Food Waste Reduction Challenge – Let’s Eat the Food We Buy

Would you toss a $10 bill in your garbage can every week? Probably not, yet millions of Americans spend that and more buying food and later throwing it away. 1

Growing crops and raising animals for food requires a massive amount of land, water, and energy, so does the harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, storing, selling, preparing, and disposing of it. Food loss and waste occur during every phase of food production and consumption including on farms, at processing plants, on the road, at stores and restaurants, and in our homes.

Crops Being Watered by Sprinklers

In 2012, 34.7 millions of tons of food ended up in U.S. landfills. At 21.1%, food made up the largest category of waste by weight. 2

When we fill up landfills with food instead of filling up people, we squander all the resources that went into producing it, waste its valuable nutrition, and throw away a huge amount of money.

It is up to each one of us to do our part in reducing food waste and we can begin today by figuring out how to stop wasting food in our own households.

Why Do People Waste Food?

If asked directly, I expect most if not all people would say they do not purposefully waste food; however, an enormous amount of food is indeed wasted. This is a case of saying one thing and doing another. Clearly, our society views wasting food as an acceptable and perhaps unavoidable practice. I believe this is the root of the problem.

As you push your shopping cart around the grocery store or wander through the farmer’s market, I doubt you are thinking, “I wonder what food I can buy that I won’t eat and will eventually throw in the trash.” I believe we intend to eat the food we buy, but we chronically overbuy, prepare too much food, and are overly optimistic about what our family members or we will and can actually eat.

Woman Scraping Uneaten Food off Plate into Garbage Can

Extra food finds its way into our shopping carts. We grab a bunch of kale because we know we should eat it (even though we hate kale), we load up on hamburger because it is on sale (but forget to freeze part of it when we get home), or we pick up a baguette on the way to the checkout stand (adding it to the two loaves of bread already in the cart).

We do not want to run short of food at meals so we make extra, especially on special occasions when we anticipate people will want seconds or even thirds. At the end of meals, we scrape uneaten food into the garbage disposal or kitchen trash, and the un-served food either follows or is spooned into leftover containers and put in the fridge in hopes that someone else will come along and eat it.

Be honest, does any of this sound familiar?

Our Food Waste Reduction Challenge

Fortunately, my spouse is a dedicated leftovers eater, but we still waste food. A few days ago, I snapped some photos of food waste around our kitchen and later my spouse and I discussed how to avoid wasting food like this in the future.

Oranges

Plate of Oranges with One Spoiled OrangeLast week, we bought a 5-pound bag of oranges at the farmer’s market. The grower does not spray the oranges with chemicals to extend their shelf life, which we appreciate, but the oranges began to spoil before we could eat them all. This is not the first time this has occurred. Our supposed savings for buying in bulk vanish when we end up putting rotten oranges in our composter.

We could start squeezing some of the oranges for juice, but we do not do that now and are unlikely to start. We decided to keep it simple and buy fewer oranges (duh).

Fresh Herbs

We enjoy cooking with fresh herbs but it is difficult to use them up before they dry out or spoil. Sometimes smaller bunches of herbs are available in plastic cartons but that seems more wasteful than wilted herbs ending up in the compost pail.

We could grow our own herbs and cut what we need, but honestly, we are not going to do that. Not buying fresh herbs seems too drastic. We decided to avoid buying fresh herbs sold in plastic cartons and redouble our efforts to use the herbs we do buy.

Salad Dressing

Open Hardly Used Salad DressingsIt was actually my salad dressing collection that prompted this post.

Several months ago in a quest to expand my salad dressing horizons, I bought a new flavor. It was okay but I did not really like it so I bought another bottle, then another and another. As I surveyed these open hardly used bottles, I realized this was a wasteful and costly practice. Technically, my salad dressing collection is not food waste yet, but it would be eventually.

We decided not to buy another bottle of salad dressing until we use all the bottles we currently have on hand, probably not on salads, but in marinades, sauces, and anything else we can dream up.

To make it fun, we will put a $5 bill in a jar on our kitchen counter every time we use up an old bottle of salad dressing. When it is all gone, we will treat ourselves with the money we saved.

Try Your Own Food Waste Reduction Challenge

Games are popular with people of every age and nowadays workplace learning is undergoing gamification in many companies. I believe games can be an effective way to help people learn and change their behavior by making it fun.

Whether you have kids at home or not, or live on your own, identifying and reducing food waste in your home can be educational and fun. Here are a couple of thought starters to get your creative juices flowing.

Food Waste Survey Game

Pink Piggy Bank on Top of Stack of CoinsObjective: to learn what food you throw away and how much it is worth.

Game Play: record each food item you dispose of for a month (a minimum of two weeks if you cannot hack a month). Do not include plate scrapings, but do include leftovers you throw out. At the end of the month, tally the cost of the discarded food by estimating or using receipts. Place that amount in cash and coins in a jar on the kitchen counter and let it sit there for at least two weeks, then donate it to a food bank.

Food Waste Reduction Game

Objective: to reduce food waste in your home and learn how much money you can save.

Game Play: place an empty bowl in a prominent location on the kitchen counter. Find something to use as markers, such as poker chips, pennies, or elbow macaroni and place a hundred or so in a jar (add more later, if needed). Determine the value of the marker; say $0.50, $1.00, or whatever works for you. Each time someone eats leftovers, or crackers from the open box or a piece of produce on the edge of spoiling, put a marker in the bowl (it may be useful to determine ‘acceptable’ actions ahead of time). At the end of the month, count the markers and decide what to do with the money you saved.

Do you have an idea for a food waste reduction game? Share it with other readers in the comments section.

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References

  1. NRDC – Saving Leftovers Saves Money and Resources, last revised 2014/11/19
  2. U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012, February 2014

Resources

Chocolate Dipped Strawberries – Delicious or Destructive?

Chocolate Dipped StrawberryIf you received a beribboned box filled with chocolate dipped strawberries, would your first reaction be “delicious” or “destructive”?

Ten or maybe even five years ago, I would have said, “Wow, they look delicious”, as I grabbed one and bit into it. Now, well, it’s complicated.

The Mystery Box Arrives

Last Thursday, as my spouse slowed the car at the end of the steep L-shaped driveway we share with our neighbors, I looked out the passenger side window and spotted a box on the block wall.

“Look, the UPS guy left a package at the end of the driveway again.”

Sighing, my spouse replied, “That’s two in a row, I’m gonna have to call UPS and complain. I’ll get the box when I bring down the trash cans.”

The Mystery Box Contents are Revealed

Later, I was sitting in the living room reading Search Engine Optimization for Dummies when I heard my spouse laugh in the kitchen and then say, “You’re not going to like this.”

Curious, I asked, “I’m not going to like what?”

12 Chocolate Dipped Strawberries in Gift BoxI looked up as my spouse walked into the living room carrying a small box with a dozen large chocolate dipped strawberries in one hand and the shipping container in the other.

The first words out of my mouth were, “You’ve got to be kidding me, all that paper and plastic for 12 strawberries. Who sent them?”

The enclosed card indicated the strawberries were a thank you gift from business associates of my spouse.

Treehugger versus Chocolate Dipped Strawberries

In the old days, I would likely have thought the strawberries looked tasty and perhaps wondered how much they cost.

What a difference a few years makes. The strawberries did look delicious but conflicting thoughts and questions flew around my mind. I was fascinated and repelled at the same time. I put down my book, grabbed the proffered boxes, and went in search of my iPhone.

I examined each bit of packaging, searched the company’s website for information, and snapped photos with my phone. Below is what I observed and learned about the seemingly simple gift of chocolate dipped strawberries.

  • Packaging for 12 Chocolate Dipped StrawberriesThe cardboard shipping container was large compared to the gift box. Apparently the plastic covered foam inserts and additional cardboard inside were to keep the strawberries cool and prevent the gift box from rattling around.
  • The gift box came with a paper card, promotional flyer, and nutrition facts. I idly wondered what materials were used in the white satin ribbon wrapped around the box.
  • Inside the gift box, under another piece of plastic wrapped foam, a dozen oversized chocolate covered strawberries lay nestled in individual compartments of a non-recyclable plastic tray, each on a plastic-backed paper doily. Little plastic feet under the tray on one side tilted the strawberries at an attractive display angle, aided by more foam padding. Everything was bit sticky.
  • The nutrition insert informed me each strawberry was approximately 170 calories (about the same as a small candy bar).
  • I read the list of ingredients to my spouse, “strawberries, sugar, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, cocoa (processed with potassium carbonate), mono and diglyceride and soya lecithin emulsifiers, salt, milk, natural and artificial flavor, pure vanilla, vanillin (an artificial flavor), semisweet chocolate (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, dextrose), almonds”.
  • By checking the company website, I learned the strawberries were shipped from San Diego, CA which is about 400 or so miles from our house. Thank goodness they weren’t shipped thousands of miles across the country.
  • Where the giant strawberries were grown or how far they had traveled before reaching the manufacturer remains a mystery.
  • By looking on the company website, I estimated my spouse’s box of 12 strawberries cost in the neighborhood of $2.50 to $4.00 each.

We decided we were honor-bound to eat the exorbitantly expensive chocolate dipped calorie laden strawberries so their sizable carbon footprint wouldn’t be completely wasted.

I selected a milk chocolate covered strawberry from the gift box and my spouse a dark chocolate version. Upon biting into the strawberry, the chocolate instantly cracked and started to fall off so I leaned over the sink to eat it. The strawberry had an unpleasant sour chemical undertone and the chocolate was so-so. It was a disappointing sticky experience certainly not worth the calories. My spouse felt the same.

After eating a few more, we consigned the remaining strawberries to the backyard composter.

Think before You Gift

When I consider the resources, energy, and water used and waste generated to grow, process, and transport 12 chocolate dipped strawberries, that didn’t even taste good, it makes me cringe.

I’m not against giving and receiving gifts, even frivolous or decadent ones. But I believe gifts like the chocolate dipped strawberries my spouse received are incongruent with the world we live in today.

Homemade Ginger Snap CookiesWe need to rethink gift giving. Homemade cookies shipped in a simple box or chocolate dipped strawberries grown and given locally are a step in the right direction.

The next time you’re considering giving a gift, pause, consider the recipient and our planet, and then decide.

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