How Can I Combat Food Waste?

By Helen LinLast Updated Apr 15, 2021 6:13:36 PM ET
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In the United States, around 30-40% of the food our growers produce ends up wasted. On a global scale, the numbers are even more striking: Nearly half of all food produced around the world each year is wasted, and this equates to about 1.4 billion tons of food waste annually. Those numbers are unacceptable, especially when you stop to consider how much land, water, energy and labor go into food production.

Food production — and, subsequently, food waste — impacts our environment in a number of ways. It contributes to climate change due to the amounts of water and energy required to produce food via activities that also generate greenhouse gas emissions. Wasted food also ends up in landfills, and, when it decays there, it introduces nitrogen pollution into nearby water sources. That contamination leads to algae blooms and dead zones where marine animals can’t survive.

Just as there’s a food chain, there’s an environmental chain affected by food — and the copious amounts of food that go to waste around the world. But food waste is an ethical issue, too, particularly considering the United Nations estimates that more than 800 million people around the world experience chronic hunger and undernourishment. The statistics are sobering and the effects are far-reaching. But when we begin working to reduce food waste, even on an individual level, we can help to preserve valuable energy and resources and make food more accessible to those who need it most. Here’s how you can get started.

Why Does So Much Food Go to Waste?

There are many different opportunities for food waste to occur throughout the production and distribution stages. During production before food leaves farms, food loss can result from drying, milling, transporting and processing issues. These may take place due to insects, birds, rodents, bacteria and mold affecting crops. Food waste during the distribution stages may take place when equipment malfunctions, over-ordering happens or stores throw out blemished produce.

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The average American household wastes almost a third of the food it purchases, which adds up to nearly $2,000 worth of food going uneaten in each home annually. Households waste more food than the production and distribution stages for growing that food and delivering it to consumers. This happens for a number of reasons, including over-buying, food spoilage, over-preparing, poor planning and confusion about the meanings of labeling dates printed on food packaging.

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Reducing household food waste matters, as it can help to reduce the amount of energy that goes misued during food production and throughout the supply chain. But, with a little bit of effort, you can do your part to combat food waste. These seven tips will help you get started.

Read Expiration Labels Properly

When you’re looking at food packaging, it’s tempting to assume that "best if used by" and "use by" refer to expiration dates. And because of this, you might end up throwing out food that’s still fine to eat. When a food label says "best if used by" and includes a date, it means that the product might not have the same level of quality as it would before the date listed, but it’s still safe to eat after that date. If you want to reduce your food waste, don't throw out products just because the "best if used by" date has passed. Language like "use by" has a similar meaning, even though it may sound like you need to eat the item before that date.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service explains that dates listed on food packaging refer to food quality limitations, not food safety. Federal regulations don’t actually require manufacturers to list product dates on their food packaging unless they produce baby formula, so the dates you’ll see on most packaging are quality guidelines. Thus, foods may be safe to eat after their "use by" dates, and you should check for physical signs of spoilage to determine whether a food is fine to eat or not. Don’t throw something out just because of the date.

Start Eating Your Stems

Many people toss out fruit and vegetable components that are both delicious and healthy simply because they’re not used to eating those parts of the produce. Some common examples of this are broccoli stems, cauliflower stems and potato skins. However, there are less-obvious examples as well. You can eat cauliflower leaves just like you eat other dark, leafy greens such as kale. You can use orange and other citrus peels by grating their zest into marinades, pasta sauces and salad dressings or creating candy with them. You can also take vegetable scraps like carrot tops and use them to make a delicious broth.

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Buy and Eat Imperfect Produce

It's also common for people to shy away from "imperfect" produce at the store or throw it out if they notice blemishes at home. However, produce with flaws, so long as it hasn’t actually spoiled, is perfectly good to eat. Plus, it tastes the same as produce that looks pretty. Many times, stores sell imperfect produce at reduced prices, so you'll be saving money and the environment at the same time. If a fruit or vegetable has visible mold, develops a slimy texture or takes on an unpleasant odor, on the other hand, it’s likely spoiled and can go into your compost bin.

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Compost, Compost, Compost

Composting is the process of allowing organic food scraps to decompose into simple organic compounds that often resemble (and can be used similarly to) soil — think of it like recycling. If all households in the U.S. composted, the environmental impact would be similar to 7.8 million cars disappearing from the roads, notes the University of California San Francisco’s Office of Sustainability. Instead of throwing food scraps into the trash, why not compost them? You can easily learn how to compost at home. And the process can be especially useful for home gardeners because the composted food turns into a soil additive that helps to keep plants healthy.

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You can compost at home whether you live in a studio apartment or a sprawling house. It mainly involves saving food scraps, designating a place to make your compost and depositing said food scraps into your composting storage bin. If composting at home isn't feasible for you, you can still collect and save food scraps to bring to a composting center if there’s one in your area.

Get Leftovers Back in Rotation

Finding ways to make sure your leftovers don’t go unused is an easy way to combat food waste in your home. When you make more food than you can eat in one sitting, save it rather than throwing it away. If you know you’ll eat it within a few days, simply store it in the fridge. If you know you won't eat it soon, freeze it in an airtight container so it’s safe to consume later on.

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But, if you know you won't eat your leftovers, whether it's because you're going out of town or you didn't enjoy what you made, deliver them to someone who might eat them. You can also add them to your compost bin.

Shop More Often and Plan Your Meals

A lot of household food wasting happens because people make big grocery store trips and buy more perishable food than they’re able to eat before it goes bad. Buying perishable food every couple of days leads to much less wasted food. Aside from reducing your food waste, you'll also be eating fresher ingredients.

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If you don't have time to shop more often, consider planning your meals. Your grocery list should consist of deliberate items that your meal planning dictates. That way, all of the food you make is accounted for, and less food ends up getting wasted. In many cases, you can also opt to purchase frozen veggies instead of fresh. Their nutritional values are nearly the same as those of fresh produce, and they’ll keep for months in your freezer.

Store Food Correctly

Storing your food the right way can keep it fresh longer. Some fruits and vegetables last longer in the fridge, while others are better at room temperature. Additionally, some types of produce, such as bananas, citrus, tomatoes and apples, emit ethylene gas, causing other nearby foods to spoil more quickly. Make sure to store those foods separately from other fresh items, if possible. For a longer shelf life, wait to wash fresh produce until you’re ready to consume it, too.

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