Waste in the Land of Plenty
When I think of “going green,” usually I picture my canvas shopping bag with its cute recycle symbol printed on the front. Knowing that you're not contributing to landfill waste with shopping bags feels good, right? After all, most of the stuff in there isn't biodegradable; that's why you recycle. But lurking in the remnants of last night's meal in your kitchen trash can is a devastating problem.
Most of us are vaguely aware of the massive amounts of garbage and waste heaped up in landfills, but did you know a whopping 40% of the food produced right here in the U.S. goes into those landfills annually? It takes 15 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, add that up with the wasted food stats and you'll see that ¼ of our fresh water resources are in that waste. Astonishingly, the water wasted is not from animal products, about 80% of meat and milk is consumed. Only a measly 3% of that tossed food is composted, so the resources required to grow it in the first place are squandered, costing $165 billionevery year. Your household alone is probably throwing out roughly $2000 in food that would otherwise sustain an individual for nearly two months. So, considering that an estimated 48 million people (that's 1 in 7) living in the United States are going to bed hungry every night, those statistics are completely unacceptable.
Food waste is disastrous for the environment as well. Over 20% of the methane gases produced in landfills is from rotting food. Methane remains in the Earth's atmosphere for up to twelve years after its emission. It is also a “greenhouse gas,” trapping heat within our atmosphere and eating away at the ozone layer. In addition to harming the atmosphere, our groundwater can be contaminated by food waste.
We have a serious problem.
Where did we go wrong?
There are numerous problems plaguing food production in the US, of which many begin at harvesting. Between 7- 50% of crops will go unharvested every year if the produce does not meet size or quality standards. Other times, issues such as salmonella outbreaks will be the culprit. However, according to statistics gathered by the USDA, most food waste occurs once the food has been bought by consumers. This includes grocery stores and food service.
Grocery stores and restaurants contribute greatly to food waste. Those towering bins of potatoes and onions at the supermarket may look nice, but chances are the veggies on the bottom will be crushed and thrown away. Packaged foods are thrown out by their “sell by” dates which are arbitrary in nature. Food expiration dates are not regulated or required by law, and most foods are still perfectly edible past these dates.
Portion sizes are another issue in the food waste debacle. It's no secret that our portion sizes have been steadily increasing over the last thirty years. Ever distracted by a dollar sign, a consumer will easily purchase a large pizza for $5 because it is a “good deal” instead of buying a few slices for about the same price and not wasting the food. To keep up with the demand for huge amounts of food at cheap prices, restaurants cook and prepare meals daily that will not all be consumed, resulting in freshly prepared food ending up in the garbage.
We, the individual consumers, account for a good chunk of food loss. Remember, the average home is losing up to $2,000 a year in food.
Poor meal planning, unexpected nights of eating out, and careless food storage are the top reasons. Throwing food away may seem benign, you won't always finish that last slice of pie; you can't expect your toddler to eat all of his peas and carrots; you might be nervous to keep that box of cereal that expired last week even though it hasn't been opened. With the best intentions in mind, you'll box up leftovers in the fridge, only to throw them out a few days later after a trip to the grocery store.
Here's the bottom line: We're doing a very bad job handling food production and consumption. In order for change to happen, new habits need to be cultivated, and they aren't as radical as you may think.
I know how tough it is to grocery shop for a family, especially large ones, but it isn't impossible to shop with the intention of reducing food waste. Most of us go to the store armed with a list of things to restock the pantry. Instead of just “restocking,” take notice of certain ingredients that you use regularly. If you're a fan of meatloaf (I sure am) buy the ingredients for that recipe. When you buy produce, try to buy it loose (you pack up your own bag and weigh) so you can control the amount (take this approach with deli foods too).
If you notice that you don't have any chicken stock in the cupboard, but you know it will be a while before you actually use it, don't buy it just for the sake of filling the hole! If you can, avoid buying food in bulk. It might seem like a good idea to buy that 2 gallon can of pasta sauce from Gordon Food Service, but what are you going to do with it once it's opened, and you've only used a fourth of it? Also, try to steer clear of “buy more and save” deals. If you truly think about it, most times you don't really need more.
Store food properly
Aside from simply not being eaten in time, another reason food spoils is from improper storage. Make sure that your refrigerator is set at the correct food storage temps (between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Bread stored on the counter top has a shelf life of about 2 weeks versus 2 months in a refrigerator (and it can be frozen for even longer). Store dry commodities (beans, pasta, rice, ect.) in dark, cool, and dry cabinets. Check canned goods every month for signs of leaking or bulging. When adding newer items to the dry pantry, rotate the older ones to the front.
Fresh fruit needs to be stored in dry conditions in the refrigerator once it has ripened. Apples and bananas will last the longest in your fridge, but other fruits, like melons and berries, should be consumed within 3-5 days of purchase (it can also be frozen for up to 2 months). Refrigerated veggies should be stored with a bit of moisture to help them maintain crispness.
Understanding the stamped dates on food packaging will also help you in storing food correctly. Baby formula is the only regulated food product required to have an expiration date, so it's important to be careful in estimating shelf life. The “sell by” date stamp is mainly for stores to safely sell the freshest products, but after that date passes, the food isn't suddenly inedible. Pastries and breads are often good two weeks after their sell by date. Milk and dairy products usually have up to a week after the sell by date to be consumed. Stilltasty.com has very helpful lists and guides on how to determine shelf life for a variety of foods.
Decrease portion sizes and re-use leftovers
Along with the problem of restaurant serving sizes getting bigger, our cups, bowls, and plates are the largest they've ever been! I combated that myself by specifically looking for dinner plates that did not exceed nine inches in diameter. However, serving smaller sizes in general will help your family from overeating and wasting food. It's better to ask for seconds than to throw away what turned out to be too much to begin with.
Leftovers are somewhat inevitable and they can be used as ingredients for the next meal. Left over noodles can be mixed up with veggies in the fridge for a tasty pasta salad. Extra chicken breast can be put in sandwiches or added to casseroles and soups. Uneaten veggies can be mashed and made into veggie burgers. Over-ripened fruits can be spared the waste basket and be added to smoothies. Old bananas can be used to make deliciously moist banana bread. The recipe possibilities are almost endless!
If your leftovers have been hanging out in the fridge too long, check your city's rules to see if you can compost them in your backyard before you throw them away (meat and dairy should not be composted at home). Just last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg released plans to begin composting food waste in the city.
If you find yourself with an overabundance of any kind of food that is still good to eat, donate it. If you are not able to donate food from your own kitchen to the local food pantries, you can join local organizations that collect the food that would have been thrown out by grocery stores and restaurants. The freshly prepared food that would have been landfill waste will then be redirected to feed the hungry.
Our landfills didn't appear overnight (nor will they go away with that speed), but if we each do our part to handle resources responsibly, food waste can be reduced significantly in our lifetimes.