The First Place to Reduce Food Waste Is in Your Kitchen

Feb 2, 2017

Households in America account for 27 million tons of food waste a year. That's at an annual cost between $1,500 - $2,500 for an average family of four. Another one million tons a year of organic waste, like food scraps, also ends up in landfills.

According to WCAI’s science editor, Heather Goldstone, food waste is the single largest component of our trash and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Like methane.

The good news is that there's a bounty of practical tips to help save money and reduce organic waste coming from home. For instance, start with the fridge.

Sophie Abrams, program manager of Island Food Rescue on Martha’s Vineyard, is working on ways to reduce and compost organic waste, like food.

“When food scraps go into a landfill they end up breaking down anaerobically, instead of aerobically,”  Abrams said. “So they’re breaking down without the presence of oxygen. That’s why you get the release of methane gas into the atmosphere from food scraps breaking down in a landfill. When they’re broken down aerobically, with oxygen in a compost pile, it’s not as much an issue.”

Human beings spend a lot of time and resources into the growing and catching, harvesting and packaging, distributing and marketing of food. We buy it, we bring it home, we cook it and serve it, we clean up after it, and then, we throw a lot of it away. This cycle is repeated three times a day, for three meals every day. In fact, according to refed.com - a collaborative effort between businesses, the government, funders and non-profits that are concerned about the current state of food waste in the US, American households account for 27 tons of wasted food per year. That’s about $1,500 to $2,500 annually for the average family of four.

“It’s surprising,”  Abrams said. “It’s about 40% that occurs in the home. You would think it’s all happening at businesses. Another piece of it is that there’s a lot parts of food that we don’t eat. We’re not eating banana peels unless we’re really, really crafty.”

The amount of water wasted is an astonishing hidden cost in the story of food waste. According to Ceres - a non-profit advocating for sustainable business practices and solutions - given the amount of food we waste as a nation, 21% of our fresh water that’s used to grow the food also gets wasted.

For example - an apple thrown away equals flushing a toilet seven times. A hamburger in the trash - 16 bathtubs of water, down the drain.

Some of this information is almost impossible to take in. So what is the antidote to feeling paralyzed or besieged? I think getting practical is a start. In Sophie’s case, inspiration came in the form of a book:

“My favorite thing that I’ve read is Dana Gunder’s book ‘The Waste Free Kitchen Handbook’,” Abrams said. “It is just such an easy read, just how-to manual on how to not waste food.”

The easiest place to start is at home. The one thing most of us have in our kitchens, and many of us have at work, is a refrigerator. Getting to know what’s in it better, and using it more efficiently, can actually make a big difference in reducing waste. Gunder’s book offers a bounty of advice about the fridge.

“She talks a lot about correctly organizing your refrigerator,” Abrams said.  “What are the coldest parts? What you’re supposed to be putting on the door.  And lots of creative ways for storing your leftovers – like you’re supposed to have air getting all around stuff in the freezer, and using muffin tins to freeze things, and what you can freeze. It’s a lot of kitchen knowledge, I think, that helps not waste food.”

Some of Gunder’s advice may be more aspirational but still attainable.

“One thing she talks about is a ‘Use First’ area of your fridge,” Abrams continued. “You put things that are close to going bad in the front, or in a special section, so you know what you really need to use up. Shopping in your pantry and refrigerator before you go to the grocery store, so you know you already have avocados and don’t need to buy more. Making a list is the biggest, easy one.”

My mom always told me: ‘Eat around the bad parts.’ She was giving me advice, metaphorically-speaking, about marriage. But I think the same thing applies just as well in the kitchen. For instance, cutting away any mold from bread instead of throwing it out and then transforming it into a bread pudding. Or wrinkled and tired carrots, onions and herbs getting a nice long, hot simmer in a pot of bones for a stock. And bits of cheese rind stored in the freezer until they can be stirred into a soup, a sauce or a braise.

For Abrams, a woman who will gleefully tell you that she loves trash (studying it, doing something about it), she found inspiration, even beauty and perspective, from a visit to the Crapo Hill Landfill, in New Bedford:

“It was amazing,” she said. “It’s actually a beautiful place. I felt like I was on an amazing nature walk. When we went to the top of it. It’s high, it’s like a mini mountain. When we looked out over the horizon you could see one other peak as high as us, and it’s also a landfill. It’s completely changing our landscape and our environment.  I think we’ve just gotten out of control with our disposable culture."

Share your "tired ingredient" recipes with us please ! 

Panzanella     (Bread and Tomato salad)

( this is a typical summer dish, but you can pull it off any time of year try roasting  the plum tomatoes in winter for good flavor ! )

6 cups crusty stale  bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

2-3 large tomatoes (about 1 pound), trimmed and each cut into cubes

3/4 cup sliced unwaxed cucumber

1/2 cup sliced red onion

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

8-12 fresh basil leaves, shredded

chopped parsley a/o mint

various flavors to add:  parsley, capers, anchovies 

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For more information on food waste, and references for statistics cited above, visit ReFed.com