If you've ever cooked a meal for a family made up of more than one person, there's a good chance you've become intimate with a problem that plagues the entire world: wasted food. According to a new report released last week from the United Nations, one-third of all food produced for human consumption on the planet -- about 1.3 billion tons -- is lost or wasted each year.
Lost food, or food that's not produced or processed or delivered to consumers due to inefficiencies in harvesting, processing and distribution, seems to make up the bulk of the amount -- equal to more than half of all food loss and waste in North America, two-thirds in Europe, and the vast majority (more than 90%) in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
In Africa and Southeast Asia, the food loss and waste is primarily made up of food that has rotted during transport from field to market or food than contains parasites and diseases from livestock, as well as food that spoils before it reaches consumers due to terribly unsanitary market conditions.
In North America and Europe, food loss is more likely to include the discarding of fruits and vegetables that are imperfect in appearance or non-uniform in size; the disposal of "extras" (the bits left over from potatoes in cutting french fries, for instance) because it's cheaper than re-use; and the dumping due to poor market prices (when it's too expensive to transport a product to market due to sudden changes in commodity pricing).The amount of food wasted in North America is particularly bad, especially when compared to regions of the planet in which starvation and food shortages are even more of a problem -- consumers in rich nations throw away 222 million tons of food per year, more food than is even produced in sub-Saharan Africa. But we're not to blame just for this part, which occurs after we take a box off a shelf at a supermarket or order a dish from a restaurant menu. We also contribute to much of the pre-consumer food waste, because it's entirely based on our demand.
That's right: The report authors say that carrot standards are so stringent that carrots with even a slight bend (making peeling a touch harder) are discarded, and then pass through an ultraviolet light to eliminate those with even a slight blend of colors or a somewhat duller orange coloration. Supermarkets demand apples in exactly uniform sizes and shapes, refusing or not stocking those that muss the perfect fruit pyramid.
There are a number of things we can do to address waste, even the waste that occurs on our behalf before we typically see the produce. Here are a few suggestions:
Ask for variety. The UN report offers this "preventative" comment about uniformity: "Supermarkets seem convinced that consumers will not buy food which has the 'wrong' weight, size or appearance. Surveys do however show that consumers are willing to buy heterogeneous produce as long as the taste is not affected...Consumers have the power to influence" supermarkets by simply asking for a fuller spectrum of products.
At the produce department worker level, this could result in supermarkets not throwing imperfect vegetables in the dumpster or sending them back to the farmer; at the processor level, enough expressed demand could encourage them to remove some of the perfection filters, ultimately bringing prices down.
Go straight to the source. I'm part of a buying club that gets produce straight from farmers in giant boxes and wooden produce crates. The apples I get are often enormous globes that weigh more than a pound each. They're unusual sizes. They're amazingly delicious.
A few times a quarter, I volunteer to help sort produce into our members' boxes. At the end of the day, I often take home the messy produce in my own bag; maybe the onions have a little spoilage on the end or the carrots have big splits up the center. I get a cut rate price on the produce, and once I've trimmed it up, my kids never ask if I bought it pristine. It's still good food.
In addition to buying clubs and warehouse-style produce markets, where fruits and vegetables are sold the way they come from the farmer, there are lots of other ways to go direct to the source and get a good price on fruit that's not uniform enough for the grocery store. Community-supported agriculture shares; farmer's markets; you-pick farms; your own garden; and emailing local farmers are all ways to get produce in all its varying colors and shapes. A friend buys a truckload of organic apple "seconds" each year for less than 50 cents a pound to make cider, applesauce and apple pie filling. Keep your eye on craigslist, and search out locavore or sustainable living email groups for opportunities and more ideas.
Grow your own. While it's possible to waste your own garden's produce, of course, it's a lot easier to celebrate the differences in food and jealously guard every bit of it if you've done the work of planting, weeding and growing the fruits and veggies yourself. And most garden produce is substantially cheaper than what you buy in a supermarket (on a pennies-to-the-dollar ratio); the risk of losing any in transportation or poor market conditions is close to nil.
On the other end of the equation, there's a lot more we can do to reduce waste and make our food less expensive once we've selected and purchased it. We're the worst of them all, you know; Americans and Europeans throw away enough food to feed several developing countries each year.
Buy from the bulk bins. Not only do I hate the excess packaging involved in buying off the grocery shelves, but I also hate the idea that someone else is deciding how much of something my family will eat in a reasonable amount of time. And many times, the packaging of rice, flour, dry beans and other bulk items is hard to re-close securely, allowing for spillage, infestations or staleness.
I bring my own mason jars to the market, getting just the amount I know I'll use and bringing it home already securely sealed in an easy-to-open-and-close container. It's also far cheaper and easier to get the variety I prefer -- organic beans, for instance. You'll get the biggest variety and, often, the best prices of bulk foods at a grocery co-op or natural foods store.
Repackage and freeze. If you decide to buy meat, cheese, butter or other freezable thing in large quantities -- value packs or boxes bigger than your family can eat in one or two meals -- the best approach is to repackage and freeze the food when you get it home from the market. I've done this for ground beef, whole chickens (cutting them in half and packaging in them in meal-size portions), a huge pork tenderloin a friend and I bought together, a five-pound slab of bacon I got a great deal on, and big boxes of butter I buy to save money on baking. Wrap the items in freezer paper or foil to prevent freezer burn, and thaw only what you can eat in one go. My parents freeze ground beef in 1/2 pound chunks; we use one-pound packages for chili and tacos, and two-pound packages for meatball or burger nights.
Store leftovers immediately after the meal. If I don't scoop all the leftovers into their jars (for these, I almost always use wide-mouth pint mason jars I buy cases of each summer when they're on sale), half the time they'll end up as chicken food when I remember them the next morning. If I get to it before my boys' bedtime, it's a safe bet I'll be eating leftovers for lunch the next day.
Reach for leftovers first. Speaking of leftovers: the only way you're going to eat them is if you quell your impulse to make new food first. I like to mix up leftovers, putting hummus into quesadillas or doing several things with leftover beans (rice and beans one night; burritos a second; taco salad with beans and salsa, a third). If you know you won't eat all the leftovers in a day or two, simply put them in the freezer and take them out when you're ready.
Preserve what you can't eat right away. Preservation can be an enormous and artful project -- several times, I've spent the better part of a few days making a two-fruit marmalade, for instance. Or it can be as simple as slicing peaches or rinsing blueberries and putting them on a cookie sheet that I slide into the freezer (I package them up after they've frozen so they don't stick together). A good all-purpose preservation manual is Put 'Em Up, which organizes recipes and procedures by produce type and has such delightfully simple ideas as stringing green beans or hot peppers and hanging them to dry. Presto, preserve-o!
Once the produce is in your freezer or pantry, make sure it's stored in quantities that your family can eat easily once it's opened. For fruits -- like the peaches pictured -- it's easy enough to shake out just enough to mix with yogurt and granola for a winter parfait. But for other preserves, like relish or jam or tomato sauce, I make sure to can them in exactly the quantities I know my family will eat in one or two days, so I don't throw away my hard work.
There are many other ways to avoid throwing out food (and just as many ways to mess it up -- I thank heaven for my omnivorous chickens, which often get far better cuisine than they can appreciate). What are your best tricks and tips to avoid waste and lost food?
One-Third of All Food Wasted Worldwide: How to Stop