Carolyn Steele, Part Two: Food Waste

November 16, 2009

By Jo Cooper

But here’s the point that grabbed me the most in Carolyn Steele’s talk (see previous post): Americans throw away half our food. Excuse me? Half our food?

Some quick sleuthing turned up a 2004 study published by Timothy W. Jones, PhD at the University of Arizon at Tuscon entitled “Using Contemporary Archaeology and Applied Anthropology to Understand Food Loss in the American Food System”. The decade-long study examined how much food households are throwing away, how much businesses are throwing away, and precisely what.

Turns out we’re not eating our vegetables, we’re throwing them away (27% of food waste). Grains (20%) and fruit (16%) were also high on the trash list, with meat (11%) being lower but by far the most costly. Total annual household food waste in America in 2004 was estimated at $43,052,480,000, or $589.76 for a family of 4. Hispanic and lower income households had lower food loss rates than non-Hispanic and higher income households. And Dr. Jones found unopened food packages that were not out of date comprised 14% of all household food waste.

The economic, environmental and moral waste is shocking, to put it mildly. Half our food? No, no, no. Sounds like one problem we CAN do something about.

How can we reduce food waste in our households?

Here are some of my ideas:

  1. Grow your own. Even us city dwellers can. Fresh cut herbs invariably spoil they all get used up, so buy pots of rosemary, basil, and other fresh herbs and keep them going on windowsills as long as possible. For roughly the price of a packet of herb stalks, have fresh herbs for a season or longer.
  2. Purchase vegetables at a farm or farm market. They are fresh-picked, and will last far longer than store-bought, so you are likely to throw out considerably less.
  3. Use stalks, peels and trimmings in stock. I keep a large covered glass bowl in my fridge, where I collect vegetable trimmings. Once a week, I throw them in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil for a few minutes, then turn off the heat and let the whole lot steep for an hour or so, before straining into a few glass containers. Freezes well, if you don’t use it up within the week (nice in rice, soups, etc). Makes a fortifying drink, too- even my teenagers like it.
  4. Compost what you don’t use (including the leftover cooked veggies from the stock).
  5. Take leftovers to work for lunch.
  6. Be mindful about freezing excess food. Double a favorite soup recipe so you use up all that celery, and freeze the extra. And muffins, for instance, can go straight from the freezer into a lunchbox and be just the right temp by lunch time.
  7. Plan menus. If you’re buying cilantro, plan several things to make with it that week (Rebecca’s Moroccan Mint Pesto comes to mind….).
  8. Quickly use what is fading. Overripe bananas become banana muffins. Tired apples become cooked apples.

And I’ll end with that recipe, in case you don’t know itβ€” it’s soooo easy, and immensely popular. Children and teenagers go wild.

Wash and cut apples into small chunks (I would only peel if they are not organic), 3/4″ to one inch. Throw in a heavy pot with a little water or apple cider in the bottom. Sprinkle with cinnamon, cover and cook on low until the apples soften and are slightly caramelized.

There won’t be any food waste πŸ™‚

Do you have some more ideas about how to cut back on food waste?