Americana-on-a-Stick at the State Fair

Iowa, in the heartland of America, has heart-stopping attractions at their state fair this week. Under the big top, food is over-the-top. Oversized, overpriced, and over the waistband. If you get a hankering for taking a bite out of the Iowa State Fair’s cow carved out of butter, you can munch on your own stick of butter, shoved onto a stick and deep-fried. Iowa has fried butter, Wisconsin has fried cheese, Mexico has fried ice cream. Who’ll tackle fried coffee creamer: the Irish or Italians?

Serving food on a thin skewer makes for just one teensy addition to the garbage bin, and compostable sticks made of bamboo, which grows ten times faster rather than wood, minimize the forestry impact. Eating fried food, however, requires fistfuls of paper napkins to soak up the grease dribbling down your chin. In the case of our fried butter-on-a-stick, the frying oil and butter team up for extra oozing and reams of napkins.

Funnel cakes, fried meat, and French fries are conventionally served in waxed paper or plastic trays and plates. One genius container-free fried idea comes from the Texas State Fair, stuffing supper inside an entirely edible dessert dish with the fried chicken and waffle cone. Ice cream usually comes in a little cup with a plastic spoon, lemonade in a taller cup, and pop in plastic bottles. After a few seconds of refreshment, the container is tossed in the trash. Last year the Kentucky State Fair filled 68,000 garbage bags.

Even as our waistlines expand, our eyes still seem bigger than our stomachs. Garbage bins are a quarter full of half-eaten meals. Billfolds must be bulging too, if folks just shrug at crumpling up and tossing out $3.00 of a $6.00 item. Food waste makes up 25% of the trash produced at public events in California. If Midwesterners eat (or fail to eat) anything like Northeasterners’ estimate of 0.45 pounds of food waste per visitor, the one million attendees of the Iowa State Fair generate 450,000 pounds of food waste. This speaks volumes to our nation’s affluence and apathy.

At our first festival together in America, my foreign husband wanted to try a funnel cake for the first time, but we were still enduring sticker shock on our shoestring budget. My description of golden dough smothered in sugar backfired and only made it seem more appealing. Towards the end of the day, three teenage girls loitered in front of us, seemingly oblivious to their steaming funnel cake and how they taunted others’ appetites. I casually followed them towards an isolated garbage bin, too embarrassed to intercept in case the girls abruptly veered off still holding the goodies, yet apparently not ashamed of dumpster diving. Unsurprisingly, the bin was already filled up, and safely perched on top was their plate of fresh funnel cake, barely nibbled on a corner. By salvaging their refuse we saved $5.00, and my husband got to find out for himself that the flavor wasn’t worth it.

No need to risk food-borne diseases for the zero-waste cause. Here are some green tips to have a grand ol’ time at your state fair. By modeling these eco-habits you may attract some attention. Go ahead, be a walking environmental education pavilion!

1.) Treat the fair like a picnic
You keep a picnic basket packed with picnic gear used at a fair too: plates, cups, cutlery, napkins.

Keep a “fun outdoor day pack” packed with essential items and ready to grab for any summer fair or festival.

  • Reusable water bottle
    All concession stands are required to provide free water at the California State Fair. Why buy another $4.00 bottled water each time you’re thirsty in ninety-degree temperatures when you can fill up a $6.00 Nalgene countless times for free? With the savings, splurge on some fair treat or oddity.

Bring a plastic or aluminum reusable water bottle, because glass is usually prohibited. Ag fairs aren’t about raised-pinky sipping on fancy wine glasses, but slurping on slushees and gnawing on giant turkey legs.

  • Reusable spoon, fork, and straw stored in pencil pouch
  • Tupperware. Be sure to tell the food server in advance that you have your own container.
  • Cloth napkins and baggie for soiled napkins
  • Rags on their last life cycle to wipe off soiled containers and cutlery, then be tossed out
  • Hotel shampoo bottles refilled with a day’s supply of sunscreen and hand sanitizer

2.) Treat the fair like a Chinese revolving table restaurant
Just like you spin the Lazy Susan around to sample what everyone else ordered, take turns buying something to pass around your group. You’d have to be brave to take on some freakish fair offerings all by yourself.

“There are some that you take one bite, you say that you had it, and that’s all you need,” says a food critic on a sneak-peak of the 2015 Minnesota State Fair new food vendors.

Here is where food waste arises. So buddy up to share the food love.

3.) Petition for change with favorite vendors
The Iowa State Fair lists food vendors’ contact info (along with menus and prices to come prepared for a $4.00 lemonade), in case you don’t find it opportune to request an eco upgrade with a line of sweaty pushy people 20-deep behind you.

Say that you love their food but want to see, say, bamboo instead of wood sticks, or nonbleached post-consumer recycled paper napkins rather than bleached virgin-fiber napkins.

4.) Petition for change with the fair board
Is your state fair striving to be zero waste? For starters, suggest separate bins labeled for organics and recycling.

Holla back at me if you’ll be at the Iowa State Fair to meet up and split an Apple Pie On-A-Stick!


CarrieCarrie is an environmental educator, anthropologist, and translator. She took her passions for ecological, health, and women’s rights advocacy from the offices of Washington, D.C. to the streets of South America. Now in Colombia, she is slowly opening women’s eyes to the wonders of “la copita de luna” (Moon Cup) and Keepers.

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