4. Food Waste Again: Would You Believe Congressional Action?

Grocery stores (and restaurants and schools) throw out a lot of food.

So much edible food is discarded that for 20 or 30 years now, there have been people who call themselves “freegans” who feed themselves entirely and at no cost by dumpster diving behind grocery stores.  They find literally tons of packaged foods of every description that are past stamped dates but perfectly edible, as well as produce that is a bit past its prime but still tasty and healthful.  (They mostly avoid more-worrisome refrigeration-needing animal foods, but almost-fresh baked goods can be fine.)  They eat very well indeed, enjoying enough variety in their diets for both health and deliciousness.

That this is consistently possible is a crime and a shame.

The reason it happens has much to do with “sell by” dates stamped on packages by food manufacturers.  It is clearly in food suppliers’ interest to sell as much product as possible, so suggesting that food be trashed after its first blush of perfect freshness works for them in two ways:  good food is tossed by the store and more is bought;  and it is thought that if consumers eat items at their very best they will be likelier to choose them again.  The downside is obviously that completely edible food gets systematically wasted by the ton.  And freegans actually take only a tiny bite out of the mountains of rejected edibles.

Until now, this has been possible partly because the practice has been pretty much invisible to the general public, and partly because it has been unregulated.  But we are now on the brink of being able to change that, due to some actual Congressional action.

HR4184 is a bill recently introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D – ME)  which addresses the problem of food waste in many ways, including measures to reduce it on farms, in the retail and restaurant areas, in schools and other institutions, and at the level of consumers and infrastructure.  If enacted, it would mandate:

Edible food sent by farmers to compost and food-to-energy digesters would be identified and sent instead to hunger-fighting organizations to become food for the needy.

Refrigerated vehicles would be be added the list of acceptable storage facilities for food not sold by farmers (making it possible to preserve such produce for consumption).

Studies would be made to determine how long food can be safely stored and how much is really thrown out, and to recommend tactics for reducing waste.

Tax breaks for donating good unused food to food pantries, either as inventory loss or as charitable donations, would be expanded so as to encourage using rather than trashing those items.

A new Food Recovery Office would be established within the USDA to coordinate programs to measure and reduce food waste.

The House of Representatives and Senate would be required to reduce waste in their own eateries.

Farm-to-school grants would be funded to facilitate both getting good local produce to schools and also to get school food waste back to on-farm composting operations.

School lunch procurement operations would be directed to start including off-size and oddly-shaped produce.

Package dating would be regularized such that the only language permitted would be “Best if used by…” immediately followed with identical visibility by “Manufacturer’s Suggestion Only.”  The words “sell by,” “use by,” “best by,” expires on,” and other similar language would be banned.  Appropriate modification to this would be mandated for “high-risk foods” such as foods sold ready-to-eat and foods that have a high risk of microbial contamination if not eaten promptly (i.e., meat, dairy, eggs from hens fed routine antibiotics, etc.)

Money would be authorized for national media campaigns to inform the public about food waste and how to reduce it.

Resources would be increased for community facilities for composting and for food-waste-to-energy operations after all still-edible food is sent to food pantries.

In short, this is a pretty comprehensive bill which would, if passed into law, make huge strides towards greatly reducing food waste.  The trick will be getting enough support to move it through the legislative process and actually pass it in the House, as well as to repeat that whole process from introduction to passage in the Senate.

For a start, you can phone the US Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask for your congresspeople by name.  Or you can computer-search their websites and email them.  Ask Representatives to cosponsor the Food Recovery Act, HR4184;  ask your Senators to introduce or cosponsor a companion bill in the Senate.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley



3. Food Waste I

“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:

Sauteed Greens

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

2. Details

In this second post, I want to expand further on  the subjects I plan to cover and how I plan to cover them.

I will address several broad areas in which action could end world hunger:  food waste;  misuse of farmland for growing ethanol, animal feed, and non-nutritious high fructose corn syrup (HFCS);  the possibilities of urban and suburban food production;  and poverty and overpopulation.  Each of these can be broken down into things that any individual can do by oneself and things that will require concerted (often political) action.  Each can also be broken down into many specific subtopics.

For example, the possibilities of urban/ suburban food production can be broken down into:  historical evidence of “victory garden” potential;  growing a food garden where your lawn was;  growing food on your windowsill or window box or apartment terrace;  growing food on your residential apartment building roof;  organizing more community gardens;  using an industrial building roof for a working farm (which may supply a restaurant or be a Community Supported Agriculture enterprise);  keeping bees on a rooftop or raising hens in a backyard;  sharecropping arrangements whereby a farmer and a set of suburban homeowners agree to have the farmer grow produce on the owners’ ex-lawns in return for a share of the crop while the farmer makes a profit from selling the rest;  associations whereby people with a productive ornamental fruit tree alert others to come help harvest it;  foraging in urban and suburban areas…  Some of these items would be individual actions while others would require groups of people to organize and enable.  Anyone could just decide to grow veggies in their back yard, for example, but in some places zoning or neighborhood association rules would need to be changed to grow food on front yards or to keep small animals.  Creating a new community garden requires people to get a group of would-be gardeners together find a site, and get permission to grow there, often from their municipality.  But rooftop growing only needs the would-be grower to work with one landlord.  And so on.

Similarly, misapplication of farmland includes both the need for political action regarding the Farm Bill, the ethanol mandate, and subsidies for growing animal feed and HFCS.  But it also involves the individual action of shifting one’s own diet to a more plant-centric one, including the reasons to do so and tips and recipes for how to do it.

For each broad topic I will therefore oscillate between looking very specifically at what each of us can do ourselves and things people need to band together to accomplish.  And since, as those examples suggest, each broad topic has an awful lot of subheadings, I do not expect to run out of material in the foreseeable future.

Since I’ve seen several items about food waste in the last few days, I plan to start nest time with several posts on that subject.

And if you think there’s something I should look at that I haven’t mentioned yet, please leave me a comment.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


A first blog post is necessarily introductory, of both subject and self.

My subject springs from much reading and engagement in the areas of:  gardening;  agriculture;  environmental issues;  nutrition;  plant-based diets;  and social justice.  This combination of interests and experiences gives me critical insights into both the problems that cause hunger and malnutrition on our planet, and also into areas of slack in the system from which real solutions could be developed.

The problem is that malnutrition exists (despite current agricultural production of enough calories to feed everyone) while the human population is still growing.  Economic factors are surely part of this problem, and improving economic equity and empowering (or re-empowering) the poor to grow and be able to buy good food is pretty well understood to be needed.  But there is also concern that even if this were achieved, it would be inadequate to feed us all as human numbers grow even larger and as more less-poor people desire a richer diet.

For there are limits to what plants can produce.  All the good agricultural land is now in use.  Overuse of marginal land is causing desertification that exacerbates the problem.  Use of water for irrigation and livestock is already at such unsustainable levels that aquifers and surface water are being drawn down worldwide (from the US high plains and California to India and the Aral Sea) to a degree that further compromises our ability to grow food into the future.  Climate chaos throws an additional sabot into the works.  Further, one of the biggest causes of both food shortage and greenhouse gasses is raising livestock, yet as people climb out of poverty the demand for animal food rises beyond any kind of sustainability.

Is big problem.

But there are also solutions, and they lie in correcting current misuse and underuse of what we have.  Waste is a huge area to address.  Devoting over 90% of US corn acreage to biofuels, animal feed, and  high fructose corn syrup is another.  Suburban lawns and urban rooftops and vacant lots represent space where enormous amounts of food could be grown.  And people can eat amazingly well using very little animal food (or even none!).  So even as we work towards zero population growth and economic equity, there are things we can do to greatly increase the amount of available food.  And while we can’t end hunger solely by resolving any one of these factors, working on all of them together could do the trick.

I plan in this blog to report on efforts and initiatives already known of or being tried to address each of these areas of slack in the system.  I will discuss what people can do individually and what will require concerted citizen action to make changes at the policy level.  I hope to cross-pollinate ideas so that people interested in one aspect of the problem of world hunger, or working on one of the solutions, can be enabled to learn and act more widely, and in better coordination with others.  It’s because of this cross-pollination of ideas that I call myself “the gentle bee.”

As far as who I am, my first tiny garden was planted in the mid-1970s when I was in my twenties.  I’ve lived in urban “bedroom communities” and have gardened in back yards, front yards, and community gardens.  I’ve been a Community Supported Agriculture subscriber and farmers’ market patron.  I learned about human nutrition during my pregnancy and then taught it for 27 years as a Bradley Method childbirth educator.  My daughter was already interested in vegetarianism when I met my vegan husband;  he and I got a vegetarian group started (Milwaukee Area Resources for Vegetarianism) and I’ve written its monthly newsletter since 1994. I wrote a food/nutrition/cookbook, Food Pyramid Feast, published in 2000. I myself drifted slowly into eating a plant-based diet, and have been ov0-lacto-vegetarian for about 15 years.  My interest in and knowledge about food and growing it is thus long and varied — and ongoing.

Finally, a plea for indulgence:  my first exposure to computers in 1975 pretty thoroughly defined the term “user UNfriendly” and traumatized me for life.  So this is my very first venture into the blogosphere, and I have a lot to learn.  I can only hope that my content will be interesting and useful enough for readers to stick with me while I figure out how to do this.

Thanking you in advance for your patience, and hoping to reward it, I am

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley