Food waste is a topic we don’t talk about nearly enough, but it’s a topic that hits home for me. I grew up in a poor community where resources were scarce. Quality whole foods were expensive and difficult to come by unless you grew your own. There were occasions when we weren’t sure where our next meal would come from, so wasting food was never an option in our home. We used everything – all parts of the animal, every piece of vegetable, every grain of rice. Needless to say, we weren’t cutting the crust off our bread. This has given me a deep appreciation for the abundance of food that is available to me now, right here in America – something we should never take for granted.
While doing research for this article, I encountered some startling facts about food waste. Not to get all statistical, but this is important information that every American should be aware of.
- Americans waste more than $160 billion in food annually
- That comes out to about a pound of food per person per day
- Enough to feed 2 billion hungry people all year long
- This consists of mostly fruits and vegetables
- And equates to 3.3 billion tons of carbon
Food is abundant and costs less in the developed world, so it’s easy for us to take it for granted. However, there are many people right here in America living in food deserts (communities lacking access to healthy whole foods). This is often due to a lack of grocery stores and farmers’ markets in their area. The lack of affordable, healthy food options leads to a lack of proper nutrients and a higher likelihood they will consume products whose production harms the environment.
In the developing world, it’s often a farm to market issue. On a recent trip to SE Asia, while exploring the markets, Dustin and I were unable to find cauliflower, and when we did, most were spoiled. We later read an article in Forbes explaining that half of all cauliflower grown in South Asia is lost due to lack of refrigerated storage and inefficient transportation.
Globally, we waste 1.3 billion tons of food per year (a third of all the food we grow), while 800 million people are said to be chronically hungry. This issue of food waste is a glaring measure of inequality that each of us needs to be aware of.
As consumers, we can enact change and reduce food waste by following a few simple steps in our day to day lives.
1. Understand Expiration Dates: They are not required, although it may seem that way. Expiration dates refer to quality, not safety. According to the USDA there is “no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States.” I for one have never trusted expiration dates. My motto is “if it smells fine and tastes fine, it is fine.” Expiration dates are a guideline, a suggestion at best, not a rule. “Sell by” “use-by” “best if used buy” are all similar “guidelines.”
2. Plan Your Meals: It doesn’t sound appealing or fun, but I cannot stress this enough: planning meals is a sure way to reduce food waste. Make a shopping list – this reduces impulse buying and you’re more likely to buy only what you need. This will save you money and time, and you’ll eat healthier during your busy week. It may seem like an extra chore to plan a week’s worth of meals but – technology for the win here – there’s an app for that.
3. Use Food Scraps to Cook: This is one of the best ways I know of to waste less food. I use broccoli stems for coleslaw and instead of tossing beet greens in the compost, I saute them in butter and garlic – they’re packed with flavor and very nutritious. Point is, you may want to reconsider what you throw out, it may amount to a whole meal. Learning how to use kitchen scraps can reduce waste and save you a lot of money.
4. Freezer is your friend: Freezing food is convenient for so many reasons. It’s definitely something I miss since I live in a van. By freezing fruits and vegetables near spoiling, they can last a long time and be just as nutritious when you use them. Freezing maintains levels of vitamins in the raw fruits and veggies. Use frozen fruit in smoothies. Freeze leftovers and even meal prep and freeze food if you have a busy schedule.
5. Keep your fridge/ freezer organized: Maintaining your fridge is a constant battle. But reorganizing it often prevents waste because you are reminded what’s in there. This also keeps it organized. De-cluttering prevents warm spots which increase spoilage. Learning what foods go where can make a big difference in how long food will last. Never mix fruits and vegetables, and maintain the correct humidity in crispers so food lasts longer. Store quick to expire perishables and milk in the fridge rather than the door. Rotate older food from the back to the front before a grocery trip. I’ve found that storing leftovers in glass containers helps me to know what I have so I can use it up before it spoils.
6. Greens are delicate: Greens are usually the first thing to spoil. It’s annoying and wasteful. A few years ago I started storing my greens washed and rolled in a dish cloth. This has saved me money because my greens last longer. I do this with kale, lettuce, and herbs.
7. Don’t mix fruits and veggies: Mixing fruits and veggies can cause contamination. Fruits produce ethylene gas, which triggers the ripening process. When you combine fruits and vegetables, the gas from the fruit deteriorates the vegetable. You can also control fruit ripening by controlling temperature – warm stimulates ripening and cold inhibits it.
8. Ugly food: Buy them and eat them. They have the same nutritional value as the “pretty” food. These fruits and veggies need our love because they are the most thrown out foods. This takes a toll on water resources and produces lots of green house gasses.
9. Compost: This should be the last thing you do. Don’t let those food scraps go to waste. Return them to the soil and complete the cycle.