Friday, January 11, 2013

Food on Friday: a resolution against food waste

Most of the time I feel that I am doing my part to save this planet of ours.  I have reduced my meat consumption to about once a week and only buy eggs that are certified organic.  Despite the fact that I dislike the harsh light they usually give off, I have almost only CFL bulbs in my house and I turn them off when we aren't home or using a room.  I try not to buy anything with extra packaging and take my water to work in a reusable metal bottle.  I rarely go by car.  We recycle and, per Nuremberg requirements, sort our trash into compostables, recyclable plastics/metals and paper.

But, when it comes to food waste, all that stuff that goes into the compostable bin, my actions are truly shameful.

Each week I throw away containers of yogurt, full tupperware boxes of leftovers and an uncountable number of bell peppers, onions and potatoes, all because I haven't had the energy, time or desire to use them.  If I had to guess, I would say that I throw away 20% of the food we buy.  In a world that sees hungry children in Africa die daily and that is getting warmer and warmer in part due to industrialized society's food consumption habits,  this waste of food is not only disgraceful, but unethical.

An expired yogurt container I found in my fridge today.  (For those of you in the U.S., we switch the month and the day, so the scrambled date there is the 2nd of January.)

This realization came to me a few weeks ago while perusing through the new issue of Whole Living that my mom had sent me.  In it was an article detailing just how shockingly wasteful Americans are when it comes to food.  (You can read the article here.  Did you know that cucumbers are often tossed before they even make it to the supermarket just because their curves don't fit the standards set by the USDA?) The numbers were appalling: 40% of all edible food in America wasted, making for 20.5% of all waste in municipal landfills.  According to the EPA, that's 33 million tons of wasted food going into  landfills just this year.

I will spare you the entire contents of the article (though you should really read it) and just tell you this: the average American household wastes 14% of all food purchased, about $1,600 worth a year.  That's every 7th apple and almost an entire vacation's worth of money!! But, more importantly, that's one less hungry, malnourished child or adult right there in your city, two grand that could potentially be put into your community, into cancer research, or into education.

And, you will find many other reports to verify these facts.  Reports herehere and here all say almost the exact same thing.  The problem isn't confined to America either.  A recent report claims that the numbers here in Germany are just as bad, with every German throwing away on average 80 kilograms of food per year.  That makes for 11 million kilograms total per year!  (And 235€ wasted per resident each year.)

Now, I am going to make a confession and give you an honest look into my life.  The pictures in this post are all from my fridge and pantry, uncleaned or fixed up for the pictures--the true kitchen chaos we live with.  It isn't hard to see how and why we waste so much food.  In fact, I believe we waste quite a bit more than the average German and maybe even more than the average American.

It's a mess in there, difficult to see what is available and easy for things to get lost.  We buy specific products for recipes and then never use them again.  (Note the asian beansprouts, tahini for homemade hummus and little onions in a jar.)  We buy boxes and boxes of dried product, thinking it will last forever, and then curse as we throw it in the trashcan one year later because it has expired.  I have so many baking products and yet I never make bread.

When I read these articles, I realized that THIS. HAS. GOT. TO. STOP.

So, this year, my New Year's Resolution was a little bit different.  It's not to stop biting my nails, as it was for pretty much my entire childhood.  It's not to follow my dreams or be a better person or something similarly intangible and unattainable.  It's not to lose 10 pounds or tighten up my tush (like it probably is for half of America).  This year, my resolution is to do everything in my power to STOP WASTING FOOD.  

But, it isn't happening overnight and that is okay.  

On January first, I noted a moldy potato in the fridge I had to throw away.  And yesterday I found about a cup of pumpkin I had leftover from making a Christmas pie growing hair (and maybe an arm, a toe and spleen or two) in the very back of my fridge.  I had to throw that away, too (and believe me, it wasn't a pleasant experience).  I almost gave up my resolution, called myself a failure and reverted back to my old ways. 

But then I realized that I was changing 26 (yikes!) years of learned behavior and that it wouldn't happen in a day.  This is something I am really going to need to work on, like changing my diet and exercise habits (both of which I have done in the past year).  It is going to take knowledge, planning and dedication and will include some falls off the wagon along the way.  But, if I am working at it, if I am conscious of it and conscientious about it, I will make a difference.  

I encourage you to do the same. I really don't like posting rant-y or preachy things on here, but this seems too important to me to just ignore.  We, as individuals and families, must recognize and work together to change this culture of waste.  

Here is what I am doing and what you can do: 

1.  Set a food shopping budget. 

Aside from just being good for your bank account, this will prevent frivolous or spontaneous purchases that might later rot in your fridge.  It will also force you to eat leftovers and things that you don't always sound in the mood for or that you tend to ignore for the delights of take out.   

2.  Create a weekly menu. 

I plan my meals so that I can use the leftovers and special ingredients in the next night's meal.  For example, tonight we are having something with parsley in it.  Normally, I would have some left over that would sit in the fridge for ages.  But, I am going to make tabbouleh tomorrow instead.  

3.  Get everyone on board.  

If it's not a family goal, it won't work.  Peter's getting into it, too!

5.  Take stock of what you have.

Before going to the store make a list of things you really need (never go to the store without a list).  Make a list of dry items in the pantry and make sure everything is visible. Don't forget to plan meals using those items.  

4.  Learn about when food is REALLY bad.

There is an interesting guide here.  
Germans can get a guide and ideas here.  
Did you know that if cheese is moldy, you can simply cut away the moldy part and eat the rest?

5. Force yourself to eat the leftovers.  

Yes, they may sound repetitive the day afterward, but it's terrible to throw them away.  

6.  Don't buy in bulk.  

You may think you are doing the right thing.  You may see a sale and think you are saving money.  You may just want to make sure that no one in your house ever says, 'Mom, there's nothing to eat.'  But at what cost to the world and to your pocketbook? 

Be smarter than that.  Buy only exactly what you plan to eat, no more.  (Your waistline will probably also thank you where there isn't a gallon jar of peanut butter and a jumbo box of crackers sitting on your kitchen shelf.) 

7.  Simply be aware, realize it's a struggle and alway try to do your best.  

Thanks for listening and I hope you decide that this cause is worth it and take this journey with me.  I would love to hear any ideas that you have for preventing food waste. 

Okay, I am off now to go use some of that spelt couscous you see sitting on that shelf up there.  Have a great weekend! 

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