On Halloween, we’ll carve our pumpkins, put them on display and then—throw them in the garbage. What a waste.
Lacing into the innocent Jack-o-lantern might make me a killjoy, but here’s the thing. The Halloween pumpkin, as it stands today, is an emblem of the problems of our global industrial food system that sucks up too many of the planet’s resources, feeds billions of us too much, leaves 1 in 8 humans chronically undernourished and lets one third of all food produced for human consumption go to waste.
Where I live, Jack-o-lanterns line the streets by the dozen, some houses displaying three, four, even five pumpkins. The morning after the pumpkins that aren’t smashed by late night marauders are thrown away.
But when we toss that pumpkin, we are wasting all the resources used to grow it—the irrigation water, any pesticides or fertilizers that treated the soil, and all the energy used to plant, harvest, transport, and then store it. When a pumpkin is sent to the landfill, it rots, emitting methane, an alarmingly potent greenhouse gas.
When we chuck our pumpkins, we are also wasting a good source of food. In many cuisines, pumpkin is a common ingredient. There’s Thai pumpkin curry, East African pumpkin stew, Japanese-style simmered pumpkin, chickpea and pumpkin tagine as well as soups and baked goods. The morning after Halloween, a friend of mine from Morocco, where she made pumpkin tagine, arrived at my door in shock because she had passed so many discarded pumpkins. To her, it was as if people had left freshly barbecued steaks to rot on their front porches.
But our food wastage is not just at Halloween. That we think it is okay to put a pumpkin in the garbage shows us how little we respect food and the land it comes from.
The stats bear this out. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 36 million tons of food end up in the landfill each year. It’s not just an American problem. People living in industrialized countries in North America and Europe each waste between 95 and 115 kg of food a year. And in higher income countries, the food that is thrown out is more likely to be suitable for human consumption when it is pitched. To highlight this problem on World Food Day earlier this month, staff at the Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome were invited to eat a vegetable soup, with croutons, made from food that the cafeteria would have otherwise thrown away.
But if we were to value food, and the land it grows from—not to mention the hard work of our farmers that allows us to live surrounded by such bounty—then we likely wouldn’t waste it so freely anymore. We need to see food to be the miracle that it is: the sun’s energy transformed into something that tastes delicious and fuels our bodies. Such a realization would be a step towards a more sustainable food system that can feed us into the future. So too is reducing food waste.
There is a simple way to begin this mental shift towards respecting food: pay attention to where your food comes from, how it is grown, and cook a meal yourself, from scratch. Then eat the leftovers.
The solution is simple too when it comes to this year’s pumpkin. Cook it! Peel it, chop it, steam or boil it and turn it into muffins, or pie, or biscuits or a curry or soup. If you have too much orange flesh, then freeze it. While the pumpkin varieties that are grown for Jack-o-lanterns are fleshier and more watery than the smaller ones called pie pumpkins, they are nevertheless a good source of food. (If you find your pumpkin to have too much water after you cook the flesh, strain it in a sieve or cheesecloth.)
Then when you eat your pumpkin you’ll be honoring it as a food and a product of this earth we call home—as well as doing something reduce waste.