Leftovers, Not Landfills

Leftovers, Not Landfills

You (yes, you) waste about 400 pounds of food every year. Here’s why food waste matters and how to change your habits.

We spend a lot of time in these pages showing the value behind food, especially local food. Who grows it, where to buy it, how to cook it, and more. But there’s one piece of the total food matrix that rarely gets discussed, and it may well be the most important: A disturbing portion of our food doesn’t get eaten, and that’s actually a big problem.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), up to 40% of food in the U.S. goes to waste. That’s an average of 400 pounds per person per year, about the weight Fiona the hippo reached last August.

This volume of discarded food is a tragedy on many levels. It’s a waste of the energy, water, fertilizer, and land that goes into growing, processing, transporting, and refrigerating our food. Not to mention the impact it has on our own pocketbooks. A family of four spends $1,500 each year on food that never gets eaten. If we could learn to waste less, it would be like getting a 20% discount on every shopping bill.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy, however, is that in the midst of all this waste, one in eight Americans struggles with food insecurity. In the Cincinnati area, those statistics are worse. One in four of our neighbors has trouble putting food on the table at some point during the year. “And yet we are sending so much ‘food waste’ to the landfill,” says Kristin Weiss, executive director of Green Umbrella, the Ohio Valley sustainability alliance. “I put food waste in air quotes because a lot of good food goes to the landfill that could otherwise be prevented or recovered.”

Instead of nourishing people who need it, food that ends up in landfills creates methane, a greenhouse gas that’s up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 21% of the waste stream is food. If we can make a nice dent in that number, not only will fewer people be hungry, our air will be cleaner.

Waste Happens
Food is wasted at every level of the food system, so it’s easy to play the blame game. Some food never gets harvested because of fluctuating supply and demand issues, or it gets rejected for the retail market because it doesn’t live up to strict cosmetic standards. Some of it goes bad before it gets sold at grocery stores or restaurants, in part because shoppers and diners are conditioned to seeing fully stocked shelves and endless menu items available at all times.

There are signs that all of those sticky points in the business of food could actually shift toward greater efficiency. Food companies are waking up to the fact that wasted food is revenue lost, and some are working to put supply-chain solutions in place. Kroger made headlines last year by announcing a goal to eliminate food waste across the entire company by 2025 through a combination of food donation and a $10 million investment in innovation. It’s ambitious, but the company’s also committed to being transparent about what works and what doesn’t so the industry as a whole can improve.

“As America’s grocer and one of the largest retailers in the world, we think we’re uniquely positioned to address the paradox [of food waste],” said Jessica Adelman, Kroger’s group VP of corporate affairs. “We think we can tackle this at scale but also with a hyper-local connection.”

Local Action
The EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture set a goal in 2015 of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030, and cities and states around the country have started to mobilize. Here in the Ohio Valley, more than 150 stakeholders met in the fall of 2016 to come up with a plan for our region. The result was a local action plan for preventing, recovering, and recycling food waste that fits in with the regional goal of reducing total waste going to landfill by 33% by 2020. The first focus was paper; now the spotlight is on food, according to Weiss.

Since that meeting, the Cincinnati region was selected as a pilot place for the national Save the Food campaign, a public service program developed by the NRDC and the Ad Council that raises consumer awareness and provides resources for preventing food waste. Green Umbrella also secured $200,000 in grant funding to support refrigeration of local food and other food recovery projects.

Green Umbrella has earmarked some of that grant money toward a “sharing table” pilot program for local schools. A sharing table is a place where kids can place whole, unopened food for other kids to eat. What’s not eaten can then go home in backpack programs or be donated to food pantries. “We want to hear from parents and teachers who are interested in bringing this to their schools because they can be the best advocates,” Weiss says.

Another piece of the puzzle is composting. Backyard and home composting is popular, according to the Recycling and Solid Waste District, but there are currently few options here for large cafeterias or restaurants that want to compost their food waste. A company is working on putting pieces in place to open an anaerobic digestion facility—which can break down large quantities of organic waste into biogas that can be used to generate electricity. Weiss says that operation is at least two years away, if it indeed happens.

Feeding the Need
The Cincinnati region’s biggest food waste success story to date is Suzy DeYoung. DeYoung owned a thriving catering company for two decades, but one thing kept gnawing at her: the waste that was left after a big job. “I would spend a good part of my Sunday thinking about who I could give the extra food to,” she says.

In 2014, DeYoung sold her stake in the catering business and opened LaSoupe, a French roadside “soup shack” that rescues produce from grocery stores, farms, bakeries, and distributors. She uses this would-be waste to make nourishing soups and meals that are distributed to food-insecure families through food pantries, schools, and other programs. She also dispatches some of that rescued food out to her “Bucket Brigade” of chefs at some of the city’s top restaurants, where they make soups and send them back for distribution. Salazar, Maribelle’s Eat+Drink, Orchids at Palm Court, Metropole, and Bouquet are among the participants.

“When I started in 2014, I thought I understood the problem. But I had no idea of the quality, quantity, and variety of food going to the landfill,” DeYoung says. “When people see the food we are picking up, they understand there is absolutely nothing wrong with the produce. When you get this food to chefs, they are amazed at the quality.”

In 2016 and 2017, La Soupe rescued more than 395,000 pounds of food and provided more than 405,000 servings to hungry Cincinnatians. More than 300 volunteers shepherd the food where it needs to go and keep the community-wide soup kitchen humming. Even so, DeYoung says there’s so much more to be done. She is working on expanding to a larger location where she can open a storefront with a teaching kitchen and a “produce bodega” that sells rescued food at reduced prices.

The Biggest Hurdle
While there are many more measures that could tighten up losses in the food system, there’s one more stubborn obstacle that’s going to be harder to overcome: our own mindsets.

The largest chunk of our country’s wasted food pie—43%—happens in slow, steady drips from households like yours and mine. A bag of lettuce shrivels, casserole leftovers are forgotten, the last banana goes brown. We make too much food for dinner parties, and our kids rarely finish their milk. Our lives are busy, food is relatively cheap, and we lack the time, motivation, or knowledge to plug up the leaky faucet.

The good news is that awareness of the overall food waste problem is rising. A 2017 survey by the NRDC found that 54% of Americans strongly agree that food waste is a big problem in the U.S. But get this: Most people don’t think they are part of the problem. Consumer surveys have consistently shown that roughly three-quarters of people think they throw away less food than the average American, which would be statistically impossible. When it comes to wasting food, the mantra seems to be, “It’s not me, it’s you.”

If we’re going to reach meaningful change on this issue, we all need to get our kitchens in order.

So how do we do that? “There’s no one solution,” says Stephanie Michalak, chef and culinary manager at Turner Farm. “It’s figuring out what works out for you and your family.” The starting point: Understand what you’re actually throwing away. (This is a fun project for kids. Put them in charge of tracking your family’s waste for a week, then use the results to brainstorm a few changes you all can make together.)

If no one likes to eat dinner leftovers, then work on cooking smaller portions. Are salad greens always going bad? Buy smaller quantities or buy hardier veggies that will last longer. Is bread constantly going moldy? Freeze half the loaf when you unpack your shopping bags. A few small habit changes can make a difference.

When she teaches cooking classes at Turner Farm, Michalak talks about freezing vegetable scraps and chicken bones to make stocks. She encourages home cooks to use as much of a vegetable as possible, like the tops and bottoms of peppers, or to make breadcrumbs or bread pudding with bread heels. In her own kitchen, she’ll turn leftover quinoa or rice into fried rice, or purée leftover beans into a hummus. “If I have odds and ends, I sauté them all and put a fried egg on top,” she says.

“There are creative ways to use things so they’re not wasted, but it takes feeling comfortable in a kitchen,” she continues. “A lot of us don’t feel comfortable playing with our food. That’s why I try to focus on concepts rather than recipes.”

One of the biggest tips food waste experts have is to be more mindful about meal planning and shopping. Because we’re terrible at predicting what we’ll want to eat in the future, only buy what you’ll realistically use in the next few days. (For more tips, see the sidebar at right.)

It may sound like a stretch, but buying from a local farmer or trying your hand at growing your own food can also be an eye-opener. If you or someone you see every Saturday puts blood, sweat, and tears into producing a crop of carrots or tomatoes, you’ll try much harder to make sure none of it ends up in the trash.

“Hopefully more people will be interested in food waste as time goes on because it matters,” Michalak says. “We only have one Earth, and if we’re abusing it, which we are, it’s not going to go so well.”

Amy is a freelance writer and content strategist with an interest in sustainability, food, and wellness. After 12 years of apartment living in Brooklyn, NY, she's enjoying having space to learn how to grow food in a community garden plot here in Cincinnati. She blogs regularly about sustainability for the nonprofit Sustainable America.