At breakfast with a friend and her daughter in Germany a few years ago, I quietly held my breath wondering how the little girl would eat her yogurt. And she did it! Without interrupting her happy chatter, she peeled back the foil, then scraped off the tiny bit of yogurt before eating the whole thing.
I leaned back, relieved and touched. My friend had passed on to her daughter what we were taught as kids.
Although I was born 20 years after the end of World War II and never suffered shortages of any kind, the commandment, “Do not waste food” of my grandmother’s generation was instilled in me. That mentality is, of course, not a peculiar German one. Americans who lived through the Great Depression were equally mindful of food waste.
My grandmother’s eagerness to save any scraps took on some rather bizarre forms. She kept an entire battery of empty red jam jars in the back of her refrigerator. When she cooked Rote Grütze, the classic German dessert made with berries and cherries, she rinsed the jars with water, which she added to the Rote Grütze instead of plain water or fruit juice.
Another habit of hers was keeping a stack of butter wrappers in the refrigerator door to grease cake pans. My mother did that too, just like she took on many of my grandmother’s habits without questioning whether they were still appropriate in our times. That was, until not too long ago, my mother confessed to me that she angrily threw out all those butter wrappers in her fridge realizing that they had turned rancid and were going to spoil her cakes.
Food waste, and I mean real waste, is a big issue in Germany today, like in all other “rich” countries of the world – rich in parentheses because in Germany too, some people go hungry. An estimated 500,000 children do not get enough to eat on a regular basis, not only because the social welfare known as Hartz IV is not sufficient but often because parents do not know how to budget and buy soda and other junk food so there is not enough money left for food at the end of the month.
On average, 82 kg (180 pounds) of food per person are thrown out every year in Germany, which amounts to two large shopping cards full. To counter food waste and raise awareness the German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture has started the campaign Zu gut für die Tonne (Too good for the garbage bin). In addition to tips for smart shopping and saving foods, it provides recipes for cooking with leftovers, following in the footsteps of German cookbook classics like Dr. Oetker’s, which had a whole chapter devoted to leftovers (Resteverwertung). Interestingly, the campaign uses the informal “you” thus indicating that it mainly targets younger people.
I am two generations removed from the microgram saving mentality of my grandmother yet I cringe when I see food waste, or whenever food spoils under my nose. In my family I am notorious for signs like “Use this first!” on the milk bottle with the closest expiration date.
German language has a rather endearing term for people like me: Sparbrötchen (penny pincher), literally a “saving bun”. And that pinching goes beyond food.
To my husband’s dismay I cut open apparently empty hand cream tubes with good scissors. After the end of the school year I used to salvage notebooks from our children’s wastebaskets to rip out the empty pages for notepaper. When I was still working in a company office I drove my coworkers crazy by printing drafts on the back of used copy paper, and earned their full-blown scorn whenever a staple I had overlooked caused a paper jam in the printer.
Living in the US, idling vehicle engines is a big red flag for me. In Germany, beside the fact that the gas price is more than twice as high as in the US, idling your car will cost you. It falls under air and noise pollution as public disturbances and is fined with 10 euros.
As much as I would like to speak up when I see someone idle their engine I keep my mouth shut because America is a free country, and I have no business walking around playing environmental and resource police. So I only give them an angry stare hoping they’ll get it.
Sometimes, however, the unexpected happens.
Once a friend from Germany and her husband visited us over a hot September weekend. I took them on a bike ride to a local farm stand. While my friend and I checked out the produce her husband waited by the bikes in the parking lot.
When my friend and I returned, we found her husband with a look of bemused incredulity on his face. “You are not going to believe this!,” he said. A woman had driven up in her SUV. Leaving the engine running, she walked into the farm stand. A few seconds later she came back, looked at my friend’s husband and our bikes, and turned the engine off. Then she went back inside to do her shopping.