Last night I watched Dive! – a documentary about people who glean their food from grocery store dumpsters in Los Angeles.
According to the documentary, Americans throw away 96 billion pounds of food every year. That’s hundreds of millions of pounds of food every day that gets tossed in a dumpster, or landfill, or trash can, or down a drain.
I have been lucky enough to never go hungry – even during times when I had very little income, I was lucky enough to have friends to live with who wouldn’t charge me for rent, as long as I bought my own food (though food was mostly bought separately, then eaten together anyway).
Millions of Americans are not as lucky as I have been. In addition to the hunger issues, there are also the issues of so many Americans eating food that isn’t really food – but that’s an rant for another time. Many American’s just don’t have the money to buy the food they need to give their bodies healthy sustenance, and many shelters and soup kitchens don’t have enough food to feed the hungry who flock to their doors daily. And yet, we waste our food.
Millions of supermarkets throw out thousands of pounds of perfectly good food at the end of each day. This isn’t only a waste of the product itself, shipping off to rot in a landfill somewhere, but also a waste of the life of the crop or stock that went into the product, a waste of the packaging, a waste of the hard work of all those who raised the produce or manufactured the ingredients. It’s a waste of oil for transportation, of the time of the guys driving the trucks to deliver the food all over the country.
What happened to our country? Why are we conditioned to place no value on food? Why are we brought up to be afraid of food? Two generations ago, the American attitude of “waste not, want not” prevailed, so why did we turn into such a culture of waste?
Well, watching a movie about people who cruise the grocery store looking for food they know will be thrown in the dumpster that night has certainly made me feel like I need to think deeply on what I can do to help others move away from the norm that wastefulness seems to have become, and how I can help those who really need the extra food, making our huge amount of food waste feel doubly tragic.
I have been a culprit in wastefulness of food especially. I sometimes get experimental and throw out entire meals which didn’t come out the way I expected – once, I had a weird craving for bell peppers (which I hate) so I bought one of each color, diced them, and threw them into a spaghetti sauce. A whole jar of spaghetti sauce. The overpoweringly sweet green bell pepper taste nauseated me, and I ended up throwing the whole mess out – a quantity that could have fed me for a week.
Tonight, I was cooking popcorn on my stove, and experimented with a different type of oil than I usually use. About 20% of the kernels ended up charred and black, another 20% were only half-popped by the time the others began to burn, and the rest were generally ok. I was tempted to toss out the burned bottom of the batch but I sucked it up, tossed in a little butter, and ate all of the popcorn. The burned pieces actually tasted pretty good all coated in butter, and I felt better knowing I was able to salvage what I would have wasted.
If you get a little pang of heartache thinking about the staggeringly large food waste figures, there are some habits you can adopt to reduce your own household food waste.
Buy Whole Foods
Five pounds of organic, whole wheat flour cost me $4.95 on sale. I can use it to make simple soda bread, muffins, cookies, roux, and other foods for at least the next two months. A loaf of organic whole wheat bread, that may sit around for 2 months in my house as well (we don’t eat a lot of things that go well on the sliced bread we like…) costs about the same but could spoil after a few weeks. If you’re like me, the slightest sight of mold growing on something terrifies me and I chuck the whole thing. If your bread doesn’t get moldy but goes stale instead, keep it around for breadcrumbs!
Preserve Your Food
Fruit and vegetables can spoil pretty quickly. Produce, meat, and dairy can all be frozen to prolong their lives – most people know that and quickly run out of freezer space. You probably also know it’s possible to preserve many types of fruits and vegetables by canning them – whole or as a sauce, jam or jelly. What you may not know is that there is an array of other techniques you can use to preserve your food with vinegar, lactic fermentation, salt, sugar, and other things – and these techniques also preserve the vitamin content in your food, which normally depletes over time. Also, obviously, they stop your food from rotting which stops you from wanting to throw it away. This book is a really good resource.
Ignore Expiration Dates
I can’t count the number of disgusted looks I get when I assure people their food is fine, even if the expiration date is tomorrow. Do you think there is a magic rotten food fairy who comes and waves her wand at midnight on the expiration date and makes your food go bad? Expiration dates are a recommendation, to help you judge when your food will be the freshest. Not only is your food still good up to and over the expiration date, it is usually still perfectly edible long past that date. There are some food ingredients that are nearly impossible to spoil too – oils, vinegars, honey, etc. A big thing that is definitely not bad even if it has soured after the expiration date is … milk! I don’t know why we stopped using soured milk, but it can be used in all sorts of other dairy products that are easy to make at home – whole as yogurt, cream cheese and whey, or as an ingredient in buttermilk biscuits or pancakes. Keeper of the Home has a couple ideas.
Clean Your Floors
I have perpetual butterfingers and I constantly drop whole boxes of crackers, cereal, and other dry things that scatter across my floor. I’m usually too lazy to clean my floors, let alone separate what could be salvaged of the thing that dropped, but this could be a major way to reduce waste. It really wouldn’t kill you to eat a cracker you dropped on your own kitchen floor (thanks to Husband for making me give in to this). If you drop something that’s sorta hard but not so dry – a piece of fruit or a peeled potato, etc – just wash it off and use it like normal instead of picking it up and tossing it in the trash.
Cook in Small(ish) Quantities
…and eat your leftovers! This is a big one for me. I have a bad case of being unable to judge the projected finished quantity of the food I cook. Something I plan to cook for dinner (pot of soup) can suddenly turn into way more than we can handle for one week of dinners, plus lunches, and who wants to eat the same thing over and over again anyway? (I still have 3 bags of cooked soup ingredients that absorbed all my broth sitting sadly in my freezer, waiting to be added to a new broth and turned into a new soup). As a geographical bachelorette, I have been trying to be cognizant of the amount of food I am cooking and how much of it I actually eat, and over the course of how many days. For example – 1/2 cup of steel cut oats that I cooked on my stove last Sunday night turned out to be enough for breakfast for 4 days. This is good because I’m not even remotely a morning person, and I don’t like to eat in the morning, but by the time I have been at work a few hours I get super desperately hungry. Being stuck at work, I can’t just go home and grab some breakfast whenever I feel like it…so having a small bowl of oatmeal I can heat up in the microwave with some milk and honey was pretty awesome for a week. In the past, I would have filled my pot with oats and gotten sick of eating them after 4 days, then looked at the leftovers spoiling slowly in my fridge for a few weeks, tossed out the remainder when I finally saw mold growing under the lid, then made another whole pot in a few days. It’s important to know how much food you will realistically eat before you cook it, and then craft cautiously and accordingly. You might think you will eat some experimental soup every night for 6 days, but inevitably someone will get sick of it and want to vary. And you might just end up tossing that soup in the trash (though it never happens with muffins…)
There are tons of other things you can do too. Yesterday I ate breakfast with my friends at a restaurant and took my leftovers (I can rarely finish a meal when dining out) to go. I ended up throwing them in the dumpster when I got home because I knew that they would sit in my fridge, dejectedly, for weeks until I finally decided to throw them away, and then they might sit in my trash for another week, waiting to be thrown away. I could have driven a little bit out of my way and dropped the leftovers off to one of the people claiming to be homeless in the downtown area 15 minutes away from my house.
So, if you have made it this far, I encourage you to think a bit about how you waste food. Make yourself a tiny promise to think twice next time you get ready to buy or make too much food, or to dump perfectly good food into the trash. Someone else might use it, and next time you will know better than to create avoidable waste.