The results of an intensive 10 year study of food loss recently published through the University of Arizona reveals just how wasteful our nation is with its bounty. The study, which also made use of decades of earlier research by the same UA Bureau, is the first to quantify the nation’s edible wastes with accurate percentages that track the entire production/consumption equation. For example, at a commercial level the study finds that nearly half of all perfectly edible produce, nuts and grains are discarded without ever reaching intended markets, often plowed under due to failed bets on the high stakes commodities market. This constitutes a major impact to the environment as mature crops are discarded in favor of a new bet on a new potential crop.
At a consumer level, the study finds that the average household ultimately discards 14 percent of all food purchases. Nationwide this is the equivalent of 43 billion dollars each year!
So the question becomes, what can be done about it? I believe we can turn this knowledge into a positive by letting it spur us to action. In fact, the study noted three consumer actions that will have a big impact on the future direction these percentages take (given in all caps; the expounding is my own):
- PURCHASE PLANNING. Keep a well-stocked pantry, free of lots of store bought cans and processed junk. Repurpose glass jars and fill them with organic, whole foods bought locally in bulk and representative of everything your family eats the most of (i.e. don’t buy things just because they happen to be on sale). When something is used from the pantry or you notice the bulk-jar needs a fill-up, immediately add the item to your next shopping list. This will help you avoid impulsive trips to the store (the most likely time for you to buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need; 15 percent of such purchases statistically go to waste). Plan your shopping trips wisely. Examine the pantry, look in the freezer, examine the sale-ads for the store(s) you’ll be visiting, and then make a meal list for at least a week, if not two or more. Buy on sale, but not just because it’s on sale. For example, don’t let cheap prices lure your family into stocking-up on processed foods. Instead look for good prices on fresh foods that can be paired with items on hand in your pantry, or turned into pantry items (i.e. a cheap price on strawberries becomes a year’s worth of homemade strawberry jam). Also look for good sales on your common pantry items. Try not to buy anything at the store that isn’t on your list, unless you find a good deal on a healthy item that will expand your running list of meals.
- RESPONSIBLE USE. If you appreciate flexibility like we do, avoid planning your meal list by the day of the week and instead just keep a numbered list of the complete meals you have on hand. Remove meals as they are consumed and add them as they are acquired. Put the meals that utilize the most perishable ingredients at the top of the list and make choices that don’t allow those items to go to waste (i.e. take-out can truly wait a night if you have fresh ingredients on hand you are letting spoil). Save any leftovers from your prepared meals for lunches, save the unused portion of any ingredient for use in other meals (in fact, count on this when planning your list), and save the best scraps of meal preparation in freezer bags (for making great stocks, broths, gravies, casseroles, etc.). If you see produce moving toward over-ripe, preserve it through freezing, dehydration, or canning; or let it motivate you to make something from it in impromptu fashion.
- EDUCATION. Learn about the ingredients you buy and consume and how they are best stored and preserved. Always take the extra moment to store things properly. Label and date anything you freeze or otherwise preserve.
And if you really want to see our nation start to break its ties with the specter of mindless insatiability, I recommend a fourth. Support one of the many programs nationwide that collects surplus foodstuffs from restaurants, grocery chains, produce warehouses, and distributes what would otherwise be thrown away to those who need it most.