Americans waste a lot of food. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 40% of American food is wasted every year. It’s not strictly an American problem. Globally, about one third of food produced ends up as waste - about 1.3 billion tons of food every year. Sadly, over 97% of wasted food ends up in landfills where it breaks down anaerobically and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than CO2.
That’s a lot to take in.
Especially when we consider that in the US, 1 in every 7 people doesn’t have enough food to eat. Or that for children, it’s worse - 1 out of every 5 American children is experiencing hunger.
Food waste is expensive. In 2008, the EPA estimated that 1.3 billion dollars were spent simply disposing of wasted food. And then there’s the environmental cost. Annually, 817 million tons of food are shipped around the planet, with a staggering carbon footprint. On average, processed food travels 1,300 miles to reach its destination.
This is not sustainable. No matter how you look at it, we really can’t afford to be wasting all this food. Not from a monetary perspective, not from an environmental perspective, not from a humanitarian perspective.
Over the past several years, I’ve observed a refreshing return to the idea of wasting less, especially when it comes to animals used for food. The rising popularity of bone broth has inspired many to use ingredients that would otherwise be wasted - chicken feet and spent bones. Increasing awareness about healthy fats and the value of a traditional diet has helped ingredients like leaf lard, pig’s ears, and organ meats return to the kitchen. These practices aren’t necessarily mainstream, but it’s a start.
It strikes me that we don’t often apply the same logic to vegetables. How quickly we peel and trim and toss away. There’s the part of the vegetable that we aim to eat, and then there are “scraps.” Yet in that delicate process of transformation from seed to plant, there’s no “scrap” involved. The roots that draw in nourishment from the soil, the leaves that quietly convert the sun’s energy. Each variety of plant functioning in its own specialized and miraculous way - prickly vines and vibrant flowers and symbiosis with neighboring plants - a hard won evolutionary battle of endless refined sophistication. I think about the hours and energy that are poured into these plants. The careful preparation of soil. The pulling of weeds. The sunlight and rain, and the human efforts to correct for too much or too little. Harvesting. The dirt that cakes under fingernails, the sun that beats down on workers in fields, the calluses that form on hands. And yet it’s easy to look at a bunch of carrots with their feathery green tops and see only carrots.
We can resist what we’ve been taught. Because I think that’s what happens, whether it’s intentional or not, when we walk into a grocery store and see a beautiful display of carefully uniform carrots stacked neatly under those fluorescent lights: we’re taught - these are carrots. Removed from the farm, tops neatly trimmed away, every last speck of soil, power washed away. All that life evidence, surgically removed. We forget about the farm. The crumbly earth. The callused hands. The function of the greens. And while I’m sure this forgetfulness serves a purpose, it’s not a purpose I want to participate in. I want to resist this sanitized notion of food and return to the slow paced reality where carrots grow in soil and photosynthesis converts energy from the sun. I want to honor the cycle of life and the intermingling of human effort in the same way we honor an animal when striving to use all the parts. I want to be mindful of the true cost of food waste and “scraps” - the methane, the hunger, the question of sustainability.
Next week, I’ll be posting suggestions for maximizing each individual vegetable as fully as possible, with comprehensive ideas for making use of everything from kale stems to watermelon seeds to onion peels. In the meantime, I’m offering a broader list of ways to cut down on food waste (including food “scraps” because those count as waste too).
What methods will work at your house?
Actions to Cut Down on Food Waste
Compost - You can easily create a compost pile at home for next to no-cost. When done correctly, compost doesn’t smell or attract unwanted pests or animals. Check out these easy, low-cost DIY options, or search online for dozens more ideas. Another practical way to compost is using an indoor worm bin. I’ve had this one for ten years, and I love it. It sits quietly (and non-smelly) in my pantry, and a few times a year I harvest the compost for my garden.
Share with chickens - If you have chickens, feeding them kitchen scraps is a great way to stretch your food further while cutting down on chicken feed. Be sure to learn what scraps are appropriate for chickens and what ones to avoid. If you have a neighbor with chickens (or pigs), see if they’d be interested in kitchen scraps to help offset their food costs.
Make stock - Whenever possible, save scraps for vegetable or bone broth. I keep a container in my freezer where I store onion and garlic peels, trimmings from most vegetables, corn cobs, etc. When I’m ready to make stock I have a constant ready supply, which means I don’t have to sacrifice things like whole fresh carrots and celery. Read this to learn more about what vegetables and trimmings to use, and which to avoid.
Eat the peels - Before reaching for your vegetable peeler, ask yourself if whatever you’re preparing really needs to be peeled. Whenever possible, I wash my vegetables well and keep the skins intact. Skins contain important fiber as well as vital nutrients that are lost when they are removed. Carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, parsnips, young beets and turnips, potatoes...all of these are vegetables with yummy, edible skins that you may want to think twice before removing.
Make your own veggie powder - If you have a food dehydrator and food processor, you can easily make your own vegetable powders from scraps. Make a homemade greens powder for adding to smoothies by dehydrating leftover kale, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, celery, chard, etc. and putting the dried bits through the food processor. Alternatively, you can make a veggie powder to use as a seasoning in soups, casseroles, etc. by saving onion, garlic, carrot, and celery scraps to dehydrate and pulverize.
Add more vegetables to your dishes - Whenever you’re cooking, consider whether a few more vegetables could be thrown in. Scrambled eggs, soups, stews, meatloaf, casseroles, rice and beans, tacos, burritos, and skillet meals can all easily accommodate the addition of either finely chopped or grated vegetables.
Freeze leftovers - If you find it hard to use leftovers in your refrigerator, try storing them in single serving containers in the freezer. Be sure to date and label them to increase the odds that you’ll actually end up eating them. Take these leftovers for lunches, use them on nights when you’re too tired to cook, or keep them as a backup for when somebody doesn’t like what’s for dinner.
Easily find recipes that use the ingredients you have on hand - Sometimes we just need a little help figuring out how to use what’s on hand. Supercook.com and Love Food Hate Waste both offer tools that allow you to input ingredients you have in the kitchen to find recipes that will use them up.
Recent estimates are that the average family can save over $500 per year by cutting down on food waste. Which methods will you try?
I drew information from several great resources to put this post together. For those interested in reading more about food waste and its implications for our planet, here are my sources: