This Thanksgiving I reflected on the hundreds of times I have gathered around my grandparents’ dining room table. I thought of the all the meals we had prepared and eaten together, the homework assignments tackled, and the hot cups of coffee enjoyed while sharing stories of the past. Their early experiences with food have shaped the way I view food and waste, and the lessons they gave me as a child are still the most valuable I have ever received.
My grandfather was born to an upper-middle class Jewish family in New York City a few years before the stock market crash of 1929. When he was still a toddler his father died unexpectedly, and his mother was left to care for four children. The stress, compounded by the failing economy, was too much for her and she descended into madness. My grandfather and his siblings were left to fend for themselves. He would tell stories of growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, but mostly he spoke about being hungry. These childhood experiences with hunger would shape him. He was an excellent cook, spoke of his favorite foods with religious zeal, would eat crumbs off the table, and became very upset if food was thrown away. He was also the most thorough chewer I have ever met. He chewed everything at least forty times (including Jell-o!), believing it was both good for digestion and that it made the eating experience more enjoyable. He died last year at the age of 85 and I am sure his appreciation for good food was responsible for his longevity.
My grandmother was born to poor farmers in Northern Mexico. Their knowledge of the land combined with thriftiness meant she never experienced hunger. She taught me how to cook and the only time she scolded me was when I wasted food. “You cook like you’ve never been hungry,” she would say if I cut too much off the end of a chili or tomato. One time I cleaned a knife that still had some chopped onion on it and she said, “Chefs waste so much food…better to be a cook.” Her inability to say anything directly has always frustrated and fascinated me, but the message was clear: Food is sacred and cooking is an act of love.
As we look to the future for solutions to world hunger it is equally important that we do not forget the wisdom of the past. Earth’s population has just reached 7 billion, and the FAO estimates that 925 million do not have enough to eat. This is appalling considering that the USA, Canada and Europe waste approximately 40-50% of all food grown or harvested. Not only is this socially irresponsible, but it is taking a heavy toll on the environment. Food left to rot in landfills releases methane (which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide) into the environment. It also accounts for more than one quarter of the total freshwater consumption and 300 million barrels of oil per year.
People who have lived with the threat of hunger have learned to value food. We now live in a society that has largely forgotten what hunger looks and feels like. If we continue to waste at this rate, many more will go hungry. But it does not have to come to that. Listen to the lessons from your grandparents: “Waste not want not.”