Maybe the first week in January was a bit early to stand in the pantry and contemplate all the chametz we would need to eat up before Passover—a bit early, at least by liberal Jewish standards. All the same, there I was, eyeing the biscuit mix, the Bombay Spice crunchy chickpea snacks, the pie crust mix that I bought with my 8-year-old last fall, while there were still local baking apples to be had. Several packages of pasta sat on the shelves, including a bag of organic, soy-based spaghetti I bought in an adventurous mood just after Passover last year and hadn’t touched since. And that was not all. There was some brown rice couscous, and brown rice and white rice, and yellow rice, too. And some yellow taco shells my partner likes.
Usually I’m not one to think this far in advance. But this year, I wanted our annual chametz eat-down to be about something bigger than what food is and isn’t technically permitted during the holiday. I wanted to expand the concept of chametz to address food waste, too. Those uneaten leftovers in the fridge, and the salad mix going limp seemed to me to encapsulate all the puffed-up arrogance so many commentators have ascribed to forbidden Passover food. And all the more so because one in seven Americans is now what experts call “food insecure,” and food production and transportation consumes 10 percent of our country’s energy budget. (Read: greenhouse gases galore.) Something crazy like 31 percent to 40 percent of the food produced in America is wasted somewhere between the farmer’s field and our refrigerator shelves.
My refrigerator shelves included. Inside the noisy metal box in our kitchen, some carrots were turning black—black, I tell you! I’d bought them in bulk because, allegedly, it’s cheaper, though not if a third of them go bad. There were collards yellowing at the edges, a deflating eggplant, some lentil soup that was way past its prime. “Bal Tashchit,” I thought, as I looked around. That’s the mitzvah against needless destruction, and waste, that we religious environmentalists cite to spur others to act.
Maybe it was the moment to start listening to my own advice.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been concerned about food waste. I work in the environmental field, and a bit more than two and a half years ago, in the months between the start of school and the crash of Hurricane Sandy, my family planned a major assault on the problem, at least as it existed at home. It began when I explained to my kids—Aviv was then just 9, and Naomi almost 6—that the average American family wasted about $2,000 a year on uneaten food. It was information that came from a report that the big environmental group I consult for, the National Resources Defense Council, had published that summer. Not only had that report detailed the many points in the supply chain where food goes to waste—in fields when a low commodity price makes it unprofitable to harvest, at the supermarket where good but unsellable food is tossed rather than donated to food pantries, at the kitchen table where picky kids like mine proffer an upturned nose—but it laid out the environmental and social toll as well.
Normally, Aviv isn’t interested in what I, in my wonky, obsessed way, consider fascinating environmental factoids. But as we walked to school along New York City’s streets, I saw dollar signs flash in his eyes. “What if we didn’t waste so much?” he asked. “Could we use the money for something else?”
Why not? The idea appealed to my urgent environmentalism and piqued my inner overachiever. What an educational experience this could be! It would involve the kids in planning (improved executive function) and calculating (math!). Maybe they would even learn their way around a spreadsheet, a handy-dandy job skill that seems ever more important by the day.
So, at the dinner table and on our way to school, we set about figuring out the complicated aspects of our plan. (My partner, Lisa, who is kindly game for all my environmental efforts, once again agreed to go along.) Would we simply add up the cost of what we wasted each month, deduct it from $166 and splurge with the rest? ($166 is one month’s worth of the $2,000 a year the average American family wastes on food; I told you there was math involved.) Or should there be a point system that incentivized eating leftovers and things in the fridge that were about to go bad? We even consulted a friend of ours, a genius in program design, the night before Hurricane Sandy, to see which kind of actions he thought merited which kinds of savings.
Then the high winds came, and the flooding, and the power went out. As we lit up the living room with yahrzeit candles, and danced to the hand-crank radio, we somehow managed, at least, not to let any of the ice cream go bad.
But after six days without power, with no running water and no lights except for candles and our hand-crank flashlights, after six days of soy-nut butter on corn thins (Naomi’s allergic to nuts), after six days of walking up and down six flights every time we wanted to leave the apartment or come home, after six evenings during which our friends connected to the still-functioning New York University micro-grid sheltered us with dinner and hot showers and TV for the kids, we stopped focusing on food waste. Aviv and Naomi stopped talking about the plan and all the places they’d go and things they’d do with the cash. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t care, but that confronting the problem collectively proved too much for us.
So, I became the de facto Leftover Officer in Chief, trying to keep track of what I was buying, what was in the fridge, what needed eating. I wasn’t a complete failure in my new job. I even learned some things along the way—like how stupid it is to make broccoli your kids won’t eat, even though they should, when they’ll actually eat apples instead. But while we haven’t been, I’m happy to say, eligible for a guest spot on Hoarders, we haven’t been operating on the Japanese low-inventory system either.
In the postmodern age, Passover is, in part, about doing something hard—not eating what you’re used to and what you sometimes desperately crave—perhaps to prepare us for the difficult work that liberation unfortunately requires. (Would that lounging in a beach chair were the only prerequisite.) And while Passover’s not traditionally the holiday during which we Jews do the big accounting of our souls, many a rabbi, particularly on the Orthodox side of the spectrum, urges us to “search for the meaning behind the mitzvah” of ridding our homes of chametz. The leaven-able food has been compared to “egotism and spiritual coarseness.” Reformjudaism.org tells us, “Removing chametz on Passover from our homes, our lives, our families, is a struggle between who we really are now and who we can be once we strip away all the trappings of self-importance.” Humility, these rabbis implore.
Wasting food seems the opposite, the obverse of knowing your own place in the great big underfed and environmentally overtaxed world.
All of which brought me not only to my moment of reckoning in the pantry but also to the freezer some weeks back. It was an overstuffed tundra waiting to be explored. The truth is, though, getting rid of most of the chametz and the food waste isn’t really so hard. You just have to stop buying stuff and eat what’s there. (Here, one must control what is probably a particularly Jewish urge to have a lot of food on hand at all times, should any contingency arise.) You also have to, at least in my case, spend less time fantasizing at the supermarket and the farmers market about what you might cook with that delicata squash and more time facing the sad realities of how much of an effort you’re willing to make in the kitchen after a busy day at work when you have children whose idea of a balanced diet includes pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and not much else.
Still, in the freezer, what treasures I found! There were kreplach I made with the kids and our friend Andy before Rosh Hashanah that I’ve been holding on to in the event someone had a cold. We polished them off in two nights! (Thankfully, kinehora, eating them has not caused a cold to materialize.) There were blintzes assembled at Shavuot that held up surprisingly well, despite a hibernal nine months on ice. Sure, there are some things that, as of this writing, remain to be eaten—a lone hamburger roll, a single donut, one kosher pig in a blanket—but progress is being made.
And not just in our house—though Lisa’s last-minute, two-week business trip has thrown a small wrench in the works. (When she’s away, we subsist on frozen dinners and take-out, meaning my plans to boil up the aforementioned soy-based, organic spaghetti may have to wait until after the chag.) On the national level, there are now commissions and consortiums investigating food waste and what can be done to minimize it. And in the ether of New York’s celebrity chefdom, our landsman Dan Barber (of Blue Hill fame) this month opened a pop-up restaurant called wastED—get it? as in, waste education—in which all the cuisine will be derived from food scraps: broccoli stems, orange rinds, meat bones, the heels from a loaf of bread. If you think all this sounds like dog food, fear not. It will feature the culinary stylings of Mario Batali, Bill Telepan, and Alain Ducasse, among other bright-shining culinary lights.
As you might have read somewhere, it’s not always a straight shot to the Promised Land. With Lisa and her vegetable-consuming capacity circling the globe, there are two avocados in our fridge crying out to be eaten. (Aviv will probably help; Naomi will not.) There’s some arugula that’s a little floppy, a handful of broccoli unclaimed, and a purple cabbage the size and the texture of a bowling ball. I’ll make some headway, but it might not be complete. On the more traditional chametz side of the equation, the kids seem, unfortunately, more interested in ice cream than in finishing up the scattered collection of cookies we have left. (Not to worry, halakhists, we’ll sell them all and the rest of our uneaten chametz, temporarily, to our rabbi’s non-Jewish assistant.)
So, there is progress, however slow. The black carrots went into the compost. The kids and I have begun talking again about the food-waste project and how we might resurrect it. Pesach doesn’t call on us to be perfect in our elimination of chametz. Nor does it endorse the trashing of temporarily inappropriate foodstuffs. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be contracts involving the non-Jewish assistants of rabbis everywhere.
Instead, what we are asked to do by the holiday and our tradition is to experience and in a small way re-experience a communal decision to leave enslavement behind. Our ancestors, as they fled, didn’t think, “This dough hasn’t risen yet. Let’s chuck it.” They knew it was something valuable and that what they did with it could determine the success or failure of their journey through an infertile clime. In time, that decision came to define not only who they were but what we might become in our own age, in this relatively prosperous era.
We’re offered at this season a choice between an easier route, one involving the lush possibility of donuts, that leaves us unmoored from both our history and the world’s current reality of hunger and melting ice, and a harder one, which holds out to us, in addition to the traditional narrative, a serious assessment of what we buy and consume, some brittle crackers and perhaps a few fleeting moments of contact with the Divine.
If you look around in your pantry, who knows what you might find?
Liz Galst, a former New York Times contributor, works as an editorial consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the country’s largest environmental groups, and chairs the Green Team at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City.