffering in Guinea is year-round: kids have bloated bellies and orange tinged hair: telltale signs of malnutrition.
And the way Guineans treat food is just what you would expect: without refrigerators, women prepare just enough for dinner and the following breakfast. Not a kernel of rice is left in the pot. If the unthinkable happens—a baby tips over a bowl of uneaten food—something will be nourished: a goat, a chicken, or a cow, itself a source of food.
But here, in the US things are really different.
The National Institute of Health says Americans waste 40 percent of their food-from from farm to table to landfill.
And I get it!
Thirty four percent of Americans are obese and the same number are overweight. In a land of supersized sodas and plates the size of trays, leaving food would almost seem healthy.
But on an individual level, I root for the middle ground: take the rest home, order a side, or giving the leftovers to your crazy returned peace corps volunteer friend.
I admit, I’m as embarrassed to be that crazy returned peace corps volunteer on a mission, as I am about the neurosis itself.
But one of the three Peace Corps goals is to share what you learned abroad with other Americans.
So I‘m grateful for that knowledge, and grateful for the opportunity to share it, even if it makes me a somewhat awkward dinner guest.
That was Alex Alper, who is currently accepting dinner invitations.