Waste in abundance

How much food will you throw away today? Will you even notice it?

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a new report, estimates that we throw away 40% of our food supply in America every year. Food is wasted at every step in the supply chain, starting at the farm and ending in our kitchens and trash cans. Food now represents the biggest part of the solid waste in our landfills.

Last night, I was congratulating myself on the nice meal I made from ingredients I happened to have on hand – some leftover tomato, farro and onions from my pantry, basil from my garden, and a chunk of Parmigiano that I bought a couple of weeks ago. No waste!

But today I took stock of the food in my refrigerator that I will have to throw away. There is the cantaloupe I bought because my son has recently discovered he likes it – but then he didn’t eat it. There’s the fennel I bought because I needed some of the fronds for a recipe – but I didn’t have a use for the rest of it. There’s the apple someone bought and no one ate – because the summer fruits like peaches and berries are so much better!

As it turns out, fresh produce is the worst food group for waste.

When we personally throw away food, we may only think about the money that we wasted on it. But in reality, the waste is much broader. The NRDC is concerned with the other resources wasted, such as the water and energy to grow and transport it and the pollution caused by its production. They calculate that just a 15% reduction in waste could feed 25 million people a year.

While the issue of food waste is a big one that will require big solutions by government, the agriculture industry, food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants, there are steps that we as individuals can take to reduce our waste.

  • Don’t buy more food than you realistically will eat. People have a tendency to load up their shopping carts because of the bargains offered at warehouse stores, the relatively low cost of food in the U.S., and the convenience of shopping less frequently. But we may have to re-think our ways of shopping to reduce our waste.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. As portion sizes have increased in recent years, so has food waste (a 50% increase since the 1970s). Ordering smaller restaurant portions or taking home the leftovers will reduce waste there. Then don’t forget to eat the leftovers so they don’t end up in the trash at home!
  • Consider composting if you have a yard. At my house, all of our fruit and vegetable scraps go into our compost bin (along with leaves and grass). Although our county frowns on this because they say the food attracts animals, it is not a problem as long as you don’t put any animal products in the compost. We benefit by reducing our trash volume, and by having rich compost to add to our garden.
  • Get involved with a gleaning group. To glean means going in after a crop has been harvested and gathering the small amounts of fruit or vegetables that remain. Farmers will often invite charitable groups to come in for gleaning after the profitable part of the harvest is over. The produce is then donated to groups that feed the needy.
  • The next time you look in the refrigerator and say “There’s nothing to eat”, challenge yourself to make a meal using what you have on hand, instead of going out to buy more that might just be thrown away.

Finally, eat with mindfulness and appreciation. Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “When we sit down to dinner and look at our plate filled with fragrant and appetizing food, we can nourish our awareness of the bitter pain of people who suffer from hunger…Doing so will help us maintain mindfulness of our good fortune, and perhaps one day we will find ways to do something to help change the system of injustice that exists in the world.”

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