Consumer Food Waste

Pounds of food wasted per person per year by region.

Food waste is an enormous problem in the world, and it is especially problematic in North America, where each individual wastes more than 250 pounds of food per year on average. Not counting the farm-to-retail waste that occurs, the US is responsible for more than 133 billion pounds of food waste each year, and roughly two thirds of this occurs in homes and restaurants. With the USDA and EPA striving to cut losses 50% by the year 2030, the individual has quite a bit of work to do in terms of consumption habits. While the changes will take time (and a substantial educational effort,) soon the habits that caused such extensive food waste can become habits that prevent it. Furthermore, food waste isn’t a new phenomenon – it’s a problem that has been addressed before; and it can be done again.

Using advice now 100 years old, here are some tips you can use to reduce food waste in your household.

World War I Era Poster, Committee of Public Safety, Department of Food Supply, South Penn Square, Philadelphia, PA – though a very dated poster, the validity of its advice endures even a century later.

World War I Era Poster, Committee of Public Safety, Department of Food Supply, South Penn Square, Philadelphia, PA – though a very dated poster, the validity of its advice endures even a century later.

1 – Buy it with thought: Make a list when you go to the grocery store or farmers market. Don’t buy things that you already have! It’s so easy to pick up a third onion because you forgot about the two in the pantry. Menu planning saves you time and money, and can also help prevent food waste when you make purchases. Similarly, try not to buy larger quantities than your family will use. While an individual might not use a whole gallon of milk in a week, half-gallon or quart sizes make it easier to prevent waste and still eat a varied diet. Shopping “smaller” but more frequently, while potentially more time consuming, can help save money by discouraging the purchase of food items that won’t be eaten.

2 – Cook it with care: The cutting board can be a location of extensive food waste if you aren’t paying attention. How often do you throw away an extra inch of the carrot because it’s close to the stem? Do you steam broccoli stalks along with the florets? Do you pare out the eyes of potatoes or throw away the entire cube? These may sound like small or insignificant changes, but consider this: tossing out a 1-inch cube of potato every day for a year is the equivalent of twenty-six whole potatoes in a landfill when they could otherwise be eaten. For a family of four, the equivalent is nearly thirty-five pounds each year! A good practice is to carefully cut away the stems or bruises from produce, preserving as much of the edible part as possible.

3 – Serve just enough: Are you the type of person that prefers to cook in large batches a few times per week, or do you loathe leftovers? This decision of course comes down to personal preference, but if you are the type that won’t eat your leftovers, don’t make them! Take precautions when preparing food so that you only make what you or your family will eat. When cooking, use recipe serving guidelines, and freeze or store remaining ingredients. At restaurants that offer large portions, share a plate with a friend or order from the lunch menu.

4 – Save what will keep: Even if you don’t like to eat leftovers, some things can be reused. Didn’t finish lunchtime crudités? Toss them onto a salad for dinner. Only used half of an onion in the meatloaf recipe? Use the remainder in tomorrow’s stir-fry. It’s also important to remember that storage guidelines are given for a reason. Keep foods like olive oil and winter squash in cool, dark, dry locations like cupboards or the basement. Refrigerate eggs and fresh produce for as long as possible. Similarly, your freezer is your friend! Perhaps fresh blueberries are on sale, but your family can only eat half of the container before the spoil. Freeze some while they’re still fresh, and make a pie next month! For more information, check out this publication, which offers easy advice regarding the storage life of different foods in refrigerators and freezers.

5 – Eat what would spoil: Flexibility is important when trying to keep food loss at a minimum. If you notice your apples are getting soft, pack one in your lunch instead of the usual orange. Have brown bananas? Make muffins or banana bread. If something in the fridge is reaching the expiration date, use it fast so it doesn’t go bad. The USDA has come out with a new app, called FoodKeeper, which serves as a log for different items you buy. The app keeps track of purchases, best-by and expiration dates. It also alerts you when crucial dates are approaching so you don’t forget about rogue lettuce in the crisper. One of the best features is the “Ask Karen” option, which provides answers to questions regarding food safety, handling, storage and preparation.

6 – Home grown is best: While not everybody has a green thumb, farmers markets offer great options for people looking to prevent food waste by eating locally. Food grown in the close vicinity reaches the consumer more quickly, and subsequently has a longer storage life. Farmers markets also offer incentive to shop more frequently, as they are usually open every week. Shopping at farmers markets instead of grocery stores can help create a closer relationship between the farmer and the buyer, which then instills a greater appreciation for the work that goes into growing food. Respect for farmers and food can help motivate more conservative consumption.

Resources

Bernstein, Christopher. (April 2015). New USDA ‘FoodKeeper’ App: Your New Tool for Smart Food Storage. USDA/FSIS.

Buzby, Jean C. Hodan Farah Wells and Jaspreet Aulakh. (June 2014). Food Loss – Questions About the Amount and Causes Still Remain. USDA.

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