The No-Waste Food Preservation Plan

40% of all food produced worldwide, and nearly half of all food produced in the US goes to waste.  When you break down the realities of food waste, you see that in the developing world, much of the waste is due to lack of ability to preserve food - no refrigeration means that sheep you slaughtered is waste if all of it isn't eaten or dried or otherwise preserved immediately.  Lack of energy to run grain dryers means that rain at the wrong time results in moldy grain, etc...

In the Global North, however, the vast majority of food is wasted not in the field, but in the process of getting to our homes.  Whether it is lost to minor imperfections that don't affect taste, to shape differences that mean that industrial processing equipment that shaves down the carrot to make those "baby" carrots can't handle them, to losses in shipping, on display at your local market, and finally, rotting in the back of the fridge.

As food prices rise and hunger rises world wide, as the population grows and food prices are increasingly tied to the rapidly rising price of oil, reducing food waste becomes absolutely critical to making sure everyone gets fed.  In a recent post, I focused on parts of plants in your garden that  you may not realize can be eaten and enjoyed.  Again, thinking about how to maximize access to food, let's talk about how to make the most of the food you have by using food preservation to minimize waste - that way you save money and don't have to buy as much, moreover, you reduce marketplace competition for food and waste - like so many of the things we do, this is a win-win thing.  You get yummy food, lower bills, less guilt, less slime in the fridge and less time in the stores - how often do you get so much good stuff out of something so simple?

Moreover, western food waste has a particular quality to us - we pack as many calories of fossil energy as we can into the food we throw in the trash to make methane at our landfills. The WAY we waste food - that is, later in the food chain, after lots of processing and preserving makes a huge difference.  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.  We must change this!

Ok, so what can we do to reduce food waste from the time that food enters our hot little hands either from the garden, the market or the store? 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,  making more meals out of your leftovers,  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.  A particularly good time to do this is around frost - most farmers and gardeners will harvest everything they can right before the frost, leaving them with large quantities of bulk produce available to customers who know to ask.

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.  Your farmer or supermarket may be willing to sell you "seconds" - fruit with minor imperfections.

But most of all, at the home scale, food preservation can reduce the loss of food in our refrigerators and root cellars. Apples got a brown spot? 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.  Freeze that bit of leftover chicken, and add it to your tacos later.  Yes, it is worth making broth with the bones from the chicken wings you had from dinner for your risotto or a pot of soup.

When your basil goes to seed, you needn't pull it - cut the flower heads off and use them to flavor basil vinegar.  Frost going to take your squash?  Dry that green pumpkin to make green pumpkin pie later, like the Ingalls family did on the prarie, or treat your green squash like zucchini.  Pickled watermelon rind is delicious, squash seeds should be dried and spiced for eating.

Small amounts of cooked meats can be dehydrated for jerky, or frozen.   Cooked leftover grains make wonderful crackers, can be added to breads.  Fruit past its prime makes wonderful fruit butters and fruit leathers.  Apple pulp from making sauce or apple butter can be used to make vinegar.  Dried apple peels mixed with cinnamon and cloves make a delicious tea.

Every animal bone in the house gets cooked for stock here - and there's nothing like real stock.  The water vegetables are steamed in makes a nice soup base as well.

Ultimately, getting in the habit of cruising through the fridge or the root cellar and looking "what do we need to eat or use soon?"  What could I preserve?  It takes a certain amount of getting used to the idea that food preservation isn't just about the glut, but a small part of a daily system, but the rewards are profound.




More like this

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…
This year will be interesting - we anticipate adding two or three more people to our household (and maybe more - we're gently looking for a housemate or two once things settle down with the foster kids). In past years I've mostly been able to keep up with the "every year the kids get bigger and…
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…
Globally, almost half of all the food the world produced is thrown away.  This Global number hides some critical differences however.  In most of the Global South, food is lost to lack of preservation techniques.  Grain gets wet in the field, and instead of being dried with machines as it might be…

Is that figure $800 per American household lost to food waste, or $800 for every man, woman and child, averaged across the population? I'd always thought it was per household, and that's bad enough--we all have better things to do with that money than compost it--but per person is horrifying.

Ok. Seriously. This sort of blog post does not help anyone. I am involved in a local initiative to do communal preparation of food, and the complete oversimplification of the problem is counterproductive.

I have read about gleaning programs, for instance, and there is a great document you can google up which goes into some detail about an Americorps (I think) program a while back to glean food. It is not easy to do, the co-operation from the farmers is by far the hardest. There is next to nothing in it for them, it is off the beaten track so they are afraid of liability issues etc. it just ends up being very hard to get their co-operation. And in large part because of the system set up by the wealthy to force everyone into the conventional approaches. But nevertheless.

From an engineering standpoint, the question is not how to reduce food waste. It is how to get good qualtity food available at low prices. Recovering food from the waste stream may offer some opportunities for that, but they are not as abundant as you make out to be.

Meat production is the equivalent of wasting a great deal of food, and yet it makes sense from an engineering standpoint, because piling a bunch of animal feed on your plate does not meet the requirements of good quality, low cost food.

To talk about food waste as if it were some tragedy makes as much sense as talking about "wasted" fuel used to power a car that is any less than 100% efficient at converting the chemical energy from the fuel into kinetic energy. Better is good, but there will always be limitations, and you must focus elsewhere at some point, to make progress towards what we really want - better, cheaper food.

also, coming back to my computer now, I should also say it is absolutely dripping with -this-as-a-hobby, and you obviously have extreme amounts of capital equipment and assets such as a cellar, that you are applying to the problem, which the vast majority of Americans do not have.

Advice like drying meat is useless and naive in the extreme. You will never save much like that, and the labor requirements are far greater than most people can afford, to dry substantial amounts of meat. Freezing makes sense.

Ok. Seriously. This sort of blog post does not help anyone.

I have never understood why the fact that something doesn't work for a subset of people means that the advice is useless for everyone.

To talk about food waste as if it were some tragedy makes as much sense as talking about “wasted” fuel used to power a car

40% of food is being wasted. It is being wasted for mostly stupid reasons. How do we know?
Because "A study conducted in 1987 found that people over 65, many of whom lived through either the Great Depression or World War II, wasted half as much food as other age groups."

I understand your points Josh, but the dismissive attitude is a turn off.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 20 Sep 2012 #permalink

I have a whole lot of imperfect veggies in my garden: my tomatoes went down with blight this year. I salvaged what I could, and canned them in a water bath, with extra acid, last night. But looking online today, it seems that the USDA doesn't recommend canning blighted tomatoes (mine had pretty extensive damage, I had to trim them a lot). They claim it could raise the pH of the tomatoes. Apparently they don't recommend eating blighted tomatoes at all, even if frozen or fresh where pH is not an issue. Is this overkill, or are they really dangerous? Blight is not infectious to humans, and lately it happens every year... Seems like a waste.

There are some difficulties with gleaning programs, but that doesn't mean they aren't working just fine in areas, and providing people who otherwise might go hungry with large quantities of food. There's one in my county that has operated for years.
There is no single answer. Including 'better, cheaper food;' chasing that myth is what led us to the current, vastly wasteful industrial food system, which is less efficient, and less productive, than the one it replaced.
People with limited incomes can save a lot of money with the sorts of thrifty, frugal uses mentioned here, and which used to be common.
Here's what the Penn State Extension says about blighted tomatoes:
"We also cannot recommend that consumers eat fresh or freeze diseased tomatoes. The disease organism by itself is not harmful to consume. But the tissue damage and rise in pH (decrease in acidity) that occurs can create conditions that promote the growth of other potentially harmful microorganisms.
"Some may say that this is an unnecessary waste of food. But anytime you are unsure of the safety of food, remember this saying...'When in doubt, throw it out'". ...
I would be feeling very frustrated right about now in Sarah's shoes. But for (some?) consolation next year, they say this: "It is safe, however, to process un-blemished tomatoes that are growing on plants with leaves, stems, or adjacent fruit that show signs of infection. But these tomatoes are at a higher risk for developing late blight lesions after they are harvested. Make sure to eat or process these tomatoes as soon as possible after harvesting. Green tomatoes picked early to ripen indoors should be regularly checked for signs of disease."

Sarah, I think I would be paranoid and discard them - I just can't find enough research about how MUCH they may raise the acidity or risk of bacterial growth of unsafe kinds. Sucks, though.

Josh, we disagree pretty strongly. I work professionally in this field, both teaching food preservation but also writing regional evaluations of food security issues for local governments. So no, this isn't just a hobby. And I think the idea that we are ever going to be able to produce more cheap food is one at deep odds with the coming reality. You might start by reading the UN FAO's analysis of the future of food, and that's just a beginning - climate change and aquifer depletion, as well as biofuel usage have really shifted the food picture. So we aren't ever going to magically produce an infinite amount of cheap food - so we are going to have to reclaim it out of the waste stream as one (hardly the only, but as I said, this is one of a series of posts, and indeed, a subject I've been writing on for nearly a decade) tool we have.

Moreover, there's a larger issue here - it is always easy to dismiss home-scale and personal solutions as though they don't matter - but the aggregate personal choices of 320 million Americans or 7 billion people are truly and deeply significant - and if there is a hope of any real change, it will come from the aggregate personal change of individuals.


Hi Sharon,

I have a couple of questions regarding seconds that I hoped you could help me with.

First of all, do you have any suggestions on how to buy fruit and veggies too imperfect for the grocery store? Do you have any successful experience doing so? Is there a certain way to ask that makes success more likely?

Second, how do you politely do this at the farmers market without seeming like a an ungrateful mooch who doesn't want to pay full price? Apple growers seem happy to give out seconds when you ask, but I fear doing it with other produce as I don't know what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds. I don't want to offend anyone's dignity either.

Thanks for your help!

I hesitate to comment on Josh's remarks as they weren't directed at me, but I would add regarding availability of cellars and whatnot, that Sharon is talking about *regional* solutions here. Some places have lots of cellars while others don't. Rather than looking at Sharon's particulars along with her solutions, applying all of her particular ideas across all of the US and world and then saying they won't fit the overall situation is more of the same overly homogenized, streamlined thinking that the food world already has suffered too much from. Making applesauce from apples about to go bad works in most of the US, though perhaps not so much in Hawaii. But then I'm sure there are solutions that work out in the middle of the Pacific that don't work in New England either.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 21 Sep 2012 #permalink

Question here about canning blight infected tomatoes...would it be fair to make a distinction between water bathing with acid versus pressure canning? The USDA has made WBC tomatoes a no-no so I switched to pressure canning. I use 15# for 20 minutes which seems like over-kill to me but if you can safely pressure can a beef stew like that it seems even low-acid tomatoes should be fine. Thoughts?

By Vicky in VA (not verified) on 21 Sep 2012 #permalink

Josh, I disagree that this post does not help anyone. I am also aghast that you consider 40% of food wasted 'not a problem.' This kind of thinking illustrates exactly how we got here to this place. I think Sharon's post can help any reader begin to develop a different mindset about food, waste, and the day to day choices required to begin being more aware of how to avoid or alleviate waste, and incorporate what works for each individual into automatic habits. The problem I see is that most likely, the vast majority of Sharon's readers already have that awareness. It is the greater portion of the human population who don't even think that they should cut down on food waste who need to read this post.

By Roslyn McNeill (not verified) on 22 Sep 2012 #permalink

If I have lots of odds and ends of rather 'manky' veg that just look too bad, or are too fiddly to process easily I make them in to soup. The sort of things I am thinking of is the collection I cleared from the garden the other day. A few very small beetroot, a couple of corncobs that hadn't been pollinated and were only an inch or so long, a few tiny courgettes, some pea sized potatoes, etc. anything can go in really. I find Sharon's ideas about doing little bits when you can really helpful.

home scale solutions may not do much in the grand scheme of things, but they can certainly help the home that is using them.
freezing does make sense, unless like me, you go to your 2 year old freezer and find the whole thing liquid. the sight of a whole salmon "swimming" in a sea of thawed berries was horifying. the light was on, the motor humming, but the compressor dead.
canning and drying use energy, but are then stable longterm. freezing is a consant and permanent energy drain. both have a place, but you can bet i will be trusting the freezer for less of my winter foods than i have in the past.