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Spring Cleaning: Are You Using the Food You Buy?

Did you know that according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 31 percent of the food that is available to eat does not get eaten? Almost half of our edible creations get thrown away either in the production process or by the consumer. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that “More than 96 percent of the food we throw away ends up in landfills,” and that “in 2011, we landfilled more than 36 million tons of food waste.” Consider this while also noting that the World Hunger Education Service claims that about 805 million people, or one in nine people, suffered from chronic malnourishment in 2012-2014 worldwide. Further, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) notes “The average American throws away between $28 and $43 in the form of about 20 pounds of food each month. If we wasted just 15% less food, it would be enough to feed 25 million Americans.” It’s still spring-cleaning season, and with an eye on our refrigerators and pantries, let’s see if we can all stock our kitchens a little more mindfully.


How Do We Waste So Much Food?
Food is wasted in all parts of the supply chain. Some foods do not get harvested or packaged because they do not meet industry or consumer standards. Some foods are damaged in transport or handled and prepared improperly. Some foods are sold or purchased in too high a volume or in too large a portion, and we can’t consume all we purchase in a timely fashion. A lot of fresh food is wasted in the household. According to the NRDC, two-thirds of household food waste can be attributed to spoilage, and the rest is caused by cooking or serving too much.


Check Your Fridge
Hungry? Chances are you can make a meal already with what you have. Look in your refrigerator and cupboards before making a trip out to get supplies. A lot of budding home culinary artists use recipes, and the more seasoned you become, the better you get at making meals without them, or, as Co-op staffer Erik Meitner said “relying less on recipes and more on cooking what we have.” He also suggests getting creative with leftovers. “Some foods will just disappear in another meal.” Learning to make substitutions and modifying recipes to use what you have helps as well.


Not sure if you have a hidden recipe treasure in your ingredients on hand? There are some new apps for that! Civil Eats reported this past February that there are two apps available, Handpick, and Gojee, that might help you find recipes to cook what you already have, by browsing recipes by ingredient and set of ingredients, and by also adding your own recipe ideasto the pool for others to find and enjoy. The are also numerous apps available for portable devices that can help you make good ingredient substitutions and portion conversions as well.


Get Organized
As the New York Times said this past March, “The dates on your packages have nothing to do with food safety, nor are they federally regulated. They are the manufacturer’s suggestion for when the products are at their peak quality. Properly stored food that looks good and smells good is probably good.” That said, organizing your fridge so that you use the oldest things first might be useful to you. In the store, we front and face product with the oldest product right up front to sell first. You may find this tip handy for organizing your own cans, jars, and bottles. Keep a permanent marker available or some painter’s tape or labels to date your jars and bags, or put a markerboard near your fridge, freezer, or cupboards that lists your supply inventory. This can be especially helpful if you have storage produce, canned goods, or freezer goods in a basement or cellar and away from sight. Seeing what is available at eye level in one place in your kitchen is a helpful tool in shopping efficiently and reducing waste. Labeling shelves and bins in the fridge helps keep the fridge organized too, making it easier to see what you have available. Markerboards can also be a great way to track what supplies you run out of, making it easier to make your shopping list based on frequent use, rather than impulse.


Learn To Store Fresh Items
A well-organized fridge helps keep food fresh too. Drinks, leftovers, and other ready-to-eat foods can be stored at the top of the fridge. Not only is this a warmer spot in the fridge, but it will also help you see what leftovers you should eat before you make more food. Eggs benefit from being stored at a consistent temperature, on the middle shelf. Milk, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, and packaged raw meats should be stored as cold as possible without freezing, and so the bottom shelf is the best spot. Storing raw meats at the bottom prevents drips from contaminating other foods as well (using a plate, pan, or tray safely keeps raw meat separate from the rest of the stuff in the fridge as well). The “meat drawer” is typically a tad colder than the rest of the fridge, which is why deli meats are best kept there. The door is the warmest part of the fridge, and the most appropriate spot for butter, soft cheeses, and condiments or other items that are well preserved, such as pickles. Nuts, natural oils low in saturated fat, nut butters, and whole grains and flours last longer when refrigerated, and the door is the best place for these items as well.


Not all fruits and vegetables appreciate the same packaging or climate. Some don’t take well to the refrigerator at all (such as tomatoes, onions, winter squash and potatoes). In general, all produce benefits from space. As the New York Times says, “A crowded vegetable crisper is soon a rotten one.” Vegetables prefer more humidity, and fruits prefer less. Herbs don’t like being all that cold, and so the top shelf of the fridge or on the counter with some water in a vase is a great place to keep them.


If you are not going to use a food for a while, or if you have certain ingredients that you don’t use often, sometimes the freezer is the best place for them. Consider freezing flour, tortillas, pasta sauce, bread, meat, hummus (with a layer of olive oil on top), garlic, chips, peanut butter, broths and stocks, and pesto, to name a few things that can be frozen with little or no preparation.


If you are interested in learning how to properly store fruits and vegetables, several years ago the Berkeley Ecology Center created a great “How-To: Store Fruits and Vegetables” infosheet. Just print and post on your fridge, and find out how to “extend the life of your produce without plastic.”


Use What You Buy
Using what you buy saves money and resources. That’s not just food and money that winds up in the dump, a lot of other resources went into producing that food: water, energy, labor, land, chemicals, packaging, and more.


Buy only what you need. By planning meals ahead, you can make your shopping list more efficient. Also, while buying in volume can be a savings in the long run, as the EPA says “buying in bulk only saves money if you are able to use the food before it spoils.”


Buy Seconds
The NRDC notes, “many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, and color is not right.” That does not mean that the food is not good or should not be eaten. In fact, your Co-op makes a point of making these misfit fruits and veggies available to you at a discount. If you are not sure where the discount bins are in the Produce section, please ask! The product there consists of items that are misshapen, blemished, past their peak or still mostly good with a little pruning and care. Bananas are a great example of what’s available. A bruised ripe banana can be frozen for banana bread or smoothies later.


Get Creative
Lots of produce has parts that people don’t traditionally use, but are edible, such as carrot tops, beet greens, and mushroom stems. An easy way to use the parts of produce that don’t traditionally get eaten is to save them to make vegetable stock. Filling a gallon bag in the freezer with vegetable scraps is one way to plan for this. When you have a full bag, boil them in water with salt and pepper to taste, reserve the newly made stock in a container with airspace and pop it back into the freezer. Got leftover bread? Let it dry and make croutons. When in doubt, search the internet for a recipe. Carrot tops, for example, can make a great chimichurri or salsa verde.


If you still have unused scraps that will not be actually eaten, consider composting before throwing the food away. Vegetable and fruit scraps can be composted at home along with your yard trimmings. The cities of Madison and Middleton as well as Dane County have information on their websites regarding how to home compost and what can be put in compost, if home composting is new to you.


Track Your Waste
Want to find out how much food you waste? Sometimes that can help spark the need for change. The website greatist.com recommends designating “a week in which you write down everything you throw out on a regular basis. Tossing a half loaf of bread each week? Maybe it’s time to start freezing half the moment you buy it so it doesn’t go stale.” Tracking your waste will help you figure out how to shop more efficiently, and what items you should preserve as soon as you buy, so that it will last longer.


Sometimes, friends and neighbors come together to work out their food waste woes. Co-op staffer Amanda Ikens notes, “my neighbors and I wanted to cut down on our waste and got together to work with EnAct,” a local program you can “work on your own or create a team… Together you will discover more than 1000 actions to… waste less, save water… eat well and save money.”


Donating Unused Food
Not going to eat that? Give it away! Someone will appreciate it. As the EPA suggests, one of the benefits of reducing wasted food is that it “supports your community by providing donated untouched food that would have otherwise gone to waste to those who might not have a steady food supply.” If you make too much food to feed yourself or your family, consider dropping some off at the neighbor’s or for friends. Or if you are doing a pantry or fridge sweep and you have food that is still within its use-by dates, contact a local food bank and find out if they will find your items useful. Both of our Co-op locations take nonperishable food donations on designated shelves. Donations near the registers at East support the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center and Goodman Community Center, and donations near the registers at West support Lussier Community Education Center and Middleton Outreach Ministry at West.


For More Information
Here’s some online links previously referenced to get you started reducing your food waste. Special thanks to all the staff who participated in our inquiry about how they have managed their own food waste. We’d love to hear back about your ideas too!
The Handpick app: handpick.com
The Gojee app: www.gojee.com
EnAct Steps to A Greener Living: www.enactwi.org
Berkeley Ecology Center’s “How-To: Store Fruits and Vegetables” PDF: s.coop/1wjy4
United Way’s 2-1-1 Online Resource Directory, to locate nearby food pantries to make donations: s.coop/1wjy5


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