Bread is so cheap to produce that it has lost all value, creating excessive waste.
The United States has too much bread. We have moved from historic hunger and deprivation to overabundance and excessive waste, with an estimated one-third of what we bake going uneaten. It is a disturbing turn of events that our ancestors -- and countless others around the world -- would struggle to understand.
In a thought-provoking article called "Bake what we knead: Solving the problem of excess bread," Amy Halloran writes for Civil Eats about why we have too much bread, so much waste, and how that can change.
The problem stems, in part, from the low cost of flour. With bread's main ingredient being so cheap, bakers or buyers don't have to think twice about making loaves or tossing them. Halloran has written an entire book on the subject of flour production --
"How much work goes into getting grain from the field to the mill. That work is not reflected in the cost of flour, which is insulated by economies of scale, the pennies game of milling, and government subsidies ($40 billion between 1995 and 2014)."
A privileged mindset is another problem. As shoppers, we are fixated on the idea that our bread must be baked that same day and there should be a large selection offered on bakers' shelves; selling out is considered a no-no and poor for business. Day-olds are often overlooked.
If the day-olds are acknowledged by some rare conscientious shopper, there might be an assumption that they'll be distributed to hungry, poor folks elsewhere in the city. While this is indeed the case for many, the reality is that charities cannot keep up with the bread surplus and its short shelf life. New York City's Second Harvest collected 5.1 million pounds of bread in 2016 alone, 10 percent of its total food pickup.
Then there's the added issue with nutrition. Industrially-baked bread is hardly the 'staff of life' it once was -- more like soft white fluff that offers a hit of tasty refined carbohydrates. It is not nourishing or satisfying in the way that bread once was, before it had all the nutrients milled and bleached out of it, and is not what hungry food bank clients truly need. Relative to other foods, it is a poor source of nutrients and a contributor to the United States' ongoing battle against obesity and diabetes. As Halloran says, "People living in poverty already have access to easy calories." If we really cared about nourishing food bank clientele, we should be providing them with fresh produce, not leftover loaves and danishes.
Halloran calls for a new approach to baking.
She wishes bakeries would scale down production and that customers would accept the fact that having less on the shelves is fine. (It made me think of my sister's bagel shop, where clients rush to get some of the limited numbers made each morning.)
"What if supermarket bakeries shrank their offerings, creating a sense of abundance in tighter real estate? What if independent bakeries baked only what they thought they could sell and no more? Some high-end bakeries sell out of their legendary treats, and they survive customer disappointment. Some even thrive on it."
She suggests alternative baking models, such as CSA (community supported agriculture) programs for bread, where loaves are pre-ordered. She encourages learning home-cooking techniques that can incorporate leftover or stale bread into recipes, such as bread pudding, stuffings, and breaded dishes.
Her ideas got me thinking, too. I'm a big advocate of using the freezer for bread. That's the default destination for all the bread I buy, then I defrost loaves as needed. Consider what kinds of bread you buy, too. Some, such as pita, naan, and tortillas, last much longer than baguettes, bagels, and sandwich loaves and are far more versatile. These are my go-to picks for camping trips and other times when I don't want to worry about them going stale.
I would recommend baking your own bread from scratch, at least once in a while. If you don't have a fabulous local artisanal bakery, then break out of the industrialized baking world and experience the joys of handling dough yourself. I suspect you will not be inclined to see those delicious loaves go in the trash after putting in all that effort.