The subject of food waste is not sexy. Anyone faced with the statistic that we waste 40% of our food in America is almost certainly appalled – for a second or two. But they also probably stop thinking about it just a tiny second later, probably after a moment of thinking “not us, though.” And yet, it almost certainly is us.
A recent study is very clear about the costs of wasted food – food waste has risen by 50% in my lifetime, and the average American now wastes 1400 kilocalories a day of food. That adds up to 1/4 of all freshwater use, 300 million barrels of oil spent in agriculture (and this excludes the energy spent on transportation and storage – the actual number is certainly much, much higher), and has contributed, along with biofuel production and rising meat consumption, to higher grain prices, leading to the world food crisis. Food waste is not trivial, and it is us – but how do we come to see our actions as important, and make a meaningful change?
And they are important – both in a world and in a personal sense. At the most basic level, the old “eat your food because children are starving in India” bit has some truth in it – when rich people and poor people compete for food resources, the rich (us in the Global North) always win. And we drive up prices – and that leads to hunger. We simply can’t afford to throw this much food away – for example, when rice prices rose in 2008 due to a combination of biofuel growth, rising meat consumption, commodity speculation and food waste, rice prices rose by 30% in the US, but by nearly 300% in parts of Haiti, where mothers were reduced to feeding their children dirt cookies, because they could not buy their basic staple, rice.
But it isn’t just the poor world where we can’t afford this – we can’t afford it ourselves. One out of every nine Americans uses food stamps to get to the end of the month – that means that a substantial portion of us are struggling to put food on the table, and throwing out 1/4 or more of it is not an option. Food waste adds up to several hundred dollars going out the window for families that can ill afford it. And it leads to real hunger – a recent USDA study showed that one out of every five kids in the US went hungry at some point last year.
So what do we do? We don’t intend to waste food, of course – we buy it with the full intention of eating it all, and then we, well, just don’t. But there’s a lot we can do to reduce our waste:
1. Eat leftovers regularly, and develop recipes that use small amounts of leftovers. For example, when we have leftover rice, we often make fried rice or rice pudding with it. Stale bread gets made into chocolate-banana bread pudding (recipe at the end of the post) or croutons or panzanella (tuscan tomato and bread salad). A few extra stir-fried veggies go straight into the soup. We also have regular leftover lunches and dinners. Remember, just because it isn’t enough for a whole meal for everyone doesn’t mean you can’t portion it out or send it as a lunch with someone.
2. Be realistic about what you will consume – don’t order the giant sandwich if you don’t ever finish it. Don’t fill your cup to the brim at the drink fountain just because you paid for it. If you never eat the rice with your takeout chinese, tell them not to send it. If you don’t want extra ketchup packages, don’t take them – give them back.
3. Don’t be overly tolerant of pickiness in your kids – but don’t give them too much. Nobody ever died because their parents made them eat broccoli, so don’t let your kids get away with whining about not liking it – and don’t cook them special meals. Picky eating is a learned behavior for most people (there are some adults and children with legitimate sensory issues that are different than ordinary pickiness) – while everyone has a few food preferences, real pickiness is a product of affluence, and if you don’t tolerate it, will go away. Don’t over serve your kids, though – give them very small portions of each thing, and then expect them to clear their plates – they can always have more. It helps, btw, if parents model non-pickiness too, so make an effort.
4.Emphasize foods that don’t go bad easily. If you make a lot of meals from staple foods that store well, supplemented with fresh stuff, you won’t have as much waste as if you fill your fridge with fresh stuff that needs to be eaten now. Dry beans, whole grains and other stable foods last a long time and are good for you too.
5. Reduce your animal product intake – meat, milk and fish will always be the first things to spoil in your refrigerator. If you eat less of them, you’ll do a great deal of environmental good all around – not excluding reducing food waste.
6. If you get a CSA basket or grow a garden, learn how to preserve your bounty for later, or find people to share with. Gardening or buying local isn’t a magic bullet – lots of people find themselves struggling to figure out what to do with all that kale or those cucumbers. If you get them, you have two choices – find other people to share with, or learn to put them up. Preserving food can be very simple, and doesn’t have to involve standing over a pressure canner all week – there are lots of ways to make that food last a little or a lot longer that are very easy. I actually wrote a whole book on that subject recently, and you can find it on my sidebar .
7. Support your local hunger infrastructure at every step. Did your meeting at work leave extra sandwiches? Be the one who drops them at the soup kitchen or works out a company policy for donating food. Are you going apple picking? Bring some friends and collect drops for the food pantry. Do you have the power to redirect food waste to the hungry? If so, make sure it gets there.
8. Create markets for imperfect produce. The reality is that a lot of farmers don’t have anywhere to sell tomatoes with a little scarring or that ear of corn that had to have the tip cut off. If you don’t demand that your produce look absolutely perfect, you are telling that farmer “don’t throw it on the compost pile, sell it to me.” Get together with friends and neighbors and buy bulk produce that is slightly imperfect or overripe, and put it away for winter – those juicy peaches make great peach jam. 10% of all food is thrown out simply because of visual imperfections that have no effect upon the food’s quality.
9. Focus on local. If food does get wasted, local, low-input farming reduces the number of barrels of oil and climate gasses produced as the food is being grown. A shorter time from harvest to purchase reduces food waste. Tastier, fresher produce entices you to actually eat it. There’s nothing about local food that doesn’t help with the waste equation.
10. Feed food scraps to something. This is an argument for backyard chickens, rabbits and other animals – those animals, raised in or near population centers can be fed in large part on food that would otherwise go to waste, converting scraps into usable eggs, meat and manure that can help feed more people. We folks who are already keeping poultry and other animals can talk to local cafes and restaurants about a “chicken bin.” If you have food waste, consider getting something to feed it too – even city dwellers can often have poultry (7 out of the 8 largest cities in the US permit backyard chickens), while even apartment dwellers can keep worms. Or at a minimum, convert it to compost to help people grow more food – if you live somewhere where there’s no chance to have animals or don’t want them, agitate for community composting.
The reality is that all of us will be a lot happier if we can get these numbers down! If you want to learn more about this subject, the definitive blog is Jonathan Bloom’s superb Wasted Food site.