I just read a post by Sharon Astyk that talks a bit about food waste. Go here to read the article if you like.
The post made me think about when I went to Khmelnitsky, Ukraine when I was in college. As some of you know, my family is part Ukrainian, and I had the opportunity to study the school systems there soon after the fall of communism. I stayed with one of the kindest of families, and they doted on me as if I were there own.
At that time in my life, I had been through some financial hardships, and I had learned from them. I thought I knew a thing or two about sacrifice and how stuff isn’t important. I received one of the biggest wake-up calls of my life. I lived with a family who were well off enough to host an American and to send their own daughter to college. They lived in an apartment complex for the police officers of the town, and I remember practicing my Russian as we would walk up the 7 flights of stairs each day.
I remember being in awe of the cultural differences. In my dorm room at college, where I lived with one other girl, we had 3 trash cans. We filled them and emptied them at least one time a week—note that I recycled and we still had that much waste. In Khmelnitsky, the family of 4 lived in a 3 bedroom apartment and had 1 trash can, a trash can the size of one that you would find in an American bathroom. They emptied it less than weekly, and they probably would have emptied it less often if they hadn’t had a spoiled American living with them at the time.
Everything that could be reused was reused. Clothes were worn more than once, usually more than twice or three times. I never saw food left on any plate but my own. Growing up with food like I was eating there, I did finish most meals, but even the times when there were a few bites left, I felt wasteful. There weren’t paper towels or paper napkins or plastic forks, even in the schools. Imagine that, school children actually trusted to use real utensils!
I remember the markets. I remember being in awe of the first one I saw in Warsaw, Poland. It as a supermarket, and it was probably the size of and American convenience store. Do you know how many types of soaps there were? Two. Clothing detergent? One. Warsaw is a metropolis. Khmelnitsky’s market in contrast was more like an open air farmers market. There were fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats. There were things like detergent and soaps, but the selection was even more limited. The fruits and vegetables at the markets were nothing like what you find at Kroger or Ingles. Now that I grow more of my own food and go to pick-your-own farms, I know that their fruits and vegetables looked real. Sometimes they had bruises, sometimes they were oddly shaped, sometimes you’d find one cucumber the size of a foot and the other the size of a dollar bill. There was no one at the loading dock restricting sizes to exactly 8 inches, nothing more, nothing less.
I remember being offered an apple. It was summer at the time, and the apple had probably been stored in a root cellar, as they weren’t yet in season. I remember looking at it, pleasantly saying no thank you, and telling myself that those poor people had never seen “real” apples. Of course, I understand now that it was I who had never seen “real” apples. I lived in a society that prized the perfect, obtaining the perfect apple and perfect cucumber at whatever environmental cost. And once we had that perfect fruit, we often threw it in the trash if it developed a bruise or sat too long on the counter. Only years later would I fully appreciate that their mindset was probably more in line with how I should approach consumption and waste. I am so humbled when I remember my time there. I am still so amazed at how much I am still learning from that experience and time in my life, and I’m forever grateful to the most generous of people who took my younger self in and treated her as their own.
When Sharon’s post talked about the lady standing at the kitchen counter, cutting away the bad parts and chopping the rest of the onion when she would have just a year earlier thrown the entire onion away, I thought about how much I have changed. I still have a long, long way to go before I’m ever at the point of my host family when it comes to waste. I also don’t know if I want to fully be at that point. One of the things that I love about our country is that we have choice. I am humbled by the fact that I can choose to throw away a bruised apple or cut away the bad parts because it also means that I have plenty. I realize how spoiled it sounds and how unfathomable it would be to Inna or Olga or Nicolai to hear me say that. There wasn’t a choice in the way that they consumed and wasted—it was a way of life that came from necessity.
I guess what it really boils down to for me, what the ultimate goal for me is when I look at my consumption and waste, is to appreciate what I have more fully. I think that it is only through appreciation that I will more fully value what I have. As I am more grateful for what I have, I will care for it better. I will make more conscientious choices about what I purchase, what I throw away, and what I preserve. I think I will also appreciate what is most important in life, knowing that “stuff” isn’t what makes a person whole or happy or good or just.
It is a journey, not a destination, and every so often I need to remind myself of that. If you’ve read this far, then I thank you. I hope your day is a wonderful one!