- David Holub
Imagine you're at the grocery store buying food for the week. As the checker scans your groceries, you notice that, shockingly, she tosses every third or fourth item straight into a trash can. You're outraged, sure, but it's probably what would happen to that food anyway.
Food waste: It's an issue even the wokest among us take part in, and it has huge environmental and economic implications.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, 30 to 40 percent of all food is wasted in the United States, costing an average of $1,800 per year for a family of four. A 2018 study found that Americans waste about a pound of food per day per person. Food waste is the single largest contributor to landfills.
But it's not only a landfill problem; resources used to produce food that is ultimately thrown away are staggering: 30 million acres of cropland (about five times the size of Vermont), 4.2 trillion gallons of water and nearly 2 billion pounds of fertilizer every year.
Yet even for the most environmentally conscious among us, throwing food away can be all too easy.
"I think when we all just scrape a little bit of extra something into the garbage every day, over the course of the day, we don't realize how much that can add up," said Meredith Niles. An assistant professor in the Food Systems Program and the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, she was one of the authors of that 2018 study, along with researchers from the USDA and the University of New Hampshire. "We have to think about the cumulative impact of all these small actions that we all take every day that ultimately can add up to quite a large impact."
If you're thinking that you don't waste food, you're not alone. A 2016 Ohio State University study found that 87 percent of Americans believe they waste less food than everyone else.
"If all of us think we're doing OK, or all of us think we're better than average, well, statistically that's not possible," Niles pointed out. "And it really highlights that people need to look [deeper]."
How? Minimizing food waste starts with meal planning — before you go out to buy the groceries. "The first thing you should do ... is take inventory of what you already have — and what you can make with what you already have, without shopping," said Brigitte Harton, a registered dietitian who works with Hannaford Supermarkets in South Burlington. "If you get your meals planned, and you get the ingredients, you're less likely to [say], 'What's for dinner tonight? Uh, let's just order pizza.' It's a win-win for all situations."
Having a plan for your leftovers is also key. Harton likes to call these "planned-overs." If you're roasting a chicken, set some aside to use on a salad later in the week. While cleaning up after a meal, divvy out single servings for lunches, or put portions in the freezer. Putting leftovers in clear containers can help, as we're more likely to eat food we can see. And don't shove them to the back of the fridge.
Once you're at the grocery store, there are plenty of ways to preempt food waste. Since fresh produce is the most likely to be wasted, consider longer-lasting frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, especially those without added sugar or salt.
"The thinking that it has to be fresh is the wrong thinking," Harton said. "Because the frozen items and the canned items are just as nutritious."
Shoppers can also look for blemished fruits and vegetables, those "ugly" options many people avoid, such as bruised or overripe bananas. Some stores, including City Market, Onion River Co-op, sell them at a discount.
"Maybe you come into the store, and you always check the reduced-price produce bin, and you're deciding what you're going to make based on what's in there," said Mae Quilty, City Market's outreach and education manager. She also suggested using the bulk bins to buy the exact amount you need of an ingredient and looking for bargains such as cheese remnants packaged together.
After you've bought your food, understanding those tricky expiration dates can also prevent perfectly edible food from going into the garbage. Whatever the terminology — best by, use by, sell by — there are no federal standards for what they mean. Manufacturers stamp dates on food items for what they think will be peak quality, Niles said: "It's not necessarily an indicator, for example, that the product has gone bad or that it's spoiled.
"It's a misperception I think a lot of people have," she continued. "They think, Oh, I haven't opened this container of yogurt, and it says it's best by yesterday. Well, in a lot of cases, that yogurt could still be perfectly fine."
Instead of just tossing that yogurt, try a bite. Tasting or smelling are better indicators than an arbitrary expiration date.
Some foods might look spoiled but aren't, such as moldy cheese — the mold can simply be cut off. Other foods are more of a judgment call, especially if they've been stored at appropriate temperatures. Leftovers generally should be kept for no more than three or four days, refrigerated. According to Harton, prepared foods shouldn't sit at room temperature for more than two hours.
Simply knowing where in your refrigerator to store certain foods can prolong their lives. On its website, Chittenden Solid Waste District offers tips, such as storing meats and cheeses on the bottom shelves, which have the coldest temperatures, and keeping fruits and vegetables in humidity-controlled drawers. It advises separating longer-lasting produce such as apples from those that wilt or spoil more quickly, such as leafy greens.
What about composting? Yes, composting your food scraps saves them from the landfill, but it might not be the end-all solution you would think. That Ohio State study found that people were more likely to waste food when they knew it was going to be composted.
"The reality is that all of the resources and effort that it took to get the food to your plate are lost if [it's] just going to be composted," Niles said. "Compost can be a great option for things that truly have gone bad, or food scraps, but not using compost as a crutch."
If there were a recipe to solve the food waste problem, consumer awareness and action would be crucial ingredients. And there are apps for that! Niles recommends apps such as KitchenPal, which helps users plan grocery lists, menus and quantities to purchase and can also generate recipes using ingredients already in your fridge or pantry. Based on user input like bar codes and pictures, food-tracking apps such as Fridgely and Fridge Pal send reminders when something should be used.
Plenty of cookbooks address repurposing leftovers and minimizing waste. And typing "leftover recipes" into your web browser will yield countless options.
The alarming statistics on food waste can make the problem seem almost abstract, like someone else's problem or a distant environmental issue to be addressed later. Maybe a striking visual image will bring it back home — say, a grocery clerk throwing out a third of your food purchases after you've paid for them. As Harton said, "When you throw food away, you're throwing money away."