Why Food Waste Matters

I’ve been working on some articles about food waste recently and it’s quite eye-opening. The more I researched food waste, the more my deep-rooted habits began to change when dealing with all aspects of food: shopping, storage, cooking, and eating. I was in the dark about this before so I’m sure others may be too. More awareness is needed, which will ideally prompt pretty simple everyday changes that will make a dramatic and positive difference in our environment. So here’s my hope that this post educates and inspires you!

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The Facts

The USDA defines food loss as the edible amount of food after harvesting that is available to eat but is not used. Reasons include losses from cooking; losses from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; and intentional food waste.

Why does throwing out a container of week-old leftovers or a bag of wilted spinach really matter? Consider the statistics: Up to 40% of all food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, and about 95% of discarded food ends up in landfills, which makes it the largest portion of municipal solid waste (only 3-5% is composted). Decomposing food in landfills produces methane, a strong greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. About 23% of U.S. methane emissions comes from food in landfills.

Not only does reducing food waste help the environment and provide immense cost savings, it can help to feed more Americans who lack access to nutritious food. Reducing food waste by 15% could feed more than 25 million Americans every year.

On June 4, 2013, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency announced the U.S. Food Waste Challenge to groups involved in all levels of food production and handling: farms, agricultural processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and local governments. The goals are to 1) reduce food waste at all stages of food handling, 2) recover excess uneaten food by connecting food donors to food banks and pantries, and 3) to recycle food waste for animal feed or to compost for natural fertilizers. On September 16, 2015, both agencies also announced a first-ever national food loss and waste goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030 to improve overall food security and conserve natural resources.

Although the challenge targets large groups, the amount of food waste that ends up in your trash matters too. Composting is an option for some, but the following tips may help to reduce waste before it gets to that point.

What You Can Do

Shop

  • Plan weekly menus with a shopping list so that you buy only as many ingredients as needed. If the idea of meal planning is completely foreign to you, check out The Nutrition Source’s helpful piece on Meal Prep: A Helpful Healthy Eating Strategy.
  • Be wary of impulse purchases or sales on foods you normally do not eat. I’m most guilty of this! This is also important for foods you do eat but not in the amounts a sale would encourage. Example: Once there was a BOGO-free sale on cucumbers, which I eat almost every day but rarely finish more than one large cucumber a week. So after impulsively picking up 2 cukes, I thought twice and put one back.
  • Don’t shop hungry, which can influence how much and what foods you purchase.
  • For perishables like dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese) and eggs, restock only when the current amount is 75% finished…even if they’re on sale!
  • Join the “ugly produce” movement. These are misshapen fruits and vegetables that may get thrown out because they do not meet the usual standards for appearance but are perfectly edible and delicious. Some farmers markets and groceries are beginning to offer and track sales of ugly produce—buy them whenever available so that stores will keep selling them.

Store

  • Expiration dates are one of the biggest contributors to food waste, as consumers often throw out food after a “Sell By” “Use By” or “Best By” date. The dates are suggestions by the manufacturer as an indicator of quality, not safety. Most foods can be safely eaten well beyond these dates. To alleviate confusion, the Food Date Labeling Act was proposed in May 2016 to create a standardized label on all perishable foods. The exact wording has not been finalized but suggested statements are: 1) a quality date of “best if used by,” indicating the peak quality of a food, and 2) a safety date of “expires on,” indicating when the food is unsafe to eat.
  • Follow the “First In First Out” method. Place oldest foods in the front, and plan meals around these ingredients first.
  • Keep leftovers in the front. Label the container with an “eat by” date. Generally, leftovers last about 3-4 days.
  • Prep vegetables as soon as you purchase them. Wash, chop, and dry them. Store in labeled containers in clear view.
  • For vegetables that dry out quickly or are sensitive to ethylene gas emitted from other produce (which speeds ripening), store in a produce bin with the slider knob closed. This keeps moisture circulating inside the bin and gasses out. Leafy greens, herbs, cucumbers, carrots, strawberries, bell peppers, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts can be stored here. Honestly I had no idea that my refrigerator’s produce bins had these sliders and what they were used for! I started washing, prepping, and drying out all my leafy greens, and then stored them in these sealed produce bins. They have stayed fresher without decaying for twice as long.

Salvage

  • Don’t throw out wilted greens or herbs. If there is no discoloration, they have simply dried out and can be rehydrated. Chop the vegetables and soak in a bowl filled with ice water for 15-20 minutes. Dry before using.
  • Sauté the leafy tops of carrots, celery, and beets.
  • Add slightly overripe fruits to smoothies, muffins, or fruit breads. Add sagging vegetables that can’t be revived to soups or casseroles.
  • Eat skins of produce whenever possible for extra nutrients and fiber: potatoes, cucumbers, kiwi, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, apples, mangoes.
  • Place stale bread in a food processor to make breadcrumbs, or sprinkle with olive oil and herbs and bake at 350°F for 15 minutes to make croutons.

Recipes That Use Food Scraps

Broccoli Sauce, No Waste

Brussels Sprouts Chips

Related on The Nutrition Source

Food Waste

Tackling Food Waste at Home

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