The Good Plate

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Food: Waste Not, Want Not

by Julie Berling

Wasting food: Do it? Hate it? Want to stop? How to start.

When I was a kid growing up on our family farm, nothing ever went to waste. I mean nothing. My parents recycled and reused everything — lumber, wire, nails, pipes, clothes, equipment, you name it. And this conserving behavior pertained to the kitchen, too. Imperfect fruits, blemished vegetables and meats past their prime were cooked, canned and frozen. They were rarely ever thrown out. But my parents’ waste-not, want-not practices did not stem from environmental concern but rather from having grown up on farms in the post-Depression era when saving meant survival.

 

 

Sadly, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about 40 percent of all edible food in the U.S. is wasted annually (and about one-third of the world’s). All the while, 15 percent of U.S. residents struggle to put food on the table, and the challenge to produce 60 percent more food to feed the projected world population of 9.3 billion people by the mid-century looms large before us. 

Not surprisingly, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development sees reducing food waste as one way of increasing the availability of food. Redistributing just 30 percent of U.S. food waste could completely eliminate U.S. food insecurity. But that’s easier said than done. 

Consider this. In a recent study, almost 80 percent of consumers said they feel guilty when throwing food away, yet 42 percent said they don’t have enough time to worry about it. Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the NRDC and the author of The Waste-free Kitchen Handbook, says the U.S. wastes 50 percent more food now than it did in the 1970s. 

And the impacts are far-reaching because food waste affects the entire food chain, from the many natural resources it takes to produce the food to the garbage it leaves behind. With about 70 percent of our water and 50 percent of our land devoted to agriculture, wasting food also wastes our resources. Dana Gunders estimates that about 33 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gases are produced to grow food that never gets eaten.

Why all of this waste?

  • Food perfectionism. We throw out lots of food because it’s not pretty enough. Most wasted items in order of most to least: 1) fruits and vegetables, dairy products and bread (a tie), and 3) meat.

  • Larger portion sizes and lavish, all-you-can eat buffets. Research by NRDC shows people have a tendency to fill the empty spaces on their plates, fridges and grocery carts with food. That’s problematic in a culture where throwing food out is considerable acceptable or even socially preferred.

  • Fool dating confusion. Many people, me included, have been looking at some food labels incorrectly, considering them all to be a measure of food safety. A “sell-by” date is designed to assist a retailer in rotating on-shelf stock; a “use-by” date provides the latest date a product should be consumed to ensure it’s at its best quality in terms of taste, color or texture. 

    A comprehensive report by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) titled, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, states: “As evidenced by a range of industry, governmental and NGO reports, confusion over food expiration dates–for example, ‘best by,’ ‘use by,’ and ‘sell by’ labels — is a key cause of the high and rising rates of waste in the United States. With the exception of infant formula, the federal government does not have any standardized laws or regulations regarding date labels on food products. Because of the lack of federal oversight, states regulate the use of these labels in a wide variety of ways, causing great confusion.” 

    For that reason, new industry guidance released by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection service are recommending that manufacturers use the phrase "best if used by" rather than "sell by" or "use by" when putting dates on food. According to the USDA guidance: “Research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown … [and] … foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled 'Best if Used By' date."

    The USDA says food can be consumed after its "best if used by" date so long as there are no signs of spoilage such as mold, green potatoes and rancidity in meat, oil or nuts. This guidance is part of the Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency's goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030 announced in September 2015. 

    Food label guides or initiatives like the removal of sell-by dates could help reduce food label confusion and find a happy balance food safety and food sustainability.

  • Fewer people preserving foods at home. As noted, we once cooked, canned and turned less-than-perfect, over-ripe foods into jams and jellies. Not so much anymore.

Tools and tips for change

If we are to reach the 2030 goal, we must begin changing our wasteful ways and helping influence positive changes up and down the food chain. 

Gunders suggests starting with a waste audit — tracking what you throw out for two weeks and why. This insight will give you a good base to begin your reduction efforts. 

Search online for resources to help. I’ve found this serving size calculator tool helpful in making the right amount of food, and the simple tips to temper out throw-it-out tendency provided at www.savethefood.com.

And there’s an app for it — many actually. Apps range from helping consumers reduce food waste to pairing restaurants with food kitchens. Check out these four, but note there are many more: 

  1. FoodKeeper, the USDA’s mobile application, offers users valuable storage advice about more than 400 food and beverage items.
  2. FoodCowboy, created by truckers and brothers Roger and Richard Gordon, who found food pantries or churches to donate fresh food that was turned down by retailers for appearances such as crooked carrots or too-dark eggplants.
  3. WasteNoFood, an app from a California-based nonprofit web and mobile marketplace that connects people who have excess food with the hungry.
  4.  Spoiler Alert, a way to connect people with excess food with those who need it.

 

Sources:

http://www.waste360.com/generators/four-apps-designed-reduce-food-waste

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0159250#pone.0159250.ref001

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0159250#pone.0159250.ref002

http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/shopping-storing/food-waste-in-america

​The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0007940

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