Waste not Want not...
I didn’t really start to become interested in food until the end of college. Up until that point, I looked at food as a necessity and never put much thought into where it came from, much less where my plate scraps went after I was replete. My mom would often remind me that it was important to “clear my plate” and to not let food go to waste. However, putting my uneaten tuna noodle casserole into the trashcan didn’t really faze me. The importance of the whole process— from farm, to fork, to landfill— never seeped into my day-to-day thinking.
As an NCAA athlete, I swam for a division one varsity team with a very grueling training schedule that included not only 15 hours per week in the water, but also an additional six to seven hours of “dry-land training,” which included long runs and heavy weight-lifting. Our coach required us to “weigh in” each week and to see our campus nutritionist to ensure we were properly fueling ourselves with the best possible carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The nutritionist explained to me how the quality of the food we put into our bodies directly affects our performance. She also emphasized the importance of eating locally and sustainably. This was a turning point for me – I realized how precious food really is. We should be taking better care of this food and certainly not letting it go to waste.
So I began to cook. I already knew how to bake (generally speaking- who can’t make brownies?) but I had never really gone through the process of buying produce and proteins and preparing it all myself. I wanted my food to be fresh and not packaged or processed, so I started buying lots of fresh fruit and veggies. Over time, I noticed I was buying way too much food and fresh spinach and tomatoes would often go bad before I had time to eat them. About a quarter of the produce I purchased went to waste!
It turns out I was not alone. According to a new NRDC report entitled, “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40% of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” about 40 percent of all food in the United States today goes uneaten. Each year Americans are throwing away the equivalent of $165 billion in uneaten food, making food the single largest component of solid waste in our landfills. This costs the average family of four between $1,350 and $2,275 annually. Unfortunately, it’s not just as simple as the rotting spinach and tomatoes or the uneaten tuna noodle casserole; the waste begins much earlier on in the farm to fork to landfill process. At the farm level, crops will often go un-harvested because the price at the time of harvest is too low for farmers to recuperate the costs of labor to harvest. Retail stores tend to buy excess produce in the hopes that creating the illusion of abundance in food displays will sell more. And when we do buy more, much of it ends up wasted because we over-bought in the first place. This has become a vicious cycle that has taken a heavy toll on the environment.
Photo courtesy of NRDC's report, "Wasted."
Wasting food has a large impact on our carbon footprints. Unless properly composted, uneaten food ends up in landfills which lack the necessary light and air to compost properly. The end result is the production of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming and climate change when trapped in the atmosphere. Add to that all the front end greenhouse gases emitted during the harvesting, processing, packaging, and transporting of food and the process results in a substantially large carbon footprint. When we throw food out, all the resources used to grow, ship, package and produce it are wasted too. To see how large your carbon footprint is, use EPA’s calculator.
The numbers are staggering and have definitely made me stop to think twice about what I really need before making a trip to the grocery store. While Americans cannot take the blame for all of the 40% wasted every year, there are simple steps that each of us can take to help lessen our waste. In her blog, report author, Dana Gunders, emphasizes that Americans can help reduce waste by learning when food goes bad, buying imperfect produce, and storing and cooking food with an eye to reducing waste. We can also make a big difference by educating friends, family, colleagues, and others about this important issue. The following are some important steps that can be taken to help spread awareness:
- Understand expiration dates. The “sell by” and “use by” dates are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Many foods can be safely consumed after their “sell by” and “use by” dates.
- Shop wisely. It’s best to visit the grocery store with a specific shopping list in mind for meals you plan to make that week. This will help avoid impulse buying and unused food items.
- Freeze unused ingredients. Freezing ingredients will increase the longevity of the food that might otherwise spoil quicker.
- Buy imperfect produce. Purchasing fruit or vegetables of various sizes and shapes and not strictly relying on that perfectly round, shiny apple will help lessen losses at the farm level.
While I feel good about my “natural” and “organic” purchases, at the end of the day, none of that matters if the food ends up in the garbage. As an athlete and a cook I am now focusing on both quality and quantity. Let’s all follow these four simple steps and not let anything go to waste.
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