Comedian John Oliver took to task the issue of food waste on an episode of This Week Tonight. Seemingly overnight, it’s become a burning issue. Finally.
I dedicated an entire chapter of my 2011 book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, to the issue of food waste. Here’s an excerpt from “Waste Not, Want Not,” courtesy Viking/Penguin Random House:
“Even as they bemoan food prices, American consumers are generally unaware that they spend the smallest percentage of their wages on food than any other country in the world; just above 10 percent of paychecks go toward putting food on the table. Compare that to 1900, when 40 percent of wages went toward food. Around 1960, the first time the amount spent on food was no longer the biggest expenditure, we spent about 25 percent.
The declining cost comes with the rise industrialization of farming practices and the shift of everything we eat – from pigs to cows to orange juice –into mass-produced merchandise.
Perhaps it’s the lack of investment that leads to a cavalier attitude toward food. We may give thanks for our bounty once a year, but then as a country we collectively waste about 40 percent of the food produced for consumption the rest of the time.
Anthropologist Timothy Jones spent more than a decade studying food wastes. His research finds that some crops sit abandoned or unharvested in the field where it’s grown. Supermarkets or suppliers discard another few percent dismissed as too imperfect for retail. The rest – about 25 to 30 percent –we throw away at home.
That food goes into landfills to rot where they emit clouds of methane, a greenhouse gas more toxic and damaging than carbon monoxide.
“By treating edibles as a disposable commodity, we teach our children not to value food,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of the book, Wasted Food: How America Wastes Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It). He puts the figure on what we waste at more than $100 billion annually.
This jived with what I found in the interviews with the volunteers and the kitchen visits, and what I observed in my own house and in the homes of friends. A few of the volunteers agreed to keep a journal of what they bought, ate and threw out for two weeks. The result? They reported less waste due to the guilt they felt knowing they had to write it down, but even then, an average of 18 percent of their groceries bill went into the trash.
But why do we waste so much? Both Jones and Bloom offer some interesting insights.
First, people often shop for their aspirational life, not their real one. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to eat fruit and vegetables, so we stock up on perishables. But that leads into the second problem. Since most people don’t plan meals for the week, those beets or greens that looked so great at the farmer’s market sit untouched, as we end up eating convenience foods.
With proper planning, buying in bulk or loading up on two-for-one deals can be a genuine money saver; without a plan, it’s just a recipe to double or triple the amount of food tossed away.
Here are some strategies for avoiding food waste from my second book:
-> The Post-It Note Trick: When you bring food home from the grocery store, put a post-it note on each perishable item with the amount it cost. No one would throw $5 into the trash, but wasted food is also wasted money. When you do toss that food without eating it, put those post-its in one place. At the end of the month, total up how much you tossed.So if you want to waste less food, here are some suggestions:
-> Take an Inventory of Your Fridge and Cupboards: Empty them out. Toss the truly expired stuff. Get to know what’s in them. I even recommend making a list. Have stuff that’s been around for a long time that you’ll never use? Or four jars of paprika? Donate excess stuff to a food bank. Start to research recipes to use up the stuff that’s been languishing.
-> Eat Down Your Fridge: This challenge was developed by food writer friend, Kim O’Donnel. It’s pretty simple: Skip at least one shopping trip a month and try to use up your remnant food instead.
-> The Photo In the Back of the Fridge trick: Chef Thierry Rautureau of Seattle suggests putting a favorite photo in the back of your refrigerator. “If you can’t see it, your fridge is too full.”
-> Shop more often, buy less: Buy one pepper, not three. Buy three potatoes, onot three pounds. Says Chef Rautureau: “If you have less food in your fridge it will actually push you as a cook. You will have to make something different. It will force substitutions. You think, ‘I don’t have a green pepper but, oh wait, I have a zucchini so I will try that.’ It’s a good thing. That’s how you learn.”
-> Don’t give up on food too easily: Apple has a dent in it? Cut it out and use the rest of the apple. If a few leaves of lettuce go brown, pluck them out, don’t chuck the whole bag.
-> Learn to make soup: Check out my “How to Make Soup out of Anything” guide. Soup is basically sauteing a half onion, adding chopped up leftover vegetables, some water and stock and simmering it for an hour.
-> When a jar of jam, mustard or peanut butter is nearly empty, use it to make vinaigrette: Seriously, this is a great trick. Watch the video here.
-> Home-style Individually Quick Frozen (IQF): Says Chef Rautureau: “Spread berries or vegetables on a tray, freeze them, and when frozen, put them into a plastic bag. In January, you can pull out a handful onto your pancakes and its summer again.”
- > Follow Jonathan Bloom’s excellent blog, Wasted Food: Get his newsletter or an RSI feed, follow him on Twitter. Keep this issue top of mind.
> Order the classic book, More With Less by Doris Longacre: Written for the Mennonite Church, this book offers all kinds of suggestions for menu planning, shopping and rethinking how we consume in this world of such intense consumerism.
Longacre’s book taught me a lot. As Oliver notes, we don’t need all-you-can eat ribs or “endless shrimp buffets” in a country that not only wastes so much food but also has the dual issues of obesity (about 35% of Americans are morbidly obese) while nearly four million children go hungry.
Do you have any suggestions or strategies for wasting less food? Let me know.