April 22nd, 2017/ BY Joanne Will

We can feed the world with the food we waste

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately one third of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste. As much as we fetishize food in North America, we also waste an incredible amount. One of the big paradoxes of our time is that, despite alarming global hunger statistics, the FAO found we throw out an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food annually — four times the amount required to feed the world’s 795 million hungriest people.

In Canada, a 2014 report by Value Chain Management International Inc pegged the annual value of food waste across the country at $31 billion. And it’s not just food that’s wasted, it’s also the labour, energy, machinery and natural resources required to produce, store and transport it.

Then there’s the impact on the environment. “When you look at food waste globally, if it was a country, it would be third in terms of greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the United States. So, it’s a huge climate change issue. There are emissions all the way along the path, from production — particularly for things like beef that are very greenhouse gas intensive — all the way through to disposal,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp, Senior Advocate with the Food and Agriculture Program of the US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

In North America, the largest piece of the food waste pie, by value, occurs in households, followed by grocery stores, restaurants and institutional food service like hospitals, colleges and universities.

Much of our household waste is due to spoiled produce, languishing unused in refrigerators. We buy in mass quantities at warehouse-style supermarkets that offer super-size shopping carts and too-good-to-be-true deals, which means we often overbuy. Since we’ve grown accustomed to abundance, we also tend to take it for granted. Nowadays, we waste about 50 percent more food than in the 1970s.

“What we found in our research is people are often extremely conscious of the cost of food when they purchase it, but they’re oblivious to the cost when they throw it out. The average family of four spends $1,500 a year on food that they throw out,” says Berkenkamp.

A number of factors contribute to that. “People often purchase more than they can eat. And that’s driven by things like 55 percent of grocery purchases in the US are impulse buys, which is to say a person didn’t have an intention about what they were going to buy when they got there. They’re shopping without a list. It’s also driven by two-for-one deals, and very large pack sizes of things. Boxes of lettuce that are three times what a family can use but it looks really cheap, so people are motivated by the prospect of getting a good deal to purchase more than they can utilize,” says Berkenkamp.

Busy lifestyles are another factor. “We tend to be aspirational shoppers in the grocery store: we want to have more variety in our diet, we want to try new recipes, we want to get the healthy options, we don’t want to run out, we want to get something all the members of our household will like. We’re maybe trying to accommodate kids that have really different schedules so we’re planning for multiple meals, maybe even in a given evening to accommodate family member’s schedules. All of those things tend to spur us to purchase and prepare more food than we can eat.”

Confusion over date labels and how to store food also has an effect. “In the research we did for the Ad Council’s ‘Save The Food’ campaign, we had researchers go into people’s homes and to the grocery store with them, and look in their refrigerator and their trash, and keep food waste diaries. We’d see things on the shelf that belong in the fridge and vice versa. Refrigerators at too high of a temperature, or milk being pulled out and left on the dinner table for an hour or two per day, which raises the temperature and causes it to not last as long. Things like fruits need to be at a low humidity so they belong in the low-humidity crisper drawer, whereas vegetables need higher humidity and they belong in the other drawer. Things like that are not widely understood.”

Nor, says Berkenkamp, is the fact that produce should not be stored in the bags that it’s typically purchased in. “Most fruits and vegetables need to breathe, so if you store [something] tied up in a plastic bag, you’re going to get condensation in there, and more moisture, and it will not last as long as it otherwise might.”

Other waste occurs in restaurants and at retail food businesses: the leftovers on our plates due to oversize portions we can’t finish, or produce discarded because it doesn’t look cosmetically perfect — even though it might be perfectly fine to eat.

“We throw out an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food annually – four times the amount required to feed the world’s 795 million hungriest people.”



Some good news is that food waste is rapidly becoming a subculture of haute cuisine, with a trickle-down effect to home cooks. Chefs and restaurants are providing inspiration about the possibilities for dishes that can be created with what we may be overlooking in our own refrigerators.

American chef and author Dan Barber took his popular pop-up restaurant wasteED across the pond to Selfridges in London this spring, for a dining experience even notorious curmudgeon Oscar the Grouch would have loved. wastED highlights edible ingredients that are often discarded or rejected, turning them into delicious dishes made from the likes of broccoli stalks, the ribs of kale leaves and fish bones.

Food rescue programs also make a dent in waste by gathering food that would otherwise be binned and redistributing it to food banks and shelters. There’s even Transfernation, an “Uber for food rescue” organization based in New York City that uses an app to connect those who can transport leftover food to those who can use it.

Others, such as Tristram Stuart, founder of the UK charity Feedback and author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, are educating consumers with campaigns such as ‘Feeding the 5000.’ At each event, a communal feast for 5,000 people is served, made entirely from food that would otherwise have been wasted. Stuart has also created Toast Ale, beer made using surplus bread that was destined for a landfill.

So, what can average consumers and households do to reduce waste? Plenty. Plan meals, shop with a list, ignore “best before” dates, educate yourself and family members on how to store and use produce. The Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders, a staff scientist and food-waste fighter at the NRDC, provides a plethora of tips. As does the site savethefood.com.

Another suggestion is to adopt some fresh thinking, and stop discarding food you previously considered inedible. Using up leftovers or overlooked ingredients can be a boon to creativity. On a recent particularly empty refrigerator day, necessity drove me to take the skin of a kabocha squash, which had been roasted previously and the innards used to make soup, and chop and fold it into an omelette. The sweet, nutty flavour of the squash-skin omelette turned out to be a delicious change from my usual onion/mushroom/spinach combinations.

To help realize the full extent of what we can do with the food we have in our homes, there are websites, columns and cookbooks focused on how to make meals with kitchen scraps. Food52’s Lindsay-Jean Hard’s biweekly column highlights recipes that include scraps (for example, homemade celery salt–crusted baked potatoes, and a soup that uses stale cornbread). Hard is currently working on a cookbook focused on cooking from scraps, due out from Workman Publishing in early 2018.

When it comes to treating food with respect, our food culture also plays a role.

“Clearly the primary driver in the US is that people feel badly about wasting money. The second thing they regret about wasting food is that they know that there are people that don’t have enough to eat. So, there is some moral argument to be made. There is some data that asked parents in particular how they felt about food waste, and they said that one of the motivators was that they wanted to set a good example for their kids,” says Berkenkamp.

“Most surveys don’t ask that question, so you don’t see it in the data. But Johns Hopkins University did a national survey in the US in the last 12 months, and they got some really interesting data. One of their observations was that parents didn’t want to set a bad example for kids, so I think that’s something to be leveraged.”

Educating ourselves and the next generations on the value of food, where it comes from and the resources required to produce it, seems key to reducing waste. As Senegalese engineer and environmentalist Baba Dioum once said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”



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