How can we fix the food waste problem?
Food waste is a huge problem around the world, but it’s something we can start fixing in our own kitchens today. There are many stages of food waste- from production, shipping losses, damaging through handling, waste at the store and then more at home. Grocery stores toss out an enormous amount of good foods, as do restaurants and individuals.
Just how much do we toss out? Did you know that we throw away from one-third up to HALF of our total food purchased? And food is 20% of total waste in our landfills! That’s an astounding amount of food that could be eaten, fed to animals, or composted to create healthier soils. This translates to half of the work the farmers do, half the oil used to transport the goods, half the time you spend in the grocery store is simply… wasted. How can we stop wasting food at the supply level AND at home?
A broken food system
It must be said that food industry is one of the biggest wasters of food, and at the heart of this is grocery stores. Grocery stores need to have consistent supplies of food, regardless of the season, and require things to be measured and organized easily between the global supply chains. Because of this, farmers with off-sized or odd looking crops cannot sell to the stores, and the product then goes wasted on the farm. Luckily, the ugly food movement is becoming more popular, encouraging consumers to buy unique looking but totally edible foods. This cuts down on wastage at the farm level, and can help address waste at the store level.
And why do grocery stores waste so much food? This article, featuring the former president of Trader Joes, explains: overstocked displays (what happens to those poor grapes and tomatoes at the bottom?!), expectation of perfection from customers (who, me?), misunderstanding of sell-by dates, and damaged or unwanted goods. Knowing that this is the case, how can we help our local stores waste less food? What about talking to the produce manager about their waste issue: perhaps they can set up a composting operation, or maybe donate less-than-perfect goods to a food bank or a zoo. Maybe discounted, damaged produce is an option at your store; take the produce home and make smoothies, soup or stock. Make it clear that you are concerned about this issue, and you might find that the produce manager is too.
Restaurants are another big source of food waste. And this can also be addressed with the manager: talk about portion size, leftover options, take out containers (better just to bring your own!), and waste in the kitchen. Just like in the grocery stores, often the manager will be concerned about this issue too.
Reducing food waste at home
But a good portion of food waste comes from us at home: moldy bread, rotten greens, forgotten leftovers. Here’s a photographic journey through our food waste so you can see how beautiful and scary our waste situation is. If you are serious about diverting food from the waste stream, you need to make more careful buying decisions, store food properly, and bring to-go containers to restaurants to take home any foods leftover. This is much easier said than done, of course! I still find leftover greens (oops) and leftovers from who-knows-which-meal. But here are some tips I’ve used to try to reduce my waste in practical, easy ways:
- Learn just how MUCH food you do waste. We can’t make changes until we know what to change, right? Think about food you toss out each week: maybe it’s big things like a bunch of greens, but maybe it’s small pieces here and there: bread crusts, slightly off vegetables, take-out meals, or leftovers. Knowing what you’re tossing out makes it easier to figure out how to fix it.
- Compost it! Keep your food waste in a bin in your your freezer: seems weird, but in our warm climate it’s imperative to keep the bugs away and ensure we don’t have to take out the trash everyday. But most importantly, it gives you insight into a week’s worth of waste so you can make a learn to waste less. If you’re lucky enough to have a yard, learn the basics of composting to turn your trash into garden treasure.
- Find the foods you always waste, but continue to purchase. My problem? Jars of pasta sauce. Homemade pasta sauce just never fits into my week, but after one meal of noodles with jarred sauce, I just ignore it. This needs to stop.
- Use the whole veggie: stop peeling potatoes, carrots and beets. The skins are edible and reduces your waste immediately. Also, broccoli stalks and kale stems? Chop them small, saute with onions and carrots, and use as the base of a stir-fry. It’s like free veggies! Make homemade broth with whatever you really cannot eat.
- If you eat animal foods, consider ‘nose-to-tail’ eating which involves, y’know, eating the whole animal– it’s very popular now with the omnivorous hipsters. For the veggies among us, the alternative is stem-to-root eating: learning how to use cherry pits, watermelon rind, corn cobs, and more!
- Keep working at it! Long held habits are not going to change overnight. It’s process, and there are lots of things to learn along the way. Continue to learn more about food waste, and how to reduce it in the various ways. Need some more ideas: here are some more tips to reduce food waste to keep you motivated!