“1.3 billion pounds of food is wasted every year: sign Matt’s petition to End Food Waste and Hunger in Houston” began the June 15 online petition from Change.org. “‘Use-by’ labels add to waste: discarded food top landfill waste [sic]” was a front-page headline in the June 3 issue of the weekly paper Wisconsin State Farmer. “This Startup is Turning Leftover Beer Into Delicious Snacks” was the headline of a Mother Jones email article about California beer makers who got tired of landfilling barley after they soaked it and extracted the resulting liquid — so they started making snack bars out of it. And an email not long ago from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, of Maine’s 1st congressional district, sought support for her introduction into Congress of a bill (the Food Recovery Act, HR 4184) that aims to change food regulations so as to prevent a significant amount to food loss due to food sale practices.
I could go on.
The waste of food is suddenly getting attention — as it should. The statistics that keep popping up are that some third of all food grown is lost to waste, and in the US it’s more like 40%. Considering that hunger and malnutrition affect less than 30% of Earth’s people, if we could save even half of what’s wasted that could feed half the hungry right there.
Food loss occurs at every stage and level. Food can be lost to pests or drought in the field. It can rot during poor storage. It can be lost due to wasteful harvesting, or when groceries discard still-edible food because it passes an arbitrary stamped date, or for cosmetic reasons when edible produce is not marketed because it’s off-size or oddly shaped. Food can be wasted at restaurants and cafeterias when food that’s prepared or served is not eaten, or at home when food that you bought goes bad in the fridge, or turns out not to be what a guest or toddler wanted after all.
Each of these aspects of the problem needs to be addressed separately, some by collective actions, some by individual efforts. As the items I began with indicate, various efforts are beginning to be made, and I will be looking at many of them in more detail in posts to come. But to start with, I want to mention a few things that each of us can do ourselves.
For example, if you see odd-sized or -shaped produced offered for sale, go ahead and buy it to encourage the practice.
Another simple tactic is to make a shopping list of what groceries you expect to actually need for the week. Then go shopping when you’re not hungry. Buy only what’s on the list.
I still remember the times, early in my first marriage, when my then-spouse and I would grab food items off the grocery shelves with the thought that we might like to try doing something with them, but then never got around to using some of them before they went bad. That was before I became a gardener and found out how much work it takes to make food happen, so throwing out spoiled food only bothered me because it was a total waste of money. These days, abetted by my permanent spouse who grew up as a farm boy, I take about 20 or 30 minutes once a week to plan out the week’s menu, check cupboard and fridge to see what’s in stock and what I need to get, and make a list of what we’ll actually need and use. Since our empty-nest household is just two of us and many of my recipes make four servings, I often plan on using one evening’s dinner as the next day’s lunch. I keep the plan for reference , so I never need to stop and figure out what to make; it therefore ends up actually saving time and thought as well as preventing waste. I still have some stuff to discard: orange peels and cantaloupe rinds still go on the compost pile. But even some produce bits you wouldn’t think of can become food. For example:
This is a way to make use of the very tasty leaves of plants that people usually just eat the roots of; it thus prevents the waste of edible greens that you didn’t previously think of as food.
At the grocery of farmers’ market, get radishes or salad turnips or beets (for example) with the leaves still on. If mustard greens or dandelions come up as weeds in your garden, you can use them too. Cut and trim so you have a pile of pieces of leaves.
Other ingredients: 2-4 cloves garlic, 1 small onion or 1/2 medium onion, 1 handful of mushrooms, 1-2 TBS toasted sesame oil, 1/8-1/4 cup cooking sherry
Coarsely cut the garlic and finely slice the onion; clean and slice the mushrooms.
Saute garlic and onion in the toasted sesame oil for a minute, then add the mushrooms and salute another couple of minutes.
Add the greens and stir them over medium heat so that they wilt down. As soon as the greens are all wilted, serve as a side dish.
Vegetable Stock for Soup-Making
The Joy of Cooking recipe for vegetable stock mandates using carrots, celery, etc. I like the idea of home-made stock, but couldn’t stand the thought of boiling good vegetables to extract the taste and then tossing them. At the same time, in the summer when I was putting up a lot of food, I was generating a lot of peelings and ends. So I put the two dilemmas together:
Collect 5 cups of vegetable trimmings: carrot tops and parings if you pare them, celery bottoms and leaves, scallion leaves, broccoli stalks, onion ends, corn cobs, mushroom stems and skins, tomato skins left after making tomato sauce, etc.
In a large pot, combine the vegetable trimmings with 6 cups of water, a small pinch of salt, and some herbs such as oregano, savory, basil, parsley, thyme. Bring to a boil and then simmer partly uncovered about 45-60 minutes.
Place a colander in a large bowl and pour the contents of the pot into it, then use a potato masher to squeeze all the liquid out of the cooked vegetable bits. Should yield 3-4 cups of vegetable broth. Can be refrigerated and used to make soup within a couple of days, or frozen for use later. The mash that’s left in the colander does go in the compost.
The question remains: What will be the result of my food-thriftiness (besides saving me money)? If many people practice it, grocery stores will sell less. They may donate more surplus to food banks at first; as the trend continues they may buy less from their suppliers. This would leave more farmland for growing food to be eaten instead of wasted. Whether or not that will translate into more people being better fed will depend on advances in economic equity and political policies. But without our collective efforts at preventing waste, economics and politics will have nothing to work on.
Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley