by Marnie Record, workforce development specialist, Lincoln Land Community College
When we toss those moldy lemons or leftovers that never looked appealing again into the garbage, what else are we throwing away? The average family of four in our country sends $700 to $1,500 worth of wasted food to the dump every year. We wash down 370 minutes of shower water with every pound of beef. We pitch countless hours of labor contributed by farmers, drivers, packers, stockers and cashiers. We lose the fuel that ran the tractors and the planes, trains and trucks that transport our food an average of 1,500 miles.
Going into the garbage with the half used bunch of parsley wilting into a liquid at the bottom of our refrigerators is the love of all the people who dedicated their time to getting this herb to our plate, and the love of those who raised us and insisted upon clean plates so that we may grow up healthy and strong. In the landfill sits the last of the chicken pot pie and in it the chicken that at one time lived and breathed fresh air.
It seems a daunting task to be held accountable for all that we waste, but in remembering that food serves as nourishment for our souls as well as our bodies and minds, we might find inspiration to look at what we are wasting. Then we might even find a way to reduce what we throw away one broccoli stalk at a time.
The most commonly cited statistic states that 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted. Collectively, consumers are responsible for more wasted food than farmers, grocery stores or any other part of the food supply chain. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans are throwing out an estimated 80 billion pounds of food or the equivalent of $165 billion each year. On the other side of this coin, more than 42 million Americans live in food-insecure households. And the United Nations notes that organic waste is the second highest component of landfills which are the largest source of methane emissions.
Only humans discard what they no longer find useful. Waste has no place in natural communities and processes. When a snake sheds its skin, a plant dies, or a bird abandons its nest – all these materials are reused and incorporated into the evolving cycle of life. When we discard the half-eaten burger, we’re going against the innate system of nature.
Two of the most significant and least obtrusive ways we can reduce food waste are to understand food dating labels and utilize meal planning techniques.
Understanding Food Labels
Confusion about the meaning behind many food product dating labels such as ”sell by,” “use by,” “best before,” “expires on” and “enjoy by” lead to a large amount of food being tossed before the end of its useful life. None of these dating labels are regulated by the federal government and few actually indicate when consuming something poses a threat to your health. Most printed dates represent a manufacturer’s estimate on when their food’s taste and texture will start to degrade. The lone exception is “sell-by,” which tells retailers how long to display their items, but also doesn’t denote when the food will go bad.
Sight, smell and taste offer the best methods for determining if a food is still worth eating. The condition of the products when they arrive at a manufacturer vary greatly. The product may be stored or transported differently causing food to last well past its printed date, or not quite as long. Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria.
Of the two types of bacteria that can be found on food, spoilage bacteria, which causes foods to deteriorate or develop unappealing odors, causes food to taste bad, but does not cause illness. The other type, pathogenic bacteria requires microbiological testing to determine its presence on food, but usually doesn’t look bad, taste bad or smell bad.
Trust your senses when discerning whether to toss last week’s milk. You’ll know instantly if the food has spoiled.
Meal Planning Basics
Planning our meals often comes down to being realistic about how much time we have to cook and how committed we are to the task, and then shopping for groceries accordingly. Save money and time by purchasing only what we truthfully expect to prepare.
The places where we shop for food spend large sums of money figuring out how to encourage impulse purchases. Sticking to a shopping list can combat the allure of enticing foods that we do not need or most often even want. The marketing geniuses also try to get us to buy more than we need through deals and coupons where we potentially buy items that we never eat or by purchasing greater quantities than we are able to consume.
Additional tips for reducing waste generously provided by community local food professionals:
Jolene Adams, Culinary Institute Coordinator, Lincoln Land Community College
I try to reduce waste by using up ingredients that I have on hand and repurposing leftover dishes by turning them into a new meal instead of letting them sit in the fridge until they are no longer good to eat, or hearing someone mumble about eating leftovers again. I gather the assortment of veggies, leftovers and a few staples like herbs, spices, stock or broth, cream or milk and start making soup. Soup is pretty versatile. Starch vegetables can be pureed to make a soup base. Other vegetables can be added to stock or broth and flavored with herbs. Leftover chicken, beef or vegetables can be added to tortellini and stock or even tomato base. Use up cheese, beans and ground beef in taco soup.
Karen Hine, Chair, Slow Food Springfield
I make my own oatmeal blend or salad blend in large containers with a lid. I can grab portions quickly when on the go, and find that the food won’t go to waste when it is easy to access. When I freeze leftovers, especially soup, I date and label the containers. I also use smaller plates to help with portion control. On a health note, people statistically consume 16 percent less food with smaller plates. You can always go back for seconds if needed. Food packaging is a whole other component of waste to be considered. Eating whole foods eliminates packaging waste. It is better to buy in bulk and shop using reusable bags.
Lindsay Record, Executive Director, Illinois Stewardship Alliance
I buy vegetables seasonally making it easier to use what I buy in the same meal since items that grow at the same time tend to go together in meals. Then I cook batches of food that can be quickly altered for the upcoming week of meals. For example, right now I’m getting lots of root vegetables delivered to my door from a winter CSA with PrairErth Farm. I roast a large portion of vegetables at once and then use them as needed throughout the week in various ways by adding proteins. I add eggs to make a breakfast hash, chicken and a pastry crust for a pot pie, or beef and broth to make a stew.
Hodge Podge Soup
This is Jolene’s basic soup recipe that can be modified to use up what you have on hand and the leftovers freeze well.
Yield 2 quarts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
4 cups broth, stock, or water
1 cup vegetable puree, pumpkin puree, butternut squash puree, or tomato sauce
15.5 ounce can corn or hominy, drained or frozen corn
14.5 ounce can petite diced tomatoes or fresh tomatoes
1 to 2 cups cooked meat (chicken, beef, pork, whatever you have)
1 cup cooked beans
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper, peas, or beans
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning mix, taco seasoning, or your favorite spices
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large stockpot, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring, on medium-low for five minutes. Add the potatoes and carrots and stir. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes.
Stir in the broth and puree. Add the corn, tomatoes, meat, beans, peppers and seasonings. Stir well and bring to a simmer.
Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Adjust seasonings.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.