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.
The first thing I saw on Jonathan Bloom's blog (thanks for the pointer) is a clarification that the 40% represents per capita waste, not household food waste. Jonathan says:
"Basically, the researchers found the total waste from the food chain and divide it by the population to give it some perspective."
The American supply chain is wasteful, and any efforts to localize food production help. I'm an American living in the UK -- lots of waste here, with the movement toward a US-style industrial food system.
Several of your suggestions focus on getting people out of the industrial food habit -- Hooray, and thanks!
Congratulations on your new site. I feel special to be one of the first to comment.
Regarding stale bread and not wasting it - We keep ours in the fridge and it keeps very well without all the damage that long term freezing seems to do. I have been rationing a loaf of my favorite lo-cal 12 grain bread (not available where I am living now) and it has kept nicely in the fridge for almost 2 months. I hate wasting food and appreciate all of your suggestions. Thanks
For you, Sharon, I'll update my reader subscriptions, though I'll miss the smaller pond feeling of your previous location. I hope your hopes of reaching a wider audience bear fruit.
One thing - could I trouble you for a reference for the 7 out of 8 big US cities that allow backyard chickens, please?
Putting waste food into a composter is feeding someone, also. Worms aren't furry or feathered, but they feed us, too, and are actually quite complex and interesting animals. We can't see the microorganisms, but they are there doing their job of turning death into a source of life. We can even harvest some of their heat by planting squash in compost in early spring and keeping it sheltered from cold wind. We got plenty of squash this year in Maine when most gardeners got none because we grew it in warm compost.
My top tips for reducing food waste are:
1)Avoid supermarkets wherever possible
2)Buy meals for one or two days at a time, rather than for a whole week.
I started doing these two things about eighteen months ago. I used to be tempted by packaged food in supermarkets, "Oh, look at that, a lovely vegetarian curry, pack of tofu, new type of yogurt"...whatever. Not only did much of it go bad before I could get to eat it, but the plastic packaging meant I was sending more to landfill. Buying from supermarkets doesn't do anything for food security or local growers and it certainly doesn't do anything for your pocket.
I have heard that many people in developing countries buy food for the day that they are going to eat it and to me that system works. To have a fridge full of condiments and sauces, cupboards full of dried beans and rice and then buy whatever veg you need to make up the main part of the meal is the least wasteful.
Things still go bad with me sometimes, but not as often as previously. I am eating far more healthily and cheaply now. Now my next problem to tackle is how to judge it so I don't cook more than I need.
Did I miss the recipe for chocolate banana bread pudding? I was thinking that the ladybirds in my backyard won't miss a bit of the stale bread that they usually get from our kitchen, but I don't see the recipe.
what a fantastic post (and site- congrats!). I struggle with this topic specifically and thank you for pointing out that composting isn't enough.
Your suggestions are phenomenal.
Great new site, Sharon!
For me, reducing food waste has been a matter of thinking creatively, & changing a few habits. It took a bit of effort at first, but has become much easier as I get used to paying attention across the whole cycle of meal planning-shopping-storage-cooking-eating-dealing with leftovers/scraps-meal planning. Thinking of that as a cycle rather than a sentence with a full stop at the end is quite helpful.
Backyard chickens are allowed in the large city where I live, but the restrictions make it impossible to keep them legally unless you have a very large yard (I don't). The livestock fees would also be prohibitive for many people, and even if you can meet the two preceding criteria I've described, each household is limited to three hens. For now, I'm working on xeriscaping much of my yard, and developing the rest as vegetable and herb gardens (which have to be raised beds because of the poor and rocky soil here). I have a compost pile that provides quite nicely for the gardens.
Also looking for the chocolate-banana bread pudding recipe ....
Love the banner, and look forward to reading more of your posts!
Freezer jam is one easy way to preserve fruit, and some of the recipies involve very little added sugar. Learning home canning is an excellent way to make use of excess, especially blemished fruit and vegetables. The funny thing is, you can make excellent preserves from "windfall" fruit, give it to someone, and they feel as though they are getting a premium treat...and it is! They don't have to know that you cut off all the bad spots and fed the the scraps to the chickens.
Carol, you are definitely right - it is divided. And some measure of food waste is unavoidable. But it looked to me like a lot of the increase was at levels we can affect, and certainly, we could reduce our stream dramatically. Thank you for the clarification.
Kate, you can find the info about small and large cities here: http://home.centurytel.net/thecitychicken/chickenlaws.html
Jane, I think those are great suggestions for people who pass stores, or living in population centers where they can walk to food. I'm not sure if the net benefit would be sufficient if you had to make a lot of extra car trips to buy food every day. But that's a good point for urban dwellers.
Ann, I'm in favor of composting, but I tend to think that that should be the choice of last resort, after you've done everything you can to reduce your waste stream otherwise.
Everyone - Sorry about the bread pudding omission - I'm putting that, and my recipe for Laotian Chicken Soup up tomorrow - the extra recipe is my penance, plus I promised it to the folks on facebook.
Jane -- if you're avoiding supermarkets wherever possible and buying food every few days, where are you shopping? In my area, the supermarket is the only source of food within walking distance that's open that often, and it's a mile away so it's not worth it to me to take that large a chunk out of my day just for a few days' worth of food. Farmer's markets are only once a week and only during the growing season.
Don't forget to share. If you have a particular bounty of some produce or enough to make food for 1 or 2 more bodies, invite the neighbourhood widow, single mum, or domestically chalenged student over for a meal.
Waste can also be categorized as both the empty calories we eat and our gluttony. Both of these activies waste food and energy as well as taxing our bodies, pocket books and the planet.
Good luck with the new digs,
One thing I have always noticed each new planting season is the amazing amounts of plants being sold by big box retailers, nurserys, etc., that simply wind up becoming spindly and dying towards the end of the planting season.
Why not allow those plants to be given away instead of simply dying? For those of us who have gardened for years and grow our own starts from seed that we harvest from year to year this may not be too handy.
However for families who have never gardened, who may not have the experience with starting with seed, or who simply don't have even the money for their seeds, wouldn't this be a good way to begin?
Yeah, I know what you buy at the local nursery isn'always organic, and they are mostly hybrids, but we are talking teaching people how to feed themselves, and the money saved that first year of gardening could help fund the organic non-hybrid, or create an interest of starting the next year's garden from seed.
Each year my heart kinda hurts as I see some many wasted dying plants that could have been put to such great use.
Tammy, what a great idea. I doubt it would be difficult, either, to work out an arrangement with local big box stores and some group. That's a great idea!
this is just the new version of clean your plate the kids in Turkey are starving that my Mom told me Grandma gave her in the 30's or the how can Playboy mag show all that fancy gear in the 60's when people don't have a indoor john down in Mississippi--the real problem is not what we use but the local social conditions that drive hunger and want--think Caste system--warlords--political driven hate--guilt tripping people for throwing away a pizza crust is a cheap and easy way to avoid solving real problems..it's not that we have so much it's that others have so little--the thing about being old is that you see this sort of thing go around every 10 or 20 years..in the early 70's i recall people going thru garbage and displaying the "good food" on tables like the police show guns and drugs after a bust.
Also in China, there are many children of famine
Dave, the political and social problems you have brought up should be addressed. But just because someone has brought up another problem and offering suggestions about how people might be able to personally affect change does not mean you or anyone else should feel guilty.
If some minor changes in what we do can help to solve a bigger problem, that's probably a good thing and sometimes the best we can do.
Now, what do you think I could change in my life that would help India move away from the caste system?
Am I the only one with a freezer? Yeah, some things, like lettuce, don't freeze well, but beef, fish and poultry and veggies will last a long time if it's wrapped well to avoid freezer burn. For much of it, you can go back 80 years and thank Clarence Birdseye.
By all means *go* to the supermarket. I'm single, but I cook for at least four and freeze the other three portions. Extra car trips? You mean everyone hasn't figured out you stop on the way home from work?
I think you might find this article to be of interest. Peter Singer wrote a very convincing argument for assisting others in any way possible. Not trying doesn't make any sense to me.
9. Focus on local.
This is not always true. New Zealand, for instance, has the best climate in the world for growing sheep. If you live in britain, and eat imported lamb, it was less energy intensive to put that on your table than if you purchased lamb grown in britain itself.
Do you need to buy mexican corn when you have a farmers market a few miles away? No. Do you need to become neurotic about only ordering food you can drive to get? Especially no. Also, local distribution of local food is surprisingly wasteful, with trucks having to crisscross communities to bring it to market, rather than a centralized distribution location designed to save the most money on fuel possible.
Tons of food are wasted in many places worldwide and are very alarming. There are many people that starve and do not have the food they need in order to survive. We must value what we eat everyday because we don't want to suffer from shortage.
I always find it interesting talking about local food. As though large farms are evil. Large farms can usually produce more per acre, and cheaper then a local farm can. Also production hours per person is more efficient on a large farm. We should be looking at how tractors can utilize bio-fuels that are made by the large amount of waste material of these farms which is not feasible on a small farm. I can understand local farms for the sake of gastronomical variety. But for staples, its insane. But now on topic of wasting food. Yes, I think it has a lot more to do with people not cooking any more. And just eating food from a bag or a can.
Nate, the study you are talking about, done at Lincoln University in New Zealand, compared the raising of precisely the same kind of commercial sheep for a standardized industrial market - and found that because British sheep needed supplemental grain, NZ total carbon impact was lower. just want to eat lamb ethically and sustainably. But as almost everyone who read the study points out, there are landrace British breeds of sheep that come to market entirely on grass, and a *lot* of British land that is suitable for grazing but not tillage - so the study only really applies if you want to eat a particular kind of lamb, and if you live in an industrial society where lamb breeds are standardized, rather than allowing breeds to adapt to their place.
As for the other study, that's basically an argument for more local food, not less - that is, people are driving farther than they need to because the resources are spread out.
Jason, the distinction you want to look at is between output and yield. At yield per acre (ie, how much of one thing) produced, large industrial farms do better than small ones. At *output* - the total amount of food or fiber plus residual fertility, small farms produce *vastly* more - 10-200xs on average, according to Peter Rosset, whose work has been duplicated repeatedly, to the point that the World Bank now says that small farms are more productive than large ones. Meanwhile the carbon density - ie, how much carbon is produced per calorie - is dramatically lower for small farms, excepting those that are created by burning rainforest. Moreover, as has been seen in a number of places where fossil fuel availability has dropped precipitously, or prices risen, large scale industrial farms simply can't be adapted quickly or easily to lower energy inputs. They can do it with small farms, but not large - which is why staple crops in some regions are increasingly being grown on smaller farms - the trend in some parts of South America, in Russia and in parts of India that have recently had energy prices cause hunger is towards small farms.
All that said, I agree that large farmers should be using biofuel waste and that there are ways to reduce climate impact and fossil fuels in large scale agriculture - to a point. But only to a point. The reality is that farms just don't need to be as big as they are, and that we pay the price in environmental impact.
Hmm, I was brought up on the "people are starving in China" method and am a pretty strong believer in not wasting or over consuming food, fuel, resources because of how it can affect prices for those in need. But, I will admit, I could improve my habits. It's interesting to see number's to back this up and some tips.
One point, though. It's funny how articles can bring up numbers and studies in one regard, but when they get to parenting advice, they just make it up. Do you have any evidence that your advice on serving children actually results in less wasteful eaters? If you don't actually know this is the best approach, why not just say "look for ways to reduce picky eating in children" with a few links to approaches to try?
I don't "make" my children clean their plate, because it results in them not eating things they normally might eat without the power struggle and mealtime battles. For us what works is giving small servings (say one large table spoon of vegy or grain and only allowing seconds once a reasonable amount of the other food items are eaten. I try to make sure that the kids come to the table hungry (meaning if they are asking for snacks 1 hour before dinner, I say no or offer a small amount of a non filling fruit.) We don't do desserts after dinner, because my kids will "save room for dessert" and not eat their healthy food. And in the end, I'm not shy about finishing up after one of the kids if I'm still hungry. For other kids, other methods might work better.
As to other tips. I use the freezer a lot and try to buy foods that can be unfrozen in meal size amounts (chicken fillets, veggies, ground meats, etc) I freeze bread all the time and have never been unhappy with the results. I hate the grocery store, but in our area, that is the closest and is the most likely to have all the staples I need, like pasta, rice, oatmeal, canned beans, tomatoes, etc.
Interesting article. thanks!
Michelle - there is a difference between "making it up" and giving commonsense advice. Surely it makes sense to you that serving up smaller portions of food to children so that they actually have a chance of eating what is on there is a better idea than loading up a plate and making them sit there until it is gone?
Not only are you teaching them about proper portion sizing, reducing waste, and hunger cues (as opposed to boredom cues ;) ), but you are avoiding instilling the kind of food issues many people have that are at least partially related to "cleaning the plate before leaving the table".
There is no "best approach" when it comes to getting kids to eat - all people can offer is what they have found works for them. You use small portions yourself, and use similar methods to what Sharon is talking about to "encourage" your children to eat what is in front of them - we use a mix of both - small portions, seconds available if needed, low tolerance of "picky" eating while understanding that DD does not like raw tomato just as I don't like oysters lol, no big snacks before dinner time.
Sharon, you and I all have the evidence we need to talk about feeding kids - we DO it, every day, several times a day. Some of us have more experience in dealing with different aspects than others (such as food sensitivities, medical problems, etc), but the basic knowledge remains the same - feed kids what they like to eat and what they *need* to eat, in amounts that they can handle. You don't need studies for that. And yep, finishing off what the kids haven't eaten is done here too :)
Well, i concede regarding the fiber yield. But what I was meaning on efficiency was in human labor cost. Small farms are incredibly labor intensive. And many people who are brought up into the farming lifestyle become people left behind in society. I currently live in Japan in a farming community. And while the small farm is king here. You can definitely see the impact it takes on the families here. While publicly the families are lauded, its a hard cruel life. And I have always believed that life is to be lived to ones greatest abilities, and I don't see that for majority of people who work or run small farms. I see a better yield for society esp in the human cost for large farms, just make them as efficient as possible.
Jason, what do you mean by "its a hard cruel life?" Industrial farming is a cruel life too - all farming is hard. Take a look at deaths by pesticide exposure, deaths by tractor accident and suicide rates when they go broke. Small farming is probably an easier life in some ways, at least in the US.
There are a lot of things that could be done to make it easier, and make people who farm have better lives - wouldn't it make more sense to do those things? Is the only possible answer here that we get as many people out of agriculture as possible?
The problem is that the efficiency comes at a cost - in fossil fuels and carbon emissions - that we can't afford.
What I mean by a "hard cruel life". Most small farms are family owned. So once the cycle has started within a family, its difficult to break. Heck, there is something both beautiful and sad to being brought up on a farm. One is that you are brought up understanding that people have a connection to the land. And the sad part is being constantly connected to the land. I really wish that the idea of the ideal of a Jeffersonian educated farmer could truly be realized but in those days the ideal had slaves as their industrialized labor, while now we have machines, pesticides, herbicides, processed fertilizers.
Well, even small farms in the U.S. use a lot of fossil fuels and energy, which does make it much easier for them. But, for those who opt out of relying to much on machines and fertilizers, they are out there every day getting dirty. As I have walked around every day looking at people toiling away in the fields, I see lots of disfigured backs, blank stares and knobby fingers. As I have chatted with them, I meet incredibly intelligent and sincere and beautiful people, who consistently have a educational background stopping in junior high. Which usually ends up in them every week praying at the local shrine for a good harvest.
I am not much into "what they don't know wont hurt them". It just makes them a quiet minority. And being quiet leaves them ignored and bullied.
I believe in getting people into situations where they can realize their potential to the best of their abilities with the least amount of suffering. I do not think there is any one way to fix any problem, its usually a menagerie of paper clips, duct tape and fencing wire.
I also agree that there are worst places to be then on a farm. But that is what we are talking about.
I don't truly enjoy the idea of big ag. Usually you lose the face that goes with your food. Whenever money becomes the only bottom line that matters, regardless of whatever invisible hand may be a work, quality and as well as safety sometimes lags behind to the lowest common denominator. The solution is either A find a way to make small farms ALOT easier both functionally and culturally. Or B getting big farms to be more transparent and open to change.
Improving the educational lot of farmers, and changing the culture so it isn't regarded as unskilled labor is a project worth doing - but I guess I don't see blank stares here. Hard work, yes - a lot of it - but the fossil fuels haven't necessarily helped with that, they've hurt in some respects, because they push the margins closer and closer. The Amish farmers out here do better, in many cases, than the fossil powered ones.
Crappy education doesn't *have* to go with agriculture - I can't speak to the culture in Japan, but we've had decades of pushing people away from agriculture - when I was 14, I wanted to attend the local aggie high school. No, I was told, I couldn't - my guidance counselor wouldn't submit my name. That was for kids who couldn't go to college, and I was headed to college.
The culture that says that we should *minimize* agricultural participation is what produces an agriculture run by people who didn't get a lot of education - the transformation of a host of skilled jobs into unskilled ones by a culture that doesn't understand them has a permanent effect on the culture. The systematic devaluation of food production means that the only people who can afford to do the work are people who couldn't do any other work - or who are so passionately committed to the land they wouldn't consider acting in their own best interests.
I actually think what you are seeing is in large part a symptom of industrial agriculture.
I think what I see in Japan is more of the extreme of people living and working exclusively on small farms. Its almost a cultural serfdom. Its not that the education is "crappy". People in a farming family have no motivation to push, and since their parents are uneducated themselves, they don't see any reason to push either. And also since society here does not marginalize people who are uneducated farmers, they also have no cultural pressure to step up. They are trapped in a modern day Plato's cave.
Well for history, I was brought up in a California farming town. A high school with a very active ag department, with four years of FFA. woo hoo. Then when to college for computer science. But my family does come from a family of farmers. Grandfather had a hard attack and got ran over by his tractor.
But most farming work is unskilled. Its difficult, and at times incredibly hectic, and tiring. But after learning what needs to be done and what to do beyond a certain skill set there isn't much need to learn more. And by the end of the day, if you are not using some type of technological enhancement to save you time. You have no time for yourself.
Now the idea of pushing to the margins of society. Well lets look at the Amish.
Lets look at this article. The ending sentence states.
" Yields are not necessarily greater, but profit is because of lower input costs. "
What is lower input cost? I would guess the Amish put alot more physical labor into their crops. Also since their children do not go to school after the eighth grade. Well they have child labor to help them, that they don't have to pay for or report.
Also lets look at a FAQ for them
One thing stands out.
"The Amish children do not attend formal schooling past the eighth grade."
Which to me, is exactly my point, a type of cultural serfdom.
" The culture that says that we should *minimize* agricultural participation is what produces an agriculture run by people who didn't get a lot of education "
I guess my idea of agricultural participation for the masses just doesn't include getting their hands dirty. Somehow make it fun, interesting and culturally important. But not necessarily participatory.
Maybe start cooking classes in elementary school?