My Year of Eating “Expired” Food

I watch a lot of nature shows. I wonder sometimes how animals are able to eat only unwashed, raw food- and drink water from pretty much any source (my dog frequently quenches her thirst from the muddy puddles in the street and my cats drink from the toilet)- without getting sick. Some animals even eat other animals that have been dead in warm weather for days.

Also, I once read a book- Jack & Rochelle– about 2 holocaust survivors who escaped into the woods of Poland and survived for years. There were times when they had to eat carrion, to avoid starvation. They did not indicate that they fell ill.

Humans are living organisms. In the end, we’re animals too. I started wondering what our capabilities to successfully digest “unsafe” food might be.

My experiment began with this yogurt.

Consumed Oct. 1st, 2016.

I have an old cabin in Virginia. One spring, I accidentally left a yogurt in the fridge. I didn’t make it back down until the fall, when this picture was taken on October 1st, 2016. Note the expiration date is March 30th, 2016. That is 6 months past the expiration date! As I began to make my fruit smoothie, the yogurt was in the corner of my eye. I opened it. It smelled fine and there was no mold. I decided to throw it into the blender. I drank and waited. No problems!

This set off increasingly emboldened instances of eating food that was past date- some of it, REALLY past date- (including meat and dairy)! This past year, I documented my journey.

[click on images to enlarge]

Everyone can agree that food waste is bad. How bad? Decide for yourself. There is a lot of information online. This report from the NRDC is the most comprehensive I could find. It sums up the serious environmental consequences of wasted food: “When food is wasted, all of the resources used to produce, store, transport, and handle that food—including arable land, labor, energy, water, chemicals, and oil—are also wasted.”

Many people are taking action to reduce food waste, but very little is being done about Food Product Dating. As someone who has spent 30+ years in the grocery business, I believe the main culprit (and the easiest way to make the most progress)- is to overhaul our Food Product Dating system and guidelines. You wouldn’t believe the number of items that are returned by customers or thrown away because of a rather arbitrary date (even donated food is required to not be past date at some food banks).

A note on a bag left on my porch for a food drive for the hungry: “Check your cupboards or shop for unexpired canned items…”

These dates can include “use by”, “best if used by”, “sell by”, “best before”, “expires by”, “freeze by”, etc. The report describes the confusion these dates create: “Although most date labels are intended as indicators of freshness and quality, many consumers mistakenly believe that they are indicators of safety.”

It seems like there are arbitrary dates on everything these days. Canned goods can be eaten YEARS after the date. But not just canned goods have dates…

Dating has now been placed on salt, lotions, shampoos, hand soaps, hair color, toothpaste (Tom’s), shaving cream, and much more. Need to wipe your baby’s butt clean? Better not use these wipes after August 3rd, 2020…

It’s gotten so out of hand, it makes me wonder about the integrity of the manufacturers- they will slap a date on just about anything these days. “Planned obsolescence” by corporations and entire industries is real. When we throw a product away, corporations profit.

I’m a staunch environmentalist. I hate waste- especially environmental waste. Especially food waste. To this day, whenever I shop, I check dates like a hawk. Except, I’m searching for the products that are closest to their arbitrary date, because I was raised to do what I can to prevent things from going to waste. My pantry is filled with dented cans, crushed boxes, and packaged products where the label has fallen off. If you were ever to come to my house for dinner, the odds are good that something on the table is expired or damaged.

Here is a picture of what my family calls, “resetting food”.  

All of this meat was past date. Some of it was perfectly fine- no odor or visual sign of being old. Some of it had an odor when it initially came out of the package (the fish!), but a quick rinse removed it. By cooking the meat, we essentially reset its freshness date- we ate what we could that night and saved the rest for later.

It’s not surprising that this gift was exchanged at the Nash Family Christmas this past year…

During the week of Thanksgiving, myself and those of us in the farming and grocery industry were greatly pained to see romaine lettuce recalled and discarded by the megaton- in what seemed to be an hysterical move by the FDA. Thousands of farmers’ livelihoods are impacted and threatened when there is such an extreme response. I served my family a large Caesar Salad on Thanksgiving, knowing that the odds of getting sick from that romaine were far less than the odds of being killed in a car accident on the way home.

I was proud that not a single family member of the dozen or so at the table (including the teenagers) passed up the salad, even though everyone knew about the recall. In my opinion, Americans and our institutions have a bona fide case of anxiety disorder when it comes to food safety.

The Food Product Dating system for food (and non-edible goods) needs to be revised. Consistency in labeling (use one term for quality such as “best by” or “for best quality, use by” and another term for food safety such as “expires by”) would create clarity. And these dates need to be set to match reality. Some items don’t need a date at all- like salt, canned goods, and baby wipes.

In the meantime, my fellow Americans (yes, we in the USA are the biggest offenders of food waste), please get informed and change your behavior. We are all responsible for making a difference- and EVERY piece of saved food counts.

Posted in business, environment, Living, waste | 59 Comments

Moms at MOM’s

Nearly 15 years ago, my wife and I had our first child.

One night soon after, I heard my wife semi-silently sobbing in our bathroom.  I walked in to find her sitting on the edge of the tub, rocking back and forth (almost in the fetal position), crying “I don’t want to leave my baby.”  This was the eve before her return to the office after taking 3 months of unpaid leave from her work as a lawyer at a Bethesda firm.

We had an in-family nanny; my wife’s sister-in-law.  Even so, with the intention of making my wife’s first day back at work a bit easier, I stayed home from work the next day.

Having a baby is an odd mix of joy and struggle.  On the joy side of things, there is no experience in life that rivals becoming a parent.  About an hour after the birth though, instincts kick into high gear and the joy gets a bit diluted by an intense focus on the care (i.e. survival) of the child.  It’s a time for the mother to recover physically, learn how to breast feed the child, and bond.  It’s an intense, high alert time no matter who you are.

Once a baby is born, many families need for both parents to continue to work- and when both parents do work, some parents find that the expense of day care is a substantial (sometimes majority) of at least one spouse’s salary.

Fast forward 15 years- as active parents, my wife and I still have very little free time.  It’s been a joyful, yet stressful period.  Of my friends with children, I don’t know any who haven’t had roughly the same experience.  Having children is an upheaval of sorts.

The US has a history of having noble priorities.  Unfortunately, I believe over the past few decades, this country’s priorities have began to shift away from families, empathy and service to others, and spiritual principles.  We now give more priority to corporations, judgement and righteous indignation, and status/wealth.

When it comes to supporting families (rather than corporations), the US ranks low.  We are required to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, while the United Kingdom, Ireland, China, and Iran offer 40, 26, 14, and 12 weeks of paid leave respectively.  The US falls short relative to other developed countries:

CP_midyear_report

Much of our training program here at MOM’s revolves around reading books.  About a year ago, our female CFO read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and recommended we offer trainings on it.  It was an enlightening book for many of us.  As a result of those book sessions, a committee was formed and the group came up with a number of ideas that we’ve implemented to help working mothers.

MOM’s is proud to now offer 6 weeks of paid maternity leave to all full time employees.  We know of only one other retailer in the US who offers as much (Patagonia).  When a baby is born, families need support during this crucial and stressful period.

Posted in family, family support, maternity leave, pregnancy | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

My Fill-in-the-blank Privilege

Straight FlushOne of the more memorable movies of my childhood was Sounder.  Sounder was a dog who belonged to a poverty-stricken southern family.  A particularly heart-wrenching scene in that movie is when the father is taken to prison for stealing food to feed his family.  A recent incident at MOM’s reminded me of that scene…

There is an employee who has worked with us full-time for nearly a decade.  After doing a recent inventory, we discovered 2 particular products missing by the dozens.  They happened to be the 2 products we frequently saw this employee consuming.  We checked the receipt records and neither product had been bought by any employee for months.  And then we reviewed the security cameras and confirmed theft.

My first reactions were typical, fueled by feelings of betrayal, anger, and sadness.  But my next wave of reactions came from a place of empathy.  Everyone knows that stealing is wrong, but humans make mistakes.  For justice to prevail, context should strongly be considered when determining appropriate consequences.

To put things into context, I’ll begin with myself.  For starters, I’m pretty grateful that like all humans, I’m at the top of the food chain!  Beyond that, I am a white male, born in the US.  My parents never divorced.  My mom was a stay-at-home mom who cooked 3 square meals a day, kept our house immaculately clean and organized, and made sure that we all had routines and traditions.  My father had stable work and a decent salary as a college professor.  I used my mom’s 2-car garage to start MOM’s (my father died when I was 17).  My mom also once lent me $3,000 when I ran short of cash during the start-up phase.

I am not a woman, a minority, or homosexual.  I have never faced poverty.  I continue to reap the benefits of all of my life’s privileges.  In fact, by historical standards (going back no further than a short century), many of us in the U.S. are living like royalty.

Some might say that I deserve what I’ve got because I’ve worked hard, taken risks, and have good judgement.  But, how did I obtain a good work ethic?  Or my optimism?  Or my risk-assesment abilities and refusal to accept conventional thinking?

Science has shown us that these traits are largely dictated by our DNA- and we know that we are somewhat influenced by our external environment- the hand we’ve been dealt, so to speak.  My work ethic was definitely instilled by my parents.  I had a 365-days-per-year paper route from an early age, never received more than a $5 allowance, had to pay for all of my stuff (starting with a $35 transistor radio I bought when I was 11), and had weekly chores (of which my dad tracked with a charted point “system”).

But all of this was out of my control.  I don’t recall actively pursuing, selecting, or collecting any of these traits.  I feel as if they were always just there.

And then there is the employee who stole.  What was her childhood like?  What is her life like now?  What stresses does she feel every day that I’ve never felt in my life?  What infinitely complex formula of emotional experiences, DNA, and societal influences has made her what she is today- influencing every behavior from whether to get a college education to taking something that isn’t yours?

We terminated her.  Part of me thinks that this employee needs forgiveness and a 2nd chance- but, a lot of her honest and wonderful co-workers are undoubtedly expecting accountability from top to bottom at MOM’s.  And we must wonder in these situations: is this just the tip of the iceberg?  If this employee is stealing a little bit every day, what else is she doing (or willing to do) that we are unaware of?

Situations such as these are complex.  I generally find “zero tolerance” policies and positions to be- well, intolerant.  They seem rigid and too simplistically black and white.  The “Just Say No To Drugs” campaign comes to mind as an example of this, as it largely addressed drug use as the main problem, rather than a symptom of larger, complex problems.

It makes me sad (and sometimes mad) when people steal from MOM’s, whether employees or shoplifters, yet my challenge is to remember that there is much I don’t know. I need to strive to be objective and fair- and remember to live by the wise words: “that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.”

ghandi-quote-on-forgiveness

Posted in MOM's Organic Market, personal | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

Support Your Local Dead Zone?

It’s that time of year when farmers’ markets and roadside produce stands are popping up all over.  I like to go to the Bethesda Farmers’ Market on Sunday mornings to scope out the products and farmers.  And I like that farmers’ markets serve as incubators for start-up producers, whether it be baked goods, small farms, pickles, or goat cheese.  However, there is a profound lack of organic options.

At the Bethesda Farmers’ Market, of the 14 produce vendors, only five are organic.  I cringe at the thought of chemicals being literally dumped onto local acreage polluting the beautiful Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

I visit the Northern Neck of VA frequently.  I snapped this picture of a farm that is about a 1/4 mile from the Rappahannock River.

NorthernNeck

Notice that there is nothing green on all of these acres- not a single weed.  How many tons of chemical herbicides were used on this land?

We have a tendency to romanticize the farmer- especially small and local farmers, regardless of whether they’re organic.  In a 2012 survey, Whole Foods consumers ranked “local” as more important than “organic.”  We feel that our customers prefer organic to local, with the “gold standard” being organic AND local.

My view is that unless a farmer is farming organically, he or she is part of the problem.  I’d prefer that chemical farms be as far away from this area as possible.

Posted in environment, food, local food, organic foods, water | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Ignorance is Blistering

nonGMO saltI recently came across this product and was incredibly relieved to finally find a salt that hasn’t been genetically modified (although, the “pinkness” of this salt makes me wonder if it has been spliced with the genes of salmon)!

This would be funny if this product label were a spoof, but it is real.

There are people in the world who are ignorant, and unfortunately some exist within our industry.  Ignorance often leads to fear- and sometimes fear leads to irrational hysteria.  If you think this example of salt is extreme, it isn’t. There are many products now that are unnecessarily labeled as “non-GMO.”

An informed person would know that only corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow squash, alfalfa, and papaya are grown in the US as GMO.  [Add to that list cotton, btw- how many of you are most definitely wearing non-organic GMO cotton right now- and supporting an industry that does more environmental destruction than any farmed edible plant?]

Yet, we are now seeing consumers demand that products that couldn’t possibly be GMO are tested and labeled as non-GMO.  Manufacturers are pandering to this and slapping the non-GMO label on everything from lentil pasta to cranberry juice to seaweed.  And rather than work to educate consumers on this issue, retailers are demanding that manufacturers of certified organic products also get labeled as non-GMO, even though they know that certified organic = certified GMO-free.  And frankly, I’m surprised that the non-GMO Project verified this salt at all (let alone other products that couldn’t possibly be GMO).

This unnecessary labeling is creating consumer confusion and helping to fan the flames of hysteria.

Take, for example, this not-very-unusual email I received from a customer recently.  He believes that organic products cannot be trusted and that GMO-free is top priority, even though GMO-free products can be grown with a plethora of toxic chemicals and organic products are already GMO-free:

Untitled-3

“I buy the following bulk grains from your store:

1. Organic rolled Oats
2. Organic steel-cut Oats
3. Organic Amaranth
4. Organic Quinoa
5. Organic Mung(Moong) beans
6. Organic Black-eyed peas

Can you email me contact details of Manufacturers of above please?

I will directly contact them to get verified by NON-GMO project.
Please see the website: http://www.nongmoproject.org/

They have a verification process and they have verified more than 15,000 products as NON-GMO.

There is a US law which prohibits GMO content in USDA Organic labeled products. But it is very naive to assume that this law is strictly followed for following reasons:

1. Politicians are bought by election campaign contributions and they keep USDA and FDA under-funded.

2. Because of #1, FDA can not conduct frequent enough inspections to enforce the law. In fact, some organic movement proponents think that USDA do not verify NON-GMO content for Organic products.

3. There is a revolving door between USDA, FDA and GMO businesses like Monsanto. There are definitely conflicts of interest.

4. Big companies are buying out purely organic businesses. Most of these companies have been doing GMO food business for a long time.

For example, Dean Foods has a very bad reputation for using GMO sourced seeds etc.

Earthbound Farm Organic was a very good organic business. They started in earnest and maintained good standards for a long time. They sold out to Whitewave for $600 million in December 2013. Whitewave is a spin-off of Dean Foods. Now I can not trust Earthbound Farm Organic products.

Scott, for above-mentioned reasons it makes perfect sense to use NON-GMO project verified products.

I am paying top dollars for Organic products and I want verified NON-GMO products.

Your business will lose money if you do not stock enough NON-GMO products.”

Untitled-3First of all, of the bulk items this customer is concerned about, NONE of them exist as GMOs.

Secondly, if we strive to be fair, people are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This statement is worrisome: “Earthbound Farm Organic was a very good organic business. They started in earnest and maintained good standards for a long time. They sold out to Whitewave for $600 million in December 2013. Whitewave is a spin-off of Dean Foods. Now I can not trust Earthbound Farm Organic products.”  If guilt by association were enough to convict someone of a crime, I’ll bet most of us would be in prison.

Sure, some companies have proven themselves as unethical- and as a result, cannot be trusted.  If you don’t want your shopping dollars supporting Dean, then by all means buy Olivia’s salads instead of Earthbound.  But, can we really assume that Earthbound Farms is now breaking laws and packing chemical-laden and GMO lettuces (GMO lettuce doesn’t exist, btw) simply because their parent company is looking to profit from the organic industry?  I see such tactics and misinformation all the time from fringe groups within our industry.

The science of gene splicing is being terribly misused by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto.  At MOM’s we have been demanding for years now that new products which have the potential to be GMOs be verified as non-GMO.

We are most dedicated to organic farming practices.  If a manufacturer’s product is certified organic, it gets top priority from us, so we have been phasing out many natural products when there are organic alternatives (in case you’re wondering where the Fage Greek yogurt went!).  Organic products get placed prominently on end caps and generally promoted with more shelf space and promotions. MOM’s realizes that certified organic products are far superior to non-organic, GMO-free products.  Rather than appease the lowest common denominator which demands GMO-free labeling for products that couldn’t possibly be GMO, we work to educate consumers that an organic product is a non-GMO product, but without the chemicals.

Posted in food, GMOs, organic foods | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Minimum Dignity

One of the companies I admire most is Costco.  They’re not very environmental, unfortunately, but they are extremely dedicated to their employees.  Back in 2008 when the economy was in a downward spiral, Founder and CEO Jim Sinegal said that instead of looking for ways to cut costs and reduce compensation like most companies were doing, it was especially important to find ways of supporting their staff in this time of hardship.  He said, “our employees… deserve our loyalty.  They needed it just as much [in 2008] as they ever did, or more.”  Costco’s average pay rate is $21 per hour, while BJ’s average is $11 and Sam’s Club’s $12.  However, Costco is the performance leader in the club membership retail sector.

IMG_5006.JPG

MOM’s Employees touring a recycling facility

Here at MOM’s, we’ve never paid minimum wage.  In June of 2011, MOM’s raised our minimum wage from $9 per hour to $10.  This month, we will raise it to $11 per hour.

This is not an act of charity, but rather an investment. Without a doubt, our most valuable asset here at MOM’s is our people.  Paying them more is a smart business strategy.  Any good businessman knows there is no higher ROI (return on investment) than investing in people.  Great people are more efficient, have good ideas, and have good judgment.  Customers love shopping at places with good employees.  I’d rather have 1 great than 3 decent employees.

Raising the minimum wage would also raise the “status” of retail jobs, making them more viable as a career choice rather than short-term or a necessity.  But raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do for so many other reasons:

  • There is the issue of fairness.  A parent with 2 kids who works full time at the minimum wage lives below the poverty line.  For all of the complaining people do about those who don’t pull their own weight, it is hypocritical of such people to oppose raising full time workers above the poverty line.
  • Similar to a child who struggles in school because he has a tough home life, I believe that when people are stressed in their personal lives, it negatively impacts their work performance.  Raising the minimum wage will improve worker performance unilaterally, as basic needs are met.
  • The existing minimum wage leads to corporate welfare.  Large retailers like Walmart and McDonald’s pay minimum wage.  Many of their employees, even though they’re working full time, are on government assistance programs.  Basically, the entitlement programs that people complain so much about subsidize the low-paid employees of large corporations.  If you want to shrink the government, make the corporations pay a fair wage.  For example, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 will reduce between 3.3 and 3.8 million people from enrolling in the tax payer funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Other public programs such as Medicaid, EITC, and TANF would be similarly affected.
  • Paying the low and lower-middle class a higher wage will immediately help the economy.  If you give more money to rich people, they’re not going to spend it.  They’ll horde it.  When money lands in the hands of minimum wage earners, consumption immediately increases.  As they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
  • I read a great quote recently from a CEO of a company- “For CEOs to take credit for job creation is like a squirrel taking credit for evolution.”  I won’t hire anyone unless people buy our product.  The consumer is solely responsible for job creation.  Contrary to what many CEOs in opposition are claiming, raising the minimum wage will actually create jobs, not cut them.

$11 an hour is just the next step for us here at MOM’s- and as we continue to improve our workforce, we will continue to raise wages even higher.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine perfectly outlines the case for raising the minimum wage (and at 2:56, mentions MOM’s!).

When I started MOM’s almost 27 years ago, I used to think that I could do everything the best and that the handful of employees I had were there to simply take instructions and do what I say.  This past decade or so, I’ve come realize that not only was I wrong about that, but that I play a rather insignificant part in MOM’s success.

The people here at MOM’s have accomplished great things.  They’re smart, dedicated, and they move MOM’s forward, helping to accomplish our Purpose to protect and restore the environment.  They have taught me to have great faith in people and to understand their value.

Posted in business, MOM's Organic Market | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Save the Dandelions

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.14.38 AMSociety evolves, albeit sometimes slowly.  I am 49 years old.  There are things happening now that I would not have predicted when I was young.  Aside from the fact that gasoline is unleaded, DDT is banned, and there is more truth in advertising (cigarettes were once advertised as being good for us), we have a black President.  Gays can marry.  Whole Foods and Tesla are darlings of Wall Street.  When I fly towards the west or go hiking in Maine, I see huge wind farms.  Healthcare is finally available to all.

At the beginning of all of these movements are a select few of deemed “radicals,” people with courage and foresight to challenge the status quo.  I feel like I’ve been surrounded by such people my entire life.  My parents thought rather radically and associated with like-minded people.

I’ve been sensing an upswell of radical opposition to, of all things, lawns.  I blogged about the topic a couple of years ago here and here.

When hurricane Isabel roared through the DC region back in 2003, over a dozen large trees fell in my wooded yard.  The lot was already somewhat of a mess with invasive English ivy smothering everything.  The previous owners planted bramble everywhere.

I had a minuscule lawn and 2 kids with 1 on the way.  I decided it was time to clear it all out (leaving the existing trees) and put down grass seed to hold the ground.  In the spring we spread seed and hay and I naively called a lawn care company to get my lawn started.  I signed a contract for a year’s service.  Sometime in June, after a few “applications” and some rainfall, I walked out onto my patio and slipped and fell.  There was algae growing everywhere.  My grass was turning dark green.

Blog_lawn_water1I realized then that I’d been paying for a plethora of unneeded chemical applications that were hurting the environment.  I never put anything on my lawn ever again, and I started to take notice of the industry and our assumptions about lawns in general.  I cringe when I see those little signs on yards telling us that’s Blog_lawn_chemicals2chemicals have been applied.

Maybe lawns are important to so many because they’re seen as status symbols, similar to what Blog_lawn_Europ1seems like other affluent suburban anxieties over who drives the most luxurious car, who lives in the biggest house, where our kids go to college, what top sports league our kids play in, even what fancy breed of dog we walk.  Regardless, the world would be better off if certain industries were to go bankrupt.  I’m Blog_lawn_Scrutiny1adding lawn care to that list.

MOM’s is taking action this month as we launch our Save the Dandelions campaign to educate people about the impact of chemical lawns.  From March 15-23, we will collect any unwanted lawn chemicals from customers and safely Blog_lawn_car1dispose of them; we will be educating our customers about the negative environmental impacts of lawn chemicals; and we will launch an advertising campaign to shift public perception towards embracing imperfect, natural yards.  Save the Dandelions!

Posted in environment, home, Lawn, water | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments