Waste-Less Wednesday: Front-End Solutions

April 29, 2015 § 2 Comments

Did you happen to catch the film “Just Eat It” on MSNBC last week? The 74-minute documentary, produced and directed by Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer, examines the topic of food waste from field to table in North America. If you missed it, here’s a taste. (For more information about the film and additional screenings, check out the website.)

Just Eat It – A food waste story (Official Trailer) from Grant Baldwin on Vimeo.

No boring facts-and-figures, talking-heads approach, this film chronicles the couple’s adventures and reactions during their six-month project to give up grocery shopping and live solely on reclaimed food. That’s right, from asking for out-of-date products and ugly vegetables at the supermarket to outright dumpster diving at wholesale food-supply locations, they not only eat, but eat well for duration of the project. (Spoiler alert: They don’t actually eat food scraps, but rather reclaim perfectly good packaged food discarded by food businesses, such as distributors and grocery stores.)

The film intersperses the couples’ experiences in acquiring food with eye-opening details direct from farmers and food-waste educators about how and where food waste occurs all along the food supply chain. Most staggering fact? 40% of all food, from farm to factory to table is wasted — left in the field, considered unsaleable by grocery stores, and just plain thrown in the garbage. Cameron Anderson, Harvest Manager for grower Pacific International says in the film that 20-30% of food grown is left in the field. Why? It’s a two-part issue: supermarket specifications for produce and customer expectations about appearance.

Just Eat It – Field Waste – Cauliflower (Deleted Scene) from Grant Baldwin on Vimeo.

Supermarkets refuse otherwise perfectly fresh and edible produce because it doesn’t meet specifications for size or beauty. And customers support this approach by seeking out the perfect produce. How many times have you passed by bruised apples or weird-looking squash? (Confession: I’ve done it.) Even farmers’ markets, generally known as a good source of fresh and local food, aren’t immune. In the film, one market supplier points out a lone bunch of greens at his stand, saying that it won’t sell because customers think there’s something wrong with it if there’s only one left.

In terms of what we buy and take home, Dana Gunders, Project Scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says that 15-25% goes to waste. (I first heard these statistics from Dana during CUESA’s “Beyond the Green Bin” panel talk last year.) Putting that in practical terms, she says it’s like “buying four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and leaving it there.” How does it happen? We over-estimate what we need, don’t use food before it spoils, throw away packaged or canned food because we’re not clear about what “best by” dates really mean, and so on.

Putting a dollar value on it, $165 billion worth of food is lost or thrown away annually in the US. And yet, approximately 17% of all Americans struggle with food insecurity, which means that at some point during the year, about 54 million people lack a reliable source of food. (Bringing it home, food insecurity in San Mateo county is close to 12% of our population.) At a macro level, we need a way to transfer that $165 billion of unnecessary food waste to those who lack a steady source of nourishment.

Wasted food is a waste of resources, which, when you think about it translates to even more dollars lost: the labor, water, and supplies that go into producing that food. Given our worsening drought conditions here in California, wasting food will have an even higher cost.

Food waste, then, can seem like an overwhelming and insurmountable problem. Indeed, social media reactions during the film included surprise, guilt, and anger at the amount and cost of waste. But knowledge is power, and as Maya Angelou said:  “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Films like “Just Eat It” and panel talks like CUESA’s “Beyond the Green Bin,” provide the information we need to “do better.”

So while I’ve posted about ways to reduce food waste on the back end — using, salvaging, or preserving what you already have — let’s talk about ways to get ahead of food waste on the front end, before you’re making that “toss or keep” decision.

Be a Man (or Woman) with a Plan
Before you head out to the grocery store, take a quick inventory at home. What food staples do you need? What are your go-to foods for those quick weekday meals and how much do you have on hand? Having a plan before you get to the market or grocery store will not only save time, but also means that you’ll reduce the possibility of impulse buys or “just in case” purchases. (On that same note: don’t shop hungry.)

Planning ahead will also leave you some leeway for those unexpected dinners out or nights when you’re just too tired or overwhelmed to cook and pizza is on speed dial. Which leads me to why it’s a good idea to shop “European-style”: buy smaller quantities and shop more often.

Shop Euro-Style
Time is a limited resource, so many of us try to consolidate a week’s worth of food shopping into one trip. Believe me, I get it. However, what that means is we’re often overbuying and unable to use produce (some of which has a very short shelf life) before it starts to fade. If you’re wasting food because you’re trying to save time, and that wasted food has a cost beyond what you paid for it at the grocery store, what are you really saving?

Consider purchasing enough food for about a few days at a time and commit to using it up before shopping again. Your food will be fresher, and you’ll use more of it. Maybe you visit the grocery store once a week for proteins and packaged goods and the farmers’ market on the weekends for produce. Find something that works for your schedule and lifestyle. Don’t have time to get out? Sign up for a CSA delivery (or choose one that drops off at a central point in your neighborhood) or a broader delivery service like Good Eggs.

Make a List
Make a list of perishable items to use first and keep it on your refrigerator. For example, delicate herbs, salad greens and tomatoes have short shelf lives and should probably at the top of your “use first” list. You can also use this list as a place to jot ideas for recipes you want to make and ways to use up certain produce items.fridge-list

Take It Home
Dining out and takeout/delivery contributes to food waste in a couple of ways. As I mentioned above, it’s often the reason we don’t get through all of the fresh food purchased from the grocery store or market. But restaurants are also giving us large portion sizes — often more than most people can eat in one sitting.

Consider taking home whatever you don’t eat during the meal. More often than not, I can get at least one more meal out of restaurant leftovers, sometimes two. Or you can use the restaurant leftovers to create a new meal using what you have at home. Case in point: I recently ordered vegetable biryani (rice dish) from my favorite Indian place. Talk about value for money — I had enough biryani for three days’ worth of meals! Indian cooking is not in my skillset, but with the biryani as the foundation, I added my own steamed vegetables and protein to create some deliciously spicy dishes and saved myself some cooking time.

Food waste is not an insurmountable problem and changing how we shop for, store, and cook food can make a huge difference. How are you working to reduce food waste on the front end? Do you shop “Euro style”? Designate a place in the fridge for “use first” items? Share your ideas in the comments or on our Facebook page!

Feed Local: Putting the “Giving” in Thanksgiving

November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

What are you doing for Thanksgiving? It’s the question of the week, right?! We’re all asking each other whose house are you going to? and whatcha making? and who’s cooking? We’re digging up those old family recipes or searching the interwebs for last-minute genius side dishes and turkey hacks. We’re pulling out the stretchy pants and planning on lively, filling dinners followed by food coma and football. And leftovers — ohmergawd, leftovers! Not only are we planning how we’ll fill ourselves to capacity and beyond on Thursday, but how we’ll indulge in it all over again on Friday (pumpkin pie for breakfast, of course!). Hey, I’m right there with you.

Fixin's for Thanksgiving dinner!

Fixin’s for Thanksgiving dinner!

And yet, as I’m making my own Thanksgiving menu and dreading that last-minute trip to the grocery store, I’m also thinking about the fact that not everyone in the 650 will be celebrating with big meals. And some families will struggle to celebrate at all.

In San Mateo county, the heart of the 650, almost 12% of the population is food insecure. (Want more info? Check out Feeding America’s website.) I don’t want to be a big downer after I got you all excited about a food fest that is less than 48 hours away; I really don’t. And yet, the fact remains that food insecurity exists right here in our community, and no one should have to miss out on a healthy, home-cooked meal for the holidays. Good news: there’s something you can do to provide food to those who need help this holiday season. (And that would be the “giving” part of Thanksgiving.)

Feed Local: Whole Foods Market “Food Four More” Program
Did you know that $10 can provide a meal for a family of four? From now until December 24, Peninsula-region Whole Foods Markets are running a donation program called “Food Four More,” which benefits Second Harvest Food Bank. It’s simple and brilliant.

Stop in at a Whole Foods Market in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Redwood City, or San Mateo to support "Food Four More" with a donation

Stop in at a Whole Foods Market in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Redwood City, or San Mateo to support “Food Four More” with a donation

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Visit a Peninsula Whole Foods Market store: Los Altos, Palo Alto, Redwood City, or San Mateo.
  2. Make a donation to Food Four More at any checkout stand.

The money goes to Second Harvest, which uses it to feed the 1 in 10 people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties who rely on their services. While any amount is helpful, needed, and welcomed, I like knowing how my dollars translate in terms of a meal: $10 = food for four people. Simple. Think about it — for what you might spend on two pumpkin spice lattes, you can give a local family a lunch or dinner. How cool is that?!

If you shop at Whole Foods, simply add the donation to your grocery bill when you check out (your cashier should ask you, but feel free to volunteer). Even if you’re not a Whole Foods shopper, you can stop into any Peninsula WF location and make a donation at a register — no purchase required!

Feed Regional: Farm Fresh to You “Donate-a-Box, Help Heal Hunger”
Want to extend your gift of food beyond the 650? Farm Fresh to You, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program of Capay Farms, is now offering the opportunity to donate a box of fresh, organic produce to a regional food bank within California. If you’re a Farm Fresh to You customer, log into your Farmstand to learn the different ways in which you can donate. Donations can be made at any time or as part of your weekly box customization.

Fresh, organic produce like this could be donated to a California food bank of your choice

Fresh, organic produce like this could be donated to a California food bank of your choice

If you’re not a Farm Fresh to You customer, you can still particpate in this donation program without subscribing to the service or making any other purchases (<– clicky here to find out more). You can choose the box size for donation and the food bank partner that will receive it. If you’d like to make a recurring donation, you can create an account the website.

See how easy it can be to share the holiday spirit and help feed your community? Are there other food-related programs in the 650 or beyond that you support (or would like to)? Share your suggestions in the Comments section below.

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