Waste not: Finding a path to tossing less food
Languishing. Wilting. Molding.
Is this the sad state of affairs inside your refrigerator?
If you secretly feel guilty about throwing out food, perhaps there’s a good reason.
One oft-quoted statistic indicates that 40% of edible food is wasted in the United States. At the household level (subtracting farm, restaurant and retail loss), that figure drops to 21%, totaling 90 billion pounds of food, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
That’s a bit more palatable but still a figure to pause over.
It’s essentially like walking out of the grocer and chucking one in five bags into the store’s dumpster after forking over your hard-earned cash. According to a USDA report from this March, the monthly at-home food bill for a family of four averages $1,000. That means that more than $200 is going down the tubes each month.
Why all the waste?
“About 40 years ago, we wasted half of what we currently waste,” said Linda Gleason, a dietetics instructor at Mount Mary University, where she teaches culinary skills for healthy living and community nutrition.
She offered several reasons for the sharp hike in food waste:
- bullets here (3 items)Poor follow-through at home after shopping, so that food is often on hand but not prepared.
- An unrealistic demand for perfect produce.
- Warehouse shopping and large packages that promote overbuying.
Seasonal factors also contribute, according to the USDA, with more food being wasted in summer. Overall, fresh fruit (25% is dumped), fresh vegetables (24%), meat (23%), fish/seafood (31%) and dairy products (20%) top the list of foods lost at the consumer level.
Apparently, it’s not the Ding Dongs that are getting ditched. It’s the good stuff . . . the healthful stuff, the stuff farmers toil over and expend valuable resources such as water, land, petroleum, electricity and manpower to produce. That's not to mention the pharmaceuticals (for livestock), the pesticides or the taxes that fund subsidies for commodity farmers.
When food is squandered, so are all those resources.
Age and cooking skills also play significant roles in food waste.
Older Americans, especially those who lived through the Great Depression or World War II, seem to be less apt to waste food. “The evidence in this is the increase in food waste over the years,” Gleason said.
Better meal planning often tops the list of ways to reduce food waste, but according to Gleason, “to have an impact on waste, this must be followed by shopping from a list for what is needed and then (having) the discipline to actually prepare the meals.”
“Americans are quite spontaneous in their eating and many don’t have the basic cooking skills, so these tips are much easier said than done,” she said.
One Waukesha home cook recently decided to do something about food waste in her home. Instead of giving up something for Lent earlier this spring, Lisa Beranek Terasa re-examined her kitchen efficiency.
“I saw a public service announcement on how much food a typical American household throws out. It resonated with me,” she said. “I often ran out of time to prepare produce or found items with expired dates, and these would end up in the garbage.
“My grandmother and mother were very frugal. Nothing went to waste. They both had gardens and canned or froze the produce,” Terasa explained. “We had a leftovers night at least once a week when we were children. It was a fun meal because everyone had his or her favorite, and everything got eaten up.”
Terasa thinks those valuable food lessons of the past need to be re-established.
“In this era of ‘fast’ everything, we need to teach and model to our children and grandchildren how to slow down and be mindful of food and eating,” she said.
Taking the topic of food waste to a deeper level leads one to ask, does food nowadays get the respect it deserves? Is food a precious, life-giving gift . . . or a cheap, common commodity to be picked up when buying gas?
The answer could relate to the fact that Americans spend relatively little on food, averaging just over 11% of their disposable income, according to the USDA. If food were more expensive, Gleason said, Americans could potentially waste less “because we would value it more.”
At the same time, many Americans have scant knowledge of where their food comes from and the effort involved in bringing it to the table. Some have never raised, prepared or preserved food, and they have never lived through food shortages or rationing.
Even so, Gleason said, there is a segment of food buyers who do highly value food. “There are those who will pay premium prices for organic, gourmet, locally-sourced, unique foods,” she said.
Though consumers are the biggest culprits, wasting more than anyone else in the food supply chain, this means they have the ability to effect the biggest change . . . from their kitchens.
Part of preventing that food waste is being realistic. If time is limited, look for quick, simple recipes that use up leftovers or call for those seasonal fruits and vegetables that can suddenly overload your kitchen. If an ingredient list contains too many or too-obscure items, move on to a less-complicated recipe.
Gleason likes to whip up a chopped salad that can take many forms when lingering items accumulate in her kitchen.
“I chop up ends of romaine lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, grate up some carrot, cut up the apple with the big bruise, add a can of beans (black or chickpeas), pick off the meat remaining on the bones of a rotisserie chicken, finish off the jar of olives — you get the idea,” she said. “Each salad is a never-to-be-repeated delight.”
Terasa offered these recent reprisals from her kitchen:
- Soft, mushy raspberries, blueberries and blackberries cooked in a saucepan with a little water and sugar became a sauce for overnight oats and chia.
- Raisin bran flakes left in the bottom of a cereal box were baked into quick muffins.
- Stale bread with butter, olive oil and garlic transformed into quick garlic bread, bruschetta or bread crumbs.
When shopping for food, take a businesslike approach.
Yes, this is tough when you’re under the post-winter food spell cast by enchanting produce at the farmers market on a sunny spring day. But remember, highly perishable food must be eaten within a few days. These include upcoming culinary superstars such as berries, asparagus, lettuces, spinach, cherries and ripe melons.
For fruit and vegetable storage tips, Gleason recommended visiting your-vegetable-gardening-helper.com online.
As for leftovers, make sure they get the prompt attention they deserve. Be purposeful with them; using leftovers helps you get a jump-start on tomorrow’s meal. Embrace them as a reward for being an efficient cook.
Burying leftovers without labels in the hinterlands of your refrigerator, however, may not be prudent. Instead, habitually place them on the refrigerator’s top shelf or some other highly visible spot. Use them up the next day, or freeze for a future meal.
As for store-bought packaged foods, Gleason offered some clarity on those mystifying dates.
“The dates on foods are often confusing to consumers and sometimes lead to discarding foods unnecessarily,” Gleason explained. “After the best-by or use-by date, quality may be diminished but the food is not necessarily spoiled. ‘Sell by’ dates, often found on fresh meats or dairy, are for use by grocers, and these foods should not be sold after the sell-by date.
“A few foods have a true expiration date, such as yeast or baking powder, after which the food or ingredient may not function fully and should be discarded. It would be an additional waste of ingredients to use an expired leavening agent and end up with an unacceptable product,” she added.
Garbage disposal: friend or foe?
Household food waste will inevitably occur even with the most conscientious eaters. What’s the best way to deal with the scraps?
The least desired place is the trash. Being trapped in a landfill prevents air from doing what comes naturally: rotting and returning the food to the soil from whence it came. It also contributes to greenhouse gases, according to an environmental group that studies food waste, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That noisy garbage disposal is a better option, they argue.
Disposals direct waste into the sewerage system either to a municipal treatment center or your septic system. Municipal centers may then send it to a landfill; if they do it will be much more decomposed. Or, they may sell it as a soil amendment or process it in a more eco-friendly way over landfills.
The preferred solution for unwanted food is composting, where nutrients can be recycled back into soil. And some food scraps may be appropriate for animals such as chickens.
But proactively preventing the loss in the first place is best.