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Food indulgence in America: How attitudes weigh us down

January 23rd, 2009

By Paula Minahan
Green Right Now

Piles of cracked and broken shells. Gnawed bones pushed aside. Remnants of what tempted with shameless excess. And in the background, a young Army recruit observes, “This is what we fight for, you know. Not so you can waste food, but so you can have plenty.”

It’s just another day at one of Sin City’s copious casino buffets as depicted in the award-winning documentary, Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. The film, shown on PBS and at indie festivals nationwide, is MIT cultural anthropology professor and filmmaker Dr. Natasha Dow Schüll’s sometimes humorous, often outrageous look at American indulgence.

“Las Vegas is a great exemplification of things that are shared, that are afoot in American culture in a very extreme way,” says Schüll. “All over America, the buffet amplifies things endemic to our society. It doesn’t surprise me this kind of waste, which is celebrated as a public ritual at the buffet, is carrying over to the more private domain of the household. It’s very OK to throw out food.”

And throw it out we do. As reported in “Food Waste in America, A Growing Concern,” 96 billion pounds of food – or 27% of the 356 billion pounds of edible food available – is squandered every year in the U.S. And the price tag on this flagrant wastefulness? A staggering $130 billion plus annually.

But as the economy continues its free fall, more companies, food service establishments and individuals are reexamining their impact on the environment. We’re beginning to get it: The United States is united with a global community with finite resources and an ever-burgeoning population. What once seemed abundant, shrinks daily. Curbing consumption and waste is mandatory.

Truth be known, however, what we don’t waste, we’re downing in mega amounts. And the statistics – and U.S. waistlines – prove it:

  • Broken down by number, that equates to 127 million overweight adults, another 60 million who are obese and 9 million extremely obese. Add to that, 25 million children already obese, overweight or at risk of being overweight. That’s nearly one out of three kids.

While some dispute the notion obesity is an epidemic, there’s no doubt our habits of indulgence are running amok. Costing billions in food waste and disposal, billions more in medical-related problems and fueling a $40-billion-per-year diet industry. Damaging our planet, our bodies and our health.

Our Civic Duty
There’s a kind of human delight in excess and waste, enabled and amplified by fiscal and cultural attitudes prevalent in the “Land of Plenty.” And plenty is revealed in Schüll’s exploration into the American buffet.

“The entire buffet experience – much of which has to do with gluttony and throwing away – is what you’re purchasing,” says Schüll. “It’s almost like purchasing the right and the experience to be wasteful. It’s expected and normalized behavior; there are no social structures in place that frown upon leaving food on your plate. That’s what you’re doing at a buffet. That’s why people get so giddy with it.

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