News Article

The COVID Reality: Food Waste is More Than a Headline

Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, FAND

Over the years, we have heard more and more stories and facts about food waste but have they motivated us to change our ways? Suddenly, in March 2020, when pictures of farmers plowing fields of fresh vegetables or dumping tank loads of milk started to appear across the media channels, the reality of food waste was brought into full view. Even though the immediate and unanticipated disruption in our food system highlighted in the pictures was short term, the overall food waste situation is a long-term problem.

The statistics are real. It is estimated that every year from the farm to plate, we spend $218 billion growing, processing, transporting and disposing food that is never eaten. 1 It is the equivalent of 52 million tons of food sent to landfills, plus another 10 million tons that is discarded or left unharvested on farms1 adding up to an estimated 30-40% food waste annually. This is a reality that has not only been costly to our own household budgets but to our surrounding environment.

Get Serious About Our Food

Typically, when we hear the statement, “They are serious about their food,” it usually describes individuals that view eating as a top priority without contemplation of food availability or waste. Prior to the COVID pandemic, our habits often reflected that food was not viewed as a precious commodity by many, until the grocery shelves were bare. A study from Penn State validates this statement, noting that approximately 30% of the food purchased is wasted in a household, especially in households with higher incomes and healthier diets i.e., more fresh fruit and vegetables. By contrast, households with lower incomes and on government supplement programs averaged less than 10% of waste, which is related to less fresh produce and household size. 2 Regardless of income levels or purchasing habits, food waste is inevitable but we can and must do better. The impact of our food habits has a ripple effect beyond our kitchen. What we eat or don’t eat has far-reaching effects on the blueberry farmer in Maine or Peru to the rancher in Colorado or in your own town.

Time to Change Our Habits

If there are silver linings that emerge from the pandemic, perhaps one is the return to the kitchen and the appreciation of our food supply. While throwing away overripe bananas or slightly wilted greens previously without thought may have been routine, perhaps hitting the pause button before we toss is the new normal. By making a few changes in our own kitchens, we can make a world of difference. Where do we start?

  • Accept the facts. Be mindful that the negative economic and environmental consequences surrounding food waste are real.
  • Have a plan. Think about meal preparation in a one-week time frame rather than one day. Check the pantry, refrigerator and freezer for menu starters before you purchase additional food.
  • Balance short term i.e., fresh food purchases with personal need. When buying fresh produce consider household size and shopping intervals. A large container of spring greens is not a bargain if your two-person household cannot eat it in a week. Instead, rethink salad options that have a longer shelf life like arugula, kale or spinach along with red cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms and fruit options like apples, oranges and grapefruit.
  • View extra ingredients or leftovers as opportunities to be creative or freeze for later uses. For example, freeze overripe bananas for bread or smoothies; or extra cooked vegetables and meat for soup or casseroles. Use cooked rice and grains to create salad bowls. Freeze leftover portions of tomato paste, broth or minced herbs in ice cube trays for future meal preparations.The possibilities are endless!

Food waste is complicated and solutions are not easy but we all can work together, one family, one kitchen at a time.

1 ReFED Food Waste : ReFED | Rethink Food Waste https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton

2 The Shocking Amount of Food U.S. Households Waste Each Year, Forbes.com, January 26, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lanabandoim/2020/01/26/the-shocking-amount-of-food-us-households-waste-every-year/#2a430d737dc8

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