Casaubon's Book

Preserving Food to Reduce Waste

The UN FAO reminds us of the sheer scope of world food waste – 1/3 of all the food produced, most of it produce, goes to waste. While we’ll never get food waste to zero, this is a scandal in a world worrying about how it will feed itself.

This is not news – the statistics have been similar for a while now. But when it penetrates, it does give people a sense of the scope of the wastage problem. That pasta with broccoli rabe molding in your fridge is really a link to a larger world and cultural problem.

The Global North and South both waste similar portions of the food they produce, but there is a significant difference between them – the majority of the wastage in the global south comes from lack of ability to preserve food – no refrigeration, no easy way to preserve it on a large scale, and limited market access or long times from harvest to market. That is, most food lost in the Global South is lost because of technological limits and poverty. There are strategies that can be used for remediation there – building appropriate technology for preservation, teaching new preservation methods, small applications of money and energy that can make a big difference to some of the poorest people in the world – rural farmers in the Global South.

If they can get more of their crop to market in some form, or preserve it for later use, that in turn both makes more food available to their communities and also gives them the income or food to improve their own situation.

In the Global North, the picture is different. We do lose food at harvest, but the majority of all food loss is household and market – supermarkets throwing out lightly dinged cans and crates of produce, households buying food and burying it in the back of their refrigerators – this is the picture of food waste in the Global North. It is worth noticing that specifically speaking, larger quantities of wealth and technology make absolutely no difference in total food wastage – the difference is that we run energy hungry refrigerators and process food into cans *before* we throw it out – investing 20 times more energy in our food before we put it in the trash. Talk about resources down the drain. The average American wastes nearly 800 dollars in food per year – that’s a lot of money down the drain as well.

What does all this have to do with food preservation? Well, there are some obvious tools to reduce world food waste, and some not-so-obvious tools. Some of the obvious ones involve making better use of the food you do have, using food scraps for compost and to raise livestock in populated areas (converting waste into fertility and more food), building networks to distribute perfectly good food, encouraging freegans and dumpster divers, and simply doing more sharing – if you can’t eat that CSA share, instead of letting it rot, give it away!

One of the less obvious available strategies for us in the Global North, however, is small scale home food preservation. As more and more of us look locally for food, we have more power to reduce both food waste, and the energy used in the food system before we waste. Buying in bulk, preserving what is abundant and cheap at the market, in our garden or in excess in the wild (many invasive plants are delicious), and using methods of food preservation to reduce home food waste can make a significant difference in the overall picture. Just as your pasta molding in the fridge is a link to a much vaster cultural problem, the fruit leather from overripe fruit about to go moldy is a link in the chain that begins to address this fundamental problem.

How do you use food preservation to reduce waste? Well, in an emergency – which might be a power outage when everything in your freezer is vulnerable or a hard frost you weren’t prepared for that threatens the tomato crop, you can get out your solar dehydrator, your canning jars, your salt, the root cellar, and protect that food from loss. With a CSA share or a relationship with local farmers, you can get access to cheap food – not industrial cheap food, but the food they have that is so abundant that there are discounts for bulk purchase – and put that food by. Doing so saves you money on higher priced food come winter, but also reduces farmer losses.

Gleanings programs that glean agricultural fields for food missed by tractors and harvesters can reduce hunger in your community and also give you free food to preserve. So can wild harvest of edibles that grow in abundance or in excess – no need for that garlic mustard to rot into compost, you might as well eat it first.

But most of all, at the home scale, food preservation can reduce the loss of food in our refrigerators and root cellars. Apples getting mushy? Don’t dump them, make applesauce or apple leather. Cabbage dried on the outside? Give the chickens or rabbits the outer leaves and make sauerkraut with the inner ones. Do you have a little bit of extra oatmeal? Make crackers. Many of us have a mental image that food preservation is something one does in vast stretches of time, canning a truckload of tomatoes, or a bushel of peaches – and perhaps you’ll want to do some of that too. But really, the simplest forms of preservation involve putting a little bit of what you’ve got a lot of up for your own enjoyment later – and to reduce the overwhelming costs of food waste.

BTW, if you’d like to learn food preservation techniques to make your gardens or your local farm produce or CSA share go further and reduce waste, or keep eating locally all winter, next Tuesday my next food preservation and storage class will be starting. It is online, asynchronous and runs for six weeks, until the end of June, covering the full range of low-input techniques for food preservation including dehydration, pressure and water bath canning, lacto-fermentation, season extension, root cellaring, dairy preservation, preservation of meats and even making booze ;-). Cost of the class is $150, and I still have a couple of scholarship spots available. This is most likely the only time I will offer this class in 2011, since I have a book to finish!

BTW, apologies if you’ve sent me an email or a query – I’m behind dealing with flooding. Bear with me for a few days!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Richard Eis
    May 19, 2011

    I was thinking that consumption was going to be a tiny part of things and the 1/3rd was going to mostly be production and supply-chain, used as an excuse to complain that people are personally wasting that much when business was the main culprit…

    Then i read the pdf and i’m like “what on earth are people in Europe and America doing with cereals?” Is everyone running around with their trousers full of the stuff and re-enacting “The Great Escape”?

    How can you physically waste more than half your food like that, it’s bizarre that you would want to spend time actually buying and then dumping all this food. Or that your fridge/freezer could hold enough to have such waste available.

  2. #2 Lee Borden
    May 19, 2011

    Another technique available to us here in the southern US is to grow food year-round. Here in Alabama where our winter temps rarely get below 20 degrees, we can easily grow kale, collards, and cabbage through the winter, and we can grow broccoli well into the winter (and see it revive in the spring), all without using any fossil fuel energy or even a hoop house. What better way to preserve food than to keep it growing until the day we’re ready to eat it?

  3. Nothing natural is “manicured”. It’s your choice, or at least the result of decisions you’d otherwise claim to have made. You’re describing your normative existence, nothing more, nothing less. If you thought of yourself as an aspect of history you might ask how your social life became so denuded of variety; bounded by preconceptions -by others’ ideas rather than by your own experience. It originates in a phobia of subjectivity I guess..

  4. #4 Deb in AL
    May 19, 2011

    Lee is correct. We are lucky here with our ‘normal’ winter weather. I don’t think that’s what we had this year. However, I did manage to do a little with lettuces and onions and was satisfied with my first try at winter growing. My question is how to make crackers with leftover oatmeal. Crackers are my next project and I’ve been collecting recipes so that sounds interesting. Good luck with the flooding!

  5. #5 Chile
    May 19, 2011

    A large portion of the wasted food in the North happens before it even reaches the supermarkets. It is wasted on the farms because they have to provide what the supermarkets will accept to sell – the beautiful and the uniform, and at the right price. Scenes described in Jonathan Bloom’s book are heartbreaking – entire truckloads of freshly harvested produced going straight to the landfill or being dumped in a field to rot.

    I agree that it’s important to minimize waste at home, but that waste is a small portion of the waste in the overall system. I’ll keep doing my small part, but I’d like to see the big boys (corporations) do theirs, too!

  6. #6 Tsu Dho Nimh
    May 19, 2011

    Gleanings programs that glean agricultural fields for food missed by tractors and harvesters can reduce hunger in your community and also give you free food to preserve.

    I remember many years ago when a group found out that a substantial proportion of the melons grown near Yuma AZ had been left in the fields during harvest … so they went to salvage them.

    Most of the melons had been rejected because they showed signs of mold infection. If they had been sent to the packing house, the mold would have infected the rest of them and damaged even more of the fruit. Others had rodent damage from the native cotton rat and would not have survived shipping.

    The group returned triumphantly with a few “perfectly good melons gone to waste” as talking points and didn’t say much about the ones they left behind, although the newspaper reporter they had with them covered that aspect.

    The melon farmers? They turn cows into the fields after harvest to eat the melons and the vines, then plant the next crops.

  7. #7 Nicole
    May 19, 2011

    Deb in AL – I’m just making this up, but I think you could use leftover cooked oatmeal to make a dough, perhaps with a little flour to hold it together better and maybe spices for a different flavor. Roll out, cut into crackers and then bake. Or even just dehydrate.

    With the addition of some sugar and dairy it there are possibilities for cookies and oatmeal bread, too.

    People always think my fridge is empty, but really… how much stuff do you need in there? I don’t understand the gargantuan restaurant size fridges for families of 4, even those with teenage boys. I am terrible about milk going bad. I just don’t use enough of it and it goes bad quickly, but have never found a dry milk powder I like.

  8. #8 Greenpa
    May 19, 2011

    I have a more subtle kind of waste to discuss here, Sharon; and I’ll bet you’ve run into it. I’d like to hear your ways of coping. Let’s see; we could use a name…

    Basically it’s caused by overabundance. It’s the point you get to with some excellent food crop where you wind up whispering so no one can hear you “I’m so sick of canning sweet corn I could scream!! I’m just gonna toss the next 2 pickings on the compost heap and not tell anybody!”

    That first picking of sweet corn each year is paradise. So lovely. You feel totally rewarded for all the work, and vast self-satisfaction at your ability to provide. Then 1/2 way through the main crop; you get BLOODY SICK OF IT. And. Tell the truth. Quite a bit winds up wasted- not picked or left too long before processing, so it gets thrown out.

    Anybody else do this? Happens here every year; and corn is only intended as an illustration. It can happen with apples (I have 200 trees) – eggs (I have 35 hens) – anything.

    Hyper-saturation of pleasure sensors; leading to actual revulsion.

    And, we know, someone not far away would totally love to have this stuff; probably actually needs it- but we just can’t look at it anymore. And, we feel guilty about it too; leading to one more reason to not think about it.

    Folks in cities will rarely have this problem; but I’m wondering how much of the waste totted up in this study comes from this kind of loss.

    Thoughts?

  9. #9 ChrisBear
    May 19, 2011

    Garlic mustard?! We just tried another recipe for it, still not to our liking. A shame, because the fields are overrun with it. Any suggestions for how to prepare it would be welcome!

    Here in the North, we build for waste. That’s how I see it. We have transportation that wears out fast and needs constant maintenance (cars), we have houses that need constant inputs of energy to keep them cool/warm/dry, and maintenance, so of course we have food that needs much more grown than consumed. These inefficiencies keep the economy going by creating a constant stream of demand and work. Is it a good idea? No. Is it easy to get off the merry-go-round? NO! But like you said in an earlier post- keep practicing. The ride might stop on its own…

  10. #10 KF
    May 19, 2011

    Chile – I second your assessment about waste in the farm-to-market stream. I live nearby the Apple Capital of the world in the Pac NW. Every year the packers refuse to take literal tons of apples, pears, cherries, and other orchard crops, either because they’re a little misshapen or “ugly” or slightly too small or because they just can’t refrigerate/process/transport more before it starts to go soft and be untransportable. In the recent past, I’ve gotten whole packing house bins (4 ft by 4ft by 3 ft tall) of pears for free that the packing shed won’t take because they got picked a day or two too late and are too soft to go on a truck (but are still too hard to eat!) I think part of the problem with waste comes from industrial ag, where so much of a single crop is grown that it surpasses what the local area can eat/process/store and then must be transported elsewhere within a short time window. If anything in that chain of picking/packing/chilling/transport is delayed or disrupted in any way, whole harvests can sit on a truck or in a warehouse and will be thrown out.

  11. #11 Richard Eis
    May 19, 2011

    Greenpa – All excess at our house gets turned into wine where possible and then stuck in with the rest of the bottles at the next family get-together, though not sure about sweetcorn. There was literally nothing else to do with it.

    For us, it was always berries and cooking apples. Utterly sick of the sight of them after a month of harvesting. Can’t give them away fast enough.

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    May 19, 2011

    Statistically speaking, home food waste is *not* a small part of the picture, actually – more than half of the food wasted in total in the US is lost after its first transport. It is true that heartbreaking quantities of food are lost at the field end, but statistically speaking, more is lost later in the system in the global north. In the global south, it is the opposite, of course.

    Sharon

  13. #13 Greenpa
    May 19, 2011

    Sharon, re comment 12 – absolutely correct on everything there.

    I have a crystallized picture for everyone of the “home waste” problem; taken to the extreme end of the pendulum.

    When I was in high school, as part of our Sea Scout program, we spent 2 days and a night on one of the very few US Navy warships allowed on the Great Lakes; a “Patrol Craft Escort”; best visualized as a further chopped down Destroyer Escort. We ate, stood watches, and slept with the crew. Besides learning that “Pass the f—ing butter.” was the polite form of the request, we learned what went on in the kitchen, in a military vessel at sea.

    They cook a lot of food. Pretty much always more than the crew can eat- running short on food is apparently a court-martial offense. So they have a LOT of leftovers.

    They don’t store it; don’t reuse it, don’t leave it out for snacks. Don’t have space, energy, crew time for handling, etc. So, they throw it over the side. I was given the duty of throwing overboard trays full of ham, eggs, salads, etc. I did squawk about it to the cooks. They just shrugged, but did take the time to explain; on this ship, they just couldn’t afford to keep it.

    Painful to see. But a compressed microcosm of similar problems leading to waste in homes. It takes work to save the food; sometimes, it’s just not available.

  14. #14 Greenpa
    May 19, 2011

    Richard – you can make beer out of corn, you know… google “chicha”. They usually start with dry corn; but to a yeast, sugar is sugar… :-)

  15. #15 Richard eis
    May 19, 2011

    …and carbohydrates are a challenge! Actually i couldn’t google-foo a good recipe so i left it open in my original comment. Still there is always cider!

    I have two demijohns of rice-wine on the go as we speak actually. Corn is too much hassle to grow in England. Here it’s all about the potato!

  16. #16 KarenElizabeth
    May 19, 2011

    Nicole @ 7: I, too, have struggled with milk going bad — I just don’t like drinking the stuff plain, but need it around for baking and making sauces and such. And yes, the powdered milk just does NOT come out the same. It’s okay if you’re going to be baking it into a cake or something, but the texture and taste just don’t come out quite right in milk-heavy sauces or soups.

    I discovered, a while back, that cream takes much, much longer to spoil than milk does. Even just light cream (5 or 10%) can have a fridge life that is weeks longer than plain old 2%. I’ve switched my buying habits, and only keep cream in my fridge now (I can dilute it if necessary for certain recipes). I’ll buy milk occasionally, but only when I know I’m going to use it. The reason why cream takes longer to spoil, of course, is that it’s the non-fat ingredients in milk that are prone to spoilage. This is why butter, kept wrapped up in the fridge, will keep practically forever: it’s mostly fat, which doesn’t spoil.

    When I do, occasionally, get to the point when I’ve got too much cream getting too close to its expiry date, I’ll make a sauce or a soup from it and freeze that in single portion sizes. You could do the same with milk, I’m sure. You can also store soups and sauces in glass canning jars and sterilize them in a hot water canner to keep them for even longer, without using up freezer space.

  17. #17 Nicole
    May 19, 2011

    KarenElizabeth, I’ve tried diluting cream, but it’s just not the same either. But your comment sparked a memory — we used to freeze milk jugs before going camping and I don’t recall any loss of quality. Maybe I can start freezing most of the milk and thawing as needed? If it works, that’s also a great way to get the cheaper gallon prices (and less packaging, too).

    But I sure miss buying glass bottles of raw milk when I lived in California. That stuff lasted for ages in the fridge and tasted so much better I never let it go bad!

  18. #18 Apple Jack Creek
    May 20, 2011

    I love my dehydrator for ‘too much of something’ days – fruit leather, dried peppers, dried celery, even grated dried carrots for soups & stews.

    I also love (big time) my food mill. I can make cream of vegetable soup with a mixture of odd leftovers/surplus veggies and nobody in my family complains … they can’t SEE the celery bits or the fact that the potatoes were the leftover fried ones from three nights back, and if the carrots were growing little rootlet hairs or the broccoli stems were pretty tough, well, the food mill takes care of all that. The tough bits stay behind (unlike with a blender) and the flavours all blend together. My regular vegetable soups tend to be met with upturned noses, but take the same stuff and run it through the food mill, add a few spices and a splash of milk, and everyone thinks it’s awesome. Totally worth the investment. Highly recommended.

  19. #19 plumbing
    May 20, 2011

    Food waste have a varied impact, depending on the amount produced and how it is dealt with; in some countries the amount of food waste is negligible and has little impact. However, in countries such as the US and the UK, where according to some estimates, food scrap represents around 19 percent of the waste dumped in landfills, where it ends up rotting and producing methane, a greenhouse gas, the social, economic and environmental impact of food wastage is enormous.

  20. #20 nancy brownlee
    May 21, 2011

    Close your little cycle with chickens and/or rabbits. A couple of pet rabbits will produce enough droppings to activate TONS of compost. Half a dozen chickens will do the same, and produce eggs. Chickens will eat anything, anything at all, but feeding meat scraps is not a good idea. These small animals fit right into an urban lot, and if you’re rural, you’ll be able to additionally feed out a pig on the garden scraps- neighbors will be happy to contribute waste. Our forebears did it and thought themselves lucky to have the meat!

  21. Wow!! i am very impressed with your lovely post.. i am so glad to left comment on this..

  22. #22 ely
    October 16, 2011

    hmmmmm…… what did you say ???

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