This post is by Contributing Writer Lori Hernandez of Three Acre Farm.
I stared at the towering boxes and stacks of produce in disbelief.
“You mean to tell me, ALL of this was destined for the landfill?”, I asked, my voice filled with shock.
“Yup”, the food pantry director answered. “Isn’t it insane how much food is wasted? Thank goodness we managed to save this and now we can actually get it into the hands of people who need it.”
A Glimpse Into America’s Broken Food System
About 4 years ago, I started volunteering at my local food pantry a few hours a week. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I love helping others in my community and it’s given me a first hand look the food distribution system.
Our food pantry is the largest in the area, so we are a major drop point for food donations, which we distribute to other smaller pantries.
Imagine my shock when I saw semi-truck after semi-truck arrive to drop off enormous skids of food. The volume was astounding. Skids of gorgeous red bell peppers. Thousands of pounds of prime rib. Hundreds of boxes of gourmet salad greens. Hundreds of pounds of tomatoes. More types of food than I ever knew existed.
I learned that our pantry weighs all incoming food and the total amounts add up to over 2,000,000 pounds of food a year. That number staggered me… and this is just ONE food pantry in America.
All of this is food (95% still in good condition and completely edible) that would have ended up in the landfill, if not for the amazing directors and volunteers that staff the pantry.
Let that sink in. 2,000,000 pounds of food. IN THE LANDFILL.
What country does this? Who can afford to throw out hundreds, millions, billions of pounds of food? How could we be so irresponsible? How much of our tax money is quite literally being thrown into the landfill? I was outraged.
God bless the food pantry, though. They use that food to feed hundreds of families and the elderly in our community. It’s wonderful they are able to direct that food to those who need it most, but my glimpse into America’s broken food system inspired me to research the topic of food waste…and what I discovered was shocking.
Stewardship is HUGE priority for me, and I assume it is for you too, if you read this blog. Seeing good food going to waste filled me a bit of righteous fury, to put it mildly!
The Food Waste Epidemic
In my research, I discovered that the food production industry is using massive amounts of:
…and then throwing nearly 50% of the crop/food in the landfill! Are you kidding me?!?
All that pollution to streams and waterways from hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides and fertilizers.
All that precious water directed to crops and livestock
All that valuable growing space.
All that expensive energy and petroleum.
It makes me sick just thinking of it.
To make matters worse, I found more startling facts, such as:
- The average family of 4 wastes $1400 each year on food that goes bad or uneaten.
- We are literally throwing our money in the trash. What could your family do with an extra $1400 each year???
- Stop wasting your CSA produce now with these tips!
- Consumers are responsible for more food waste than farmers, grocery stores or other parts of the food chain. GULP.
- 70% of water use in the U.S goes into growing food (livestock production and crops). It takes the same amount of water to produce ONE hamburger as it does to take a 90 minute shower.
- The idea of throwing out meat is simply inconceivable when you look at it that way.
- 133 billion pounds of food is wasted each year.
- Wasted food is the largest component of solid waste in our landfills.
- The greenhouse gas emissions produced by this food is equivalent to that of 33 million cars.
- Only 5% of discarded food is composted.
- Can you actually eat some of your discarded food? See 3 things you didn’t know you could eat.
- Americans pay $1.5 billion a year on food disposal.
- Globally, we produce twice as much food as needed to feed every person on the planet… but only half of it actually makes it to someone’s plate.
- And unfortunately, that food often doesn’t make it to the plate of those who need it, not because we don’t have enough, but because of political upheaval and distribution problems.
3 Simple and Effective Solutions to Reduce Food Waste
So maybe you are feeling helpless and wondering what YOU can do to reverse this sobering problem.
I have good news! Experts agree that the ABSOLUTE best place to start working on reducing food waste is right in your own kitchen!
This is what Kitchen Stewardship is all about!
I’ve complied a short list of 3 solutions that take place in your kitchen, along with a few quick tips. Even if you can implement a ONE of these ideas, you will be well on your way to reducing food waste.
1. Meal Planning
I know, I know. Maybe you’re like me and you have good intentions to Meal Plan, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Well, keep trying friend. It’s worth it!
Meal Planning is the #1 way consumers can reduce food waste.
Here is how it works:
- Look in your fridge and pantry, and take a quick inventory of what needs to be used up before it goes bad.
- Create a Meal Plan based on using up those items. Add items you need to buy to your grocery list.
- Take your Meal Plan and grocery list with you to the store or market.
- VERY IMPORTANT – As you place each item in your cart/basket, figure out EXACTLY when you are going to prepare/eat it.
- Do NOT let your good intentions sway you – if it doesn’t fit into the meal plan, don’t buy it! The majority of food wasted in the home is when we buy something with good intentions, but never get around to cooking/preparing it.
2. Chopping/Food Prep Day
If you can, set aside a time each week to prep fruits and veggies and any other foods that need advance work. I like to do this right after I get back from the grocery store. I simply dedicate a few hours each week for “Food Prep”, which includes shopping, putting away food and chopping.
I like to:
- wash and chop veggies for kid’s lunches
- wash and chop veggies for the week’s dinners, so most of the hard work is done when it’s time to cook dinner
- wash and prepare salad for dinner, so I can just grab it out of the fridge at dinner time
- wash and chop kale/greens to saute with eggs for breakfast
When I fail to do this, I find I waste embarrassing amounts of food. Those poor fruits and veggies end up rotting in the fridge, because I either forget about them or don’t have the time to chop them during the week.
3. Control Portion Sizes
Anyone who has been to a school at lunch time has witnessed first hand how much food is wasted! My husband volunteered at our kid’s school last week and he was in SHOCK to see how much food waste was produced – 3 giant trash cans worth for each grade.
If your child gets a school lunch, there is not much you can do about it. Inevitably, about half of the lunch will be thrown out. Maybe your child doesn’t like the food that is offered, but most likely it’s because kids don’t have much time to eat...and they spend their time of talking instead!
My kids bring their lunch from home, and sometimes they would bring back about half of their lunch. Often, I would just make them finish their lunch as their after school snack. Unfortunately, sometimes we forgot and the lunch box would sit on the counter overnight and go bad. I ended up throwing out (composting, actually) a shameful amount of food.
This year, I told the kids they were in charge of packing their own lunches. The first few weeks, I fretted that they were not packing nearly enough food…but guess what? They came home with empty lunch boxes. Turns out they were better at knowing how much food they wanted to eat that day!
Our lunch time waste is decreased significantly. In fact, we strive for Zero Waste lunches – my kids don’t throw away anything. There are no wrappers in their lunch and everything that is uneaten comes home and is composted.
The dinner table is another great place to control portion sizes. We learned the hard way to give our children tiny portions. If they want more, they can have another serving.
Switching to smaller plates is helpful for controlling portion sizes too! Sometimes we just use the small plates for dinner, instead of the big dinner plates. This might be a great solution if you have kids that are regularly wasting food.
More Quick Tips to Reduce Food Waste
Here are a few other tips that can help!
Wilted veggies can be revived in ice water.
I recently tried this with a head of sorry looking, limp lettuce. After 10 minutes in ice water, it looked and tasted great!
Freeze leftover bits of food in small containers, to be reused in another meal.
Leftover veggies are particularity good in soups, stews, casseroles and quiches/fritattas.
Milk go sour? Don’t throw it out.
Use it as a substitute for buttermilk and make some pancakes!
Store food in see-through containers in the fridge.
Put them on a shelf where you will see them.
Understand that most expiration dates are really just suggestions for peak quality.
Most foods are still good days and weeks past their expiration dates (obviously, use your discretion here).
Have too much food and know you can’t use it before it goes bad? Try freezing it.
I often do with bell peppers, kale and other veggies that can be chopped and frozen. Once frozen, throw the chopped pieces in a freezer bag and use handfuls as needed.
What about composting?
Composting is good, but reducing waste is the first step. Remember the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”? Follow them in order.
“Reduce” always comes first. Focus your energy mostly on reducing food waste. Then think about ways you can “reuse” your food by using leftover and scraps to create new meals. “Recycle” (composting) is always the last resort.
Composting has incredible benefits and is obviously superior to throwing food in the trash. Composting puts essential nutrients back into the soil and benefits the earth, instead of harming it (like the greenhouse gasses produced by food in landfills).
Can you imagine if those 133 billion pounds of food were composted and returned back to the growing fields to increase fertility, instead of chucked in a landfill?
Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of composting – maybe you don’t have a yard or too many pesky critters that would be attracted to food scraps. It’s encouraging to see many communities introducing composting programs, but we still have a long way to go.
If you can compost, I encourage you to give it a try. There are so many methods, I can’t even begin to describe them here. It really can be as easy or complicated as you want it to be.
Essentially, you are throwing stuff in a pile and letting it return to the earth. Don’t let anyone’s complicated systems or advice scare you away from trying it. Just last week Becca shared her easy and affordable method here.
On our farm, all our food scraps are thrown in the compost bucket, then fed to chickens (and pigs, when we have them). It’s a great way to “recycle” the discarded food and transform it into delicious eggs! We even have family members and friends that save their food scraps for our chickens.
Doing Our Part
I hope that you are inspired to choose at least one of these solutions for reducing food waste. Yes, it’s a huge problem and there are so many things we cannot control…but we can control what comes into our homes and how we steward it!
We can each do our part, and those small changes WILL make a difference.