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Food Waste: Death by a Thousand Cuts

I recently read the perfect usage of a cliché: food waste is death by a thousand cuts. The number of contributing factors make food waste an enormous, seemingly unsolvable problem; we can feel overwhelmed in resolving it. But as I have stated in early blogs, don't let the magnitude of the problem paralyze you from not doing what you can. Because so many negative actions contribute to food waste, many solutions also exist. Your contribution can make a difference.

Often said, but well worth repeating here to understand the scale of the problem: if food loss & waste were a country, it would be the third most significant source of global greenhouse gas emissions (behind China and the USA). Well over one-third of the world's food is estimated to be lost or wasted annually. The average global household wastes 74kg (163 lbs) of food per capita annually, a figure vastly similar across country income groups. And though the type of food and other factors depend on the region, all areas have substantial food loss & waste and can act to lower both, indicating widespread changes are essential and possible.

I am intentionally stating"food loss & waste" as there is a difference; I focus on food waste in this blog. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines two categories of "non-consumed food:"

FOOD LOSS The decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers, and consumers.
FOOD WASTE The decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers, and consumers.

The purpose of this blog is to take immediate action close to and in your home, so I won't detail food loss. However, you can advocate your government representatives and the businesses you patronize for better policies to prevent food loss. Please email me if you need advice and encouragement on engaging on that level. Meanwhile, check out this piece for information on the cost of food loss and potential solutions to stop it. Meanwhile, here is are the raw details about food loss:

  • 13% is lost in production

  • 6% is lost in storage, handling, and transportation

  • 1% is lost in processing and packaging

  • 6% is lost in distribution and retail

  • Totaling over 25% before we even get to the food waste effects!

See Your Food Waste; Know Your Food Waste

Before you do anything I recommend, spend a week putting your uneaten food in a bucket to know how much you are potentially wasting. Are you surprised by how it adds up? Don't beat yourself up - for the most part, we humans don't consume as much as we purchase. The good news is that studies show just knowing what you are throwing away incentives you to do it less. For example, in a pilot project at IKEA, the kitchen employees weighed all the food they threw away, making workers more conscious of it. They then intentionally changed their practices to waste less food and see a significant impact in their store restaurants.

Make a note of your quantity and contents to remind yourself later when you are wasting so much less. Now move on – you're on the path to recovery.

What to do at the consumer level

  • Buy only what you will eat. But, ha, you say, that is easier said than done! But if you plan for it, like making rough menus and buying ingredients to support them, it's easier than you think.

  • Don't buy fresh produce that is not seasonal. Indeed, fresh produce is usually less nutritious than frozen because farmers often harvest it before it ripens. On the other hand, frozen produce usually is harvested at ripeness and thus retains more nutrients. Further, fresh produce comes with high transport costs and substantially more waste.

  • Don't be seduced by the buy one, get one free gimmick – or ask your shop manager if you can profit from the "get one free" on your next visit (some stores have that as a practice).

  • Think twice about throwing away food with past-due expiration dates. Food expiration dates refer to quality, not safety. The same can be said for "sell by," "best if used by," and "freeze by" dates. Worldwide, manufacturers use these dates irregularly and inconsistently, and, in most cases, they are unnecessarily conservative. Trust your nose and eyes to determine if a food item is "past due."

  • "Leftovers are usually left" – people tend not to eat them, so think twice before over-ordering or overcooking, thinking you will eat them for your next meal. Some food is better the next day (I am thinking of my fish curry soup), but some things get relegated to the back of the fridge in non-transparent Tupperware containers, only to be forgotten until they are indeed inedible.

And on that note, I started using jam glass jars for my leftovers – as they are transparent, I can see precisely my leftovers as I gaze into my fridge to ascertain my next meal.

  • Make a soup - or at least broth - from the scraps. I make so many random broths from whatever I have: kale spines, carrot peels, beet greens.... I find there is not much taste in these broths, but nutrient capture is immense. As someone who cooks a lot of grains, having veggie broth on steady hand is handy.

  • Same same for smoothies – all my half-eaten or about-to-rot fruit is cut up and makes a beeline for my fruit box in the freezer.

  • And at the end of the food value chain – when you have used all of its edible aspects - please compost your food waste (check out my compost blog on that here 😉).

  • Finally, check out this fantastic blog that has been tackling food waste for almost 15 years (brava, @TheFrugalGirl!).

Let me know how it goes, if you have any other ideas for combatting food waste, or if you have any questions—looking forward to hearing from you!

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