Can We Do Anything about Food Waste?

March 1, 2016 in Food Economics, Foodland, General, Home and Garden, Shelf Life by Joyce Bunderson

As I’ve written before, Waste not, Want not was a concept that I heard more than once from my maternal grandmother, who raised five children during the Great Depression. The concept was fairly simple then. Now the wise aphorism is being used as the title for a broad, comprehensive group of concepts and practices that are tied to colossal food waste and its possible resolutions. National Geographic has illustrated on the cover of their March 2016 issue a montage of ugly produce. It included twin kiwis, multi-forked carrots, odd peppers and odd squash. The cover is entertaining and colorful; but the message is sober and deserves serious attention.

There’s certainly a growing awareness regarding food waste. It’s estimated that about a third of the planet’s food is going to waste. Be clear, this is costing all of us, and in addition, is a gigantic cost to our environment. National Geographic lets us know right from the beginning that a third of the world’s food production is enough to feed two billion people. The sad reality is that our current waste could feed the 800 million people who presently suffer from hunger more than twice over. And this method of feeding additional people all happens without “trashing more rain forests, plowing up more prairies, or wiping out more wetlands.”

Tom Tanner from Sustainable Restaurant Association translates the waste into another uncomfortable statistic. He says, “If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.” He’s added the energy required to produce, store and distribute the food and drink, and then added the methane that the waste gives off.

As National Geographic so effectively portrayed, much of the food that does not even reach the market shelf is not the perfect right size, is an irregular shape, or has a mark or a blemish. This is the first and largest category of waste in a very helpful illustration the

National Geographic uses to divide wasted produce into five major components. The two biggest areas are “Lost during picking and sorting” and “Uneaten and discarded in homes.” This graphic shows that 47% of produce is consumed and 53% is wasted. It is clear that there’s plenty of room for improvement.

There are a variety of ways to lower the amount of wasted food including: turning inedible scraps into compost; using new inventions that may replace the old “sell-by dates,” and give more realistic shelf lives. (Note: Many of us have figured out a long time ago, that the use by date is not necessarily the safe end of the safe use of the food; especially if the food has been quickly and properly stored.)

Don’t miss the story of the now 38 years old Tristram Stuart and how he developed into an activist against food waste. It’s worth reading how his different life experiences came together to give the world a knowledgeable, energetic and committed leader in this new field.

Creative ideas for saving food waste in schools, where about 40 percent goes into the trash, include: setting up sharing tables, letting children serve themselves with portion sizes and foods they know they will eat, scheduling more time for lunch and making lunch time after recess.

I still stick by my advice that eating food that you don’t need is wasting your health and potentially your life. But it seems that we can be creative and find other ways besides eating surplus food to save the food when we’re full. The following are some ideas of what can we do?

  • Improve your skills in estimating just-right
  • Keep learning about food storage, food safety, and food management.
  • Take time to check your list twice before going shopping. Don’t pick up perishable foods you already have.
  • Store small amounts of leftover vegetables in little bags, inside a larger bag in the freezer. Making a soup or curry? Empty your frozen collection.
  • Save small amounts of leftover fruit in similar bags. Add with cinnamon to oatmeal before cooking. I do this periodically with small amounts of leftover berries, peaches, figs, and apricots.
  • In our home, I save leftover dinner and lunch portions. While often not enough for an entire meal, I let them accumulate for a couple of day and have a mix and match type of meal -- some of this and some of that, and share it. It can be fun and tasty.
  • Raising animals for meat is hard on the environment; so meat waste hurts more than plant materials. Start with trying to scale back your portions in the preparation phase. This benefits your own health as well as the planet’s.
  • Frozen foods reduce waste due to shelf loss. Use them and enjoy the ease of preparation as well as the reduced waste.
  • Despite beliefs to the contrary, you can freeze hard cheese. I’ve done it for years. Thawing the cheese in the refrigerator gives good outcomes. Remove your worries that you’re probably going to end up throwing away the cheese as soon as it develops the green fluffy coat.
  • Another hint for cheese: Store grated cheese in sandwich zip bags in the freezer. Use while it is still frozen.
  • Because I enjoy gardening and the fresh organic produce it produces, often the garden produces more than expected. So I end up freezing some of the produce for later. Sometimes it goes way better than expected; then I give it to the local food bank and also friends and neighbors. This past year, I had enough butternut squash for family, friends and for stocking our freezer with roasted squash.
  • Did you agree (like I’ve done recently) to purchase a lug of oranges for a fundraiser? Family and friends with children were more than glad to come to my rescue. Not one orange was wasted.
  • There were many gleaners in Ventura County, California where I used to live (a big agricultural area). They went out into the fields and harvested what was left in the fields. The produce is then given to food banks and other organizations that deliver the food to those in need. Potatoes in Idaho are another crop that can benefit from gleaning. Small potatoes are missed by the harvesting machines, but are perfectly good for cooking and consuming.
  • The National Geographic highlights a company that collects kitchen and table waste, sterilizing it and feeding it to 2,500 pigs in Nevada. They replace more than 800 tons of swine feed a year with this project.
  • There’s an app at the iPhone App Store from, for those who love food, hate waste and want to connect with the community.
  • Look for innovative companies that are working to make an impact. One that National Geographic highlights is called Imperfect. Aesthetically imperfect - odd shaped fruits and vegetables, like carrots with legs, asparagus that are too thin or too curved, or with bud tips slightly too open are their focus. Their stated goal is that they’re redefining beauty, not taste.

National Geographic quotes Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s; “Hunger and wasted food, are two problems that can have one solution.” This enormous international problem is not going to be solved in a short time. It will take efforts from governments, business, individuals and activists. It is a problem that is begging to find solutions, make progress and improvements; I propose that we each can begin contributing to the resolution.