10 Food Waste Solutions
If I told you to go to the grocery store, buy six bags of groceries, and when you walk out in the parking lot to drop two of those on the ground and leave – what would you think?
That I was crazy, right? Here’s the hard truth – most American households waste nearly 32% of their food. This means you might not have left it in the parking lot – but maybe you took it home, let it occupy your fridge for a while, forgot about it, and then threw it in the trash. It’s not as blatant as leaving the food you just bought in the parking lot – but it is the same idea.
Food waste is discarded edible (parts and wholes) of food products. And while yes, food is wasted at production, transportation, and retail levels – the highest source of food waste comes from us – the consumers. I’m using the term food waste to be on the same page, but if you need a little reminder go back to episode 70, “Waste Not Want Not” when we talk about what we call ‘waste’ actually being a resource.
So let’s look at the problem. 30-40% of America’s food supply gets wasted annually – and we rank the highest in terms of food waste globally. With the global food waste average coming in at over 1 Billion tons annually and the US accounting for around 40 million tons (or 80 billion pounds) of that – the equivalent of 1,000 Empire State Buildings!
The majority of this waste comes first from America’s homes, then restaurants, grocery stores and food service companies, and that is followed by small percentages where farms and manufacturers produce too much food.
And while it seems like if we are throwing food away we must have an abundance of food, for everyone, over 38 million people in America suffer from food insecurity, including 12 million children. And not to mention that that loss adds up – not just financially, but for the environment too when the food goes to waste, typically in a landfill. (link to landfill/trash episode). Our food scraps don’t biodegrade in landfills. Rubicon reports that “As food rots in a landfill, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more potent than the carbon that comes out of passenger vehicles.”
Take that a few steps backward and think about the roots. Move for Hunger says that “roughly one-third of the world’s total agricultural land area is used to grow food that is wasted. Millions of gallons of oil are also wasted every year to produce food that is not eaten.” And globally, studies show that – “4 trillion megajoules of energy and 82 billion cubic meters (over 21 trillion gallons) of water are lost, globally.”
That’s not even opening the whole can of worms! Like I mentioned last week, there are many pieces to our food system to consider. If you honestly sit there and think about the likely journey of your food, from the people who made it and what all goes into that, to the packaging and transportation, to the store, and to you – I know you’d really start to uncover for yourself more ways that our current food systems harm people and the earth. And while I hope to point out some of these problems to you – I don’t want to bring you down or make you feel guilty because you’ll likely be led to inaction. Instead, I think we should point these things out so we are aware and then celebrate the beautiful bounty from the earth that is the food that keeps us alive and brings us joy. Think of it from a perspective of how we can preserve food in the best way possible to feed us and all other humans on the planet in a healthy and sustainable way.
So let’s get straight to the solution of where most food is lost – us. Let’s talk about 10 healthy, sustainable food habits can we develop to help alleviate our problem of food waste.
Plan Your Meals
This helps you realize how much you need so you don’t overbuy or buy things you don’t have a plan for. I don’t know about you, but I always get caught up in cool-looking fruits or veggies, and in the past, I’ve brought them home with no plan for how I was going to eat them, let alone how to cook or prepare them guess what? They went bad! If I see something like that, I either look up a recipe while I’m in the store or make a note of it and look up a recipe to add to my plan the next time around.
Don’t be afraid to save and use leftovers
Part of your meal plan should be leftovers! We always have them, so don’t be afraid to keep what you’ve got for the next day. It can taste just as good or better if you prepare it right! This also works if you’ve got eating out in your plan. For example, I know if I eat Mexican food, I’m likely going only to eat half of the portion and can save the rest for lunch the next day. If you’re like Lena, I don’t know if I’ll have leftovers or not. That’s where it’s nice to have backup meals in the freezer that you can pull out or just don’t put eating out on your plan, and if you end up not having leftovers maybe you move things around or consider eating out that next meal.
Learn how to cook and try no waste cooking once a week
Alright, I get how time-consuming it is to be zero or low waste at the beginning. That’s why we often choose not to because we want to prioritize our convenience. But if you’re learning to live more sustainably, you’re likely slowing down a little bit and realizing that a little extra time and mindfulness now will pay off moving forward. So try learning how to cook is the first step (hopefully more plant-forward recipes!), and make one of these meals per week a no waste or low waste meal – meaning you use every part of the food and don’t throw any of it away. For instance, maybe you make carrots one night in a meal, but instead of throwing out the completely edible leafy greens on top you use them to make a carrot top pesto to add to your dish or save in a jar to eat as an appetizer or snack the next day.
Learn how to read food labels
At the store, you can learn to read food expiration labels. “More than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good food because they misunderstand expiration labels.” The USDA breaks it down like this,
- BEST IF USED BY: indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- SELL BY: tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- USE BY: is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
- FREEZE BY: indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
But I might blow your mind here, these food expiration labels don’t even have a uniform standard or regulation in America. The FDA says that it’s up to the discretion of the manufacturer to decide what expiration label they want to put on their food. so the best way to truly tell if something has gone bad is to use your senses. Does it smell like it’s supposed to? Look like it’s supposed to? And go from there.
Choose the ugly produce
At every stage, produce is thrown away because it doesn’t look perfect. This is because again, we the consumers, demand beautiful, perfect produce and leave what’s less than on the shelves (if it even makes it that far!) But ugly produce is perfectly safe to eat, and personally, I think it’s actually got a little character! I was chopping carrots the other day and one had a fork in it, and the other wound itself like a corkscrew! It tasted just as good as a pretty carrot!
Track your monetary loss
As I mentioned earlier, food waste adds up in our wallets. Just for a month, try tracking what you throw away and how much money it is costing you. The average American family of four throws out around $1,500 in wasted food per year. Even while you’re eating out if you leave food consider how much that is costing.
Store food properly to maximize freshness
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If we store food properly, it’s less likely to go bad before we get to it. Some examples of this are:
- Putting carrots in a container submerged in water
- Wrapping leafy greens in a damp towel
- Putting fruits in a visible container out on the counter
- Storing onions, potatoes, and garlic in separate ventilated bags in a dark, cool pantry spot
- Freezing food that you know you won’t get to in time (I get it things don’t always go to plan).
- And even just organizing your fridge so the things you need to use first are at the front of your refrigerator and your leftovers can be seen clearly helps out a ton!
If you’re still coming up with food waste, make sure you’re composting at home. There are so many different ways to compost that you can absolutely find one that works for you. This will save food from a landfill and help keep the planet healthy.
Support policy that reduces food waste and helps with food insecurity
Many states and cities are now rolling out composting and organics collection programs, limits on food waste, school food waste reduction programs, and food recovery programs. This would not only help our economy but those in need. $1 Trillion Dollars’ worth of food is wasted each year. And according to the World Food Program, reversing these food waste trends “would preserve enough food to feed 2 billion people . That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe.”
Shift your mindset
We throw away food because we act like we’ve got an abundance of it. If you went to a grocery store and they had the actual amount of food needed in there, I’m sure you’d be thrown off by it looking a little sparse. But typically they stock them fully because as American consumers, we like to go and see full fresh aisles. Go to a farmer’s market, and you’ll find more efficient production of food that is full of character. The ugly truth is that we care more about aesthetics and full fridges and aisles of perfect produce. We are stuck in habits and routines of food waste that we can’t seem to realize or break free from. This seeming abundance of food leads to a throwaway mentality instead of really appreciating food for the wonder it is. Even in 1960 we were still wasting 12.5 million tons of food, and as you can see urbanization, industrialization of our food systems, shifting lifestyle changes to fast and convenience, and reduced food education has only caused food waste to skyrocket. So you can start to shift your mindset to try to really add more value to your food. When you are shopping, cooking, and eating – don’t just go through the motions, be mindful! Try to slow down and connect to all of your senses, think about the journey of the food, and how fortunate we are that we have enough to fill our plates every meal.
Something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on, I want to leave you some food for thought. Thomas Keller, renowned American chef, said “Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do.” This doesn’t just apply to chefs, but everyone. You might love food, but do you respect it? Our food is truly a labor of love from every angle, including the earth. By treating each meal with pride, we respect the farmers who produced it, the resources that went into it and the people who go without it. Does that deserve to be thrown away? I don’t think so.
If we learn to respect our food, we will learn to respect ourselves, and the planet. Then you can share this respect with the people in your life, so we can all start making healthier, sustainable food choices.
Until next time, thanks for joining me, neighbor.
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