As I walked across the back alley of a grocery store, I was greeted by an intense foul smell. As this is my usual route, I was quite prepared for this “treat”. What really stinks though is not the rotten food in the trash, but the fact that so much food is being wasted. It is absurd to see that 40% of the food produced for human consumption in the US goes to waste. Every year, $165 billion is lost to uneaten food. That can be translated to 60 million metric tons, or more than 20 pounds of food waste per person per month.(1) Paradoxically, many Americans remain hungry. An estimated 14.3 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year 2013.(2) A mere 15% reduction in food loss would be enough to feed 25 million Americans.(1)
Food waste is hardly a US-centric problem. Studies suggest that about one-third of food produced for human consumption around the globe is wasted. The problem is more prevalent in the wealthier nations. The per capita food loss/waste in Europe and North America is estimated to be about 617-660 pounds/year, while that in Sub-Saharan Africa and S/SE Asia is only about 264-374 pounds/year, half that of the wealthy countries.
Food is lost throughout the process from farm to table. In wealthier nations, the loss is observed throughout the process but more concentrated towards the consumption stage, driven largely by consumer behaviors. In low-income nations, the loss is found earlier in the process due to technical and infrastructure constraints (3).
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT FOOD WASTE?
In a world with limited resources, we need to be conscientious in how resources are being deployed before it is too late. The production and distribution of food consumes vast amounts of natural resources such as water, land and fuel. In the US alone, getting food from farm to table accounts for 10% of the total US energy budget, 50% of land, and 80% of all fresh water consumed (1). Not only is food waste an obvious economic burden, but an environmental challenge as well. The large amount of fertilizers used in the production process easily ends up in our soil and water supply. Each year about 32 million metric tons of uneaten food ends up in the landfills. While a small portion of the food waste is being diverted from the landfills and repurposed, a large part ends up rotting in landfills generating methane gas. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has a warming potential of 21 times that of carbon dioxide (4). The decomposition of uneaten food accounts for 23% of methane mission in the US (1). Globally rotten food creates 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, about 7% of total emissions.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT REDUCING FOOD WASTE?
Food waste is a systemic problem resulting from the cumulative effect of actions taken by all parties involved from farm to table and beyond. In an economic-driven society, we, the holder of consumption power, can definitely do our part to alter the system.
Show Our Desire to Reduce Waste with Our Wallets
Retailers and producers react to our shopping behaviors. Mountains of beauty-pageant-quality produce/food available at all hours into late evenings are created to attract customers. If we show that we can tolerate imperfection, and are flexible with our shopping choices, the supply chain will follow suit. At home, we can directly make a difference. Here are some ideas:
A little bit of planning upfront can save us time and money, and prevent unnecessary food waste. Try some of these tips before your next grocery shopping trip.
Check what perishable items are still usable at home and plan them into your dishes in the next few daysMake a shopping list based on your upcoming meal and entertainment plansRestrain from impulse purchases while you are in the storeAvoid shopping when you are hungry
RRR: Reserve, Repurpose, and Reuse
Once the food is in our kitchens, we can let our creativity loose with RRR.
Reserve: It is very satisfying to see our hard work blossom in our vegetable gardens. Normally we won’t be able to consume all the harvest at the same time. Fortunately, there are techniques such as canning, fermenting, and dehydrating, that let us easily reserve the bounty for later enjoyment.
Repurpose: We create a lot of food scraps in food preparation. These components are normally discarded but can actually be used in our dishes to add flavor and complexity. See examples below.
Reuse: Leftover doesn’t need to taste or look like afterthoughts. A little bit of imagination can quickly transform them into new dishes, saving you time and money.
In our new article series “A New Life for Food Waste”, we will be sharing our RRR experiences with you. Check out NaturalChoice.net for ideas.
EXAMPLES OF REPURPOSING
To get started, here are a few ideas for repurposing the parts of vegetables that are normally discarded.
1. Creating vegetable powder: Normally discarded vegetable parts can be dried and grinded into powder. The powder can be incorporated in cookie, bread, or pasta recipes to add flavor. It can also be added to salt or spice mixes. Examples of discarded parts that can be used include:
Kale and other green stems (after ribbed stems)
Herbs stems, e.g. parsley and thyme
The top part of carrots
Bottom part of celery
The harder inner layers of onions
The outer layer of leeks
2. Making stocks: Homemade stock is fun and practical. Each batch can have its unique flavor and character based on the ingredients you have on hand. Vegetable parts can be collected overtime and stored in a “stock bag” in the freezer. Just thaw when you are ready to make the stock. Common ingredients include:
Kale and green stems
Bottom part of celery
The top part of carrot
The harder inner layers of onions
The outer layer of leek
3. Creating natural food coloring
Pumpkin skins: Scrub well, cut off the parts that are bruised or very hard. Dry and grind into powder. Sift and add as coloring agent
Beet skins and beets: Scrub well. Cut off bruised parts. Dry and grind into powder and add as coloring agent. When using beet, cut it into thin small julienne before drying
Ribs of red cabbage: Boil in a small amount of water. The extracted color is purple initially. Sprinkle a small amount of baking soda until the color changes to blue. The liquid can be used to color icing.
4. Adding additional texture to our normal dishes
Ribs of red cabbage can be chopped and added to fried rice or as an accent for dips and flavored butter
RECIPE: LET’S START A STOCK SCRAP BAG
One of the quick and easy ideas you can start today is to build your own “Stock Scrap Bag” in your freezer. When you are cooking with parsley and need only leaves, keep the stems in a bag in the freezer. Are there times when you do not know what to do with the outer harder layer of leek? Collect them and all of those scraps can be utilized to make your own Basic Vegetable Stock
3 cups Leek and Onion (fresh or from your bag)
1 cup Carrots (fresh or from your bag)
1/2 cup, Dried mushroom stems
1 cup Celery (fresh or from your bag
)1 red bell pepper (fresh or dry)
4 cloves garlic, peeled & chopped
4 Sprigs Parsley Stems
2 Tbl Safflower Oil
Preparation: Cut the vegetables into ¼” pieces if using fresh ingredients. Heat oil in a stock pot over medium-high heat. Add onions/leek, carrots, and cook (stirring until vegetables are golden brown – about 15 minutes). Add water and rest of ingredients. Bring liquid to a boil then lower heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered until the liquid is reduced by about 1/3 (about 1- 1 ½ hours). Strain the stock. If not using it right away cool the stock in an ice bath to room temperature. Use the stock within 3 days or store the stock.
1. Wasted: How Amercians Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill by Dana Gunders, Natural Resource Defense Council
2. Household Food Security in the United States in 2013 by Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Christian Gregory, and Anita Singh, USDA Economic Research Service
3. Global Food Losses and Food Waste by Jenny Gustavsson, Christel Cederberg, Ulf Sonesson, Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (Gothenburg, Swden) and Robert van Otterdijk, Alexandre Meybeck, FAO (Rome, Italy)
4. Turning Food Waste into Energy at the East bay Municipal Utility District, EPA
The 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living in Woodinville, WA is a nonprofit learning center and living laboratory focusing on organic agriculture, sustainable living and green building technologies.