Food waste may not be the cause of the hour, but it is getting a lot of attention these days. A Place at the Table, both a documentary and a companion book about hunger in the United States, recently debuted to critical acclaim. A recent report by a CBS station in Los Angeles created quite a stir after showing a video from last year of 13,200 boxes of Girl Scout cookies being destroyed in a Riverside, Calif., warehouse that were later transported to a landfill; the practice apparently has been going on for years. And universities throughout the country have been holding workshops about food waste, designed to remind students living in dorms that they should only take as much food as they think they will eat.
Meanwhile, at least one city in America is starting to look at the environmental impact of throwing out food. Last month, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Staten Island will start recycling food waste this year. The idea behind the pilot program is that residents will leave food waste on the curb; it'll be picked up and taken to a city compost instead of landfills, where food waste is often buried and winds up becoming methane gas and contributing to global warming.
The statistics behind food waste are certainly eye-opening. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, based in England, recently released a report that contained a chilling statistic estimating that 30 to 50 percent of the food produced on the planet every year, about 1.2 to 2 billion tons, is thrown out before it reaches a human stomach. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in New York City, food waste costs the country $165 billion a year and takes up 25 percent of our freshwater supply to grow that food. What's really depressing is that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1 in 6 Americans don't have enough to eat.
But, of course, if the other 5 out of 6 Americans ate every morsel on their plates every time they ate, arguably, the ongoing obesity epidemic would be considerably worse, so eating everything—at least at each meal—is not necessarily the answer, either. Buying smarter to reduce the amount of excess food and organizing the refrigerator and pantry better to ensure you use food by its expiration date would help.
If you're worried about food waste and wondering how to slow it down in your home, consider these five strategies from experts:
1. Go to the grocery more. "More frequent, smaller shopping trips," advises Jonathan Bloom, author of the book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). Bloom says we often go wrong when we impulse-shop and load up our carts until they are overflowing. If you must stock up due to distance, or simply enjoy doing it, "it's vital to plan meals, make a detailed shopping list, and stick to that list," he says.
2. Upgrade your refrigerator. This isn't imperative and certainly isn't an endorsement; call it food for thought. Some companies are addressing consumers' concerns about wasted food by offering appliances or gadgetry that may help keep foods fresher longer.
For instance, BSH (Bosch and Siemens Household Appliances), one of the world's largest manufacturers of home appliances, claims its Bosch French door refrigerator with VitaFresh technology allows fruits and vegetables to remain fresh twice as long as they would in other refrigerators by utilizing an indirect cooling system, keeping the temperature at just above freezing, and having automatic humidity control in the drawers.
If you're not looking to spend a couple thousand dollars on a new refrigerator, Ozonator LLC, a company in Las Vegas, offers a small, battery-operated device for $39.95 that can be placed in the refrigerator and will, it says, safely and effectively neutralize harmful bacteria and mold, keeping food fresh for weeks. The company claims it will save the average family $2,200 in lost produce.
3. Internalize those food storage rules. If you really want to learn to store your food properly or better, there are a number of ideas one can commit to memory or write down and tape on the refrigerator. The California Milk Advisory Board says if you have a lot of butter, it can be stored in the freezer for up to six months (versus in the refrigerator for about four months). Freezing milk, in case you're wondering, isn't a good idea; it changes its texture and appearance. You could take an entire course on storing cheese, but if you have semi-hard and hard cheeses like cheddar and Gouda in your refrigerator, they should be wrapped in butcher, craft, or waxed paper or foil.
Speaking of cheese, one of the stranger suggestions comes from the Ozonator blog, which suggests spreading butter on the cut end of your cheese to prevent it from drying up and hardening: "This is especially effective with hard, wax-sealed cheeses, but it'll work with anything from cheddar to chèvre."
And when it comes to herbs and leafy greens, "they will keep much longer in the refrigerator if wrapped in a damp paper towel," says Elliott Prag, a chef instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute, a New York City-based culinary arts school. But remember, he says, to "check the paper towel daily and replace it if it dries out."
Prag adds that dry grains will remain fresher longer in the refrigerator, especially if they're in a place free of condensation.
4. Embrace leftovers. Susie Wolak, chef mentor at the Escoffier Online International Culinary Academy, headquartered in Hoffman Estates, Ill., says if you know you're likely to have leftovers, "start planning ahead what you'll be able to make. That beef roast from dinner can be slicked for barbecue beef sandwiches the next day. The ham dinner can be diced for ham-salad sandwiches the next day. The mashed potatoes can be made into dumplings by adding egg yolks and flour and rolled into small balls boiled and served with a marinara sauce."
Those who lack cooking skills and are more likely to be using Chef Boyardee may have to be even more creative—or just go with boring leftovers—but her point is well-taken. If you know what you're doing, you can do some pretty interesting things with your food. Wolak also points out that overripe bananas can be used to make banana bread, a stale loaf of bread makes good croutons, and that older baked goods can often be converted into bread puddings.
Prag says a lot of food scraps make good ingredients for vegetable, chicken, and meat stock: "Save clean skins and clean trimmings of squash, corn cobs, greens from the top of leeks, bones from roasted meats, frames from roasted turkeys and chickens, and stems from fresh herbs. All are great stock ingredients."
5. Research before you toss. There's a website for everything, even the question of whether you can hang onto those grapes just a little longer. Stilltasty.com and ShelfLifeAdvice.com are both dedicated to giving people educated guesses on how long it takes before food goes bad.
Of course, taking all these steps isn't easy. That's why so much food goes to waste and why so much of it wouldn't if we either shopped smarter or heeded one after-meal rule, says Bloom, who urges everyone to make the following their mantra: "Love your leftovers."
Corrected 03/07/13: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Natural Gourmet Institute.