How to Curb Food Waste, Holiday Style


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About 40 percent of the food produced in America is lost. Perfectly edible fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products either never make it off the farm, are tossed during their journey through the food chain or are simply thrown away at the end of a meal. This callous consumption (or lack thereof) wastes about $165 billion worth of food annually.

During the holiday season, the mindset of overabundance and a house full of dinner guests can lead to even more waste. The average family of four already throws away over $2,000 worth of food each year, so having a party plan can reduce your environmental impact as well as your bottom line.

We asked Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, why food waste in our country is so high and what we can do to help ourselves and others during the holiday season.

What aspect of food waste would we find most surprising?

I think people would be most startled by the estimate that 25 percent of the food we bring into our homes doesn't end up being used.

40 percent of all food in America isn't used, but it's easy to hear that and think that we have no connection to the problem. When you think of one in four items that you bought with your hard earned money being tossed away though, it brings it closer to home.

In what other ways is food wasted?

There's a tremendous amount of loss across the food chain for superficial reasons. Appearance trumps taste in the US, so if anything is blemished or the wrong shape, size or color, then it will probably be chucked.

The sheer level of abundance also leads to a lot of waste. There's an estimate that we produce two times the amount of calories we should consume. It's not terribly surprising that we're wasteful with our food when there's so much of it.

Is there food wasted during the production cycle of meat?

In terms of meat production, it's terribly inefficient use of natural resources; the oil and water that go into growing feed for livestock is squandered, considering that we waste as much food as we do. To me when we waste meat, that's the most callous form of food waste. If you're going to condone killing an animal to feed yourself, use the meat from that animal.

As the time for holiday gatherings approaches, what purchase decisions can we make to reduce our food waste footprint?

It's not always easy to estimate the right amount of food, but there's a whole lot of wiggle room between having enough and the amounts that many of us wind up serving.

When you're at the farmer's market or grocery store, take a step back and think about how many people will be coming over and how much the average person wants to eat. If you consider that 25 percent home waste figure and buy about 25 percent less than you planned, then you should be okay.

What choices can we make after our holiday dinner that will reduce food waste?

You have to either have a plan for using that food or you should distribute it. Send guests home with to-go packages, or see if a neighbor would love to have a slice of pie or some leftover mashed potatoes.

In terms of using leftovers, there are so many resources online and a real opportunity not only to flex your creativity but to save a buck or two. You've already spent the upfront cost for the food: why not try to turn it into another meal or two and stretch your budget?

The holidays are also a season of giving. Is there anything we can do to ensure that otherwise wasted food is given to the hungry?

A lot of people want to volunteer this time of year, and soup kitchens are just jam packed with volunteers. It might be more helpful to wait just a week or two. There are also plenty of food recovery and gleaning organizations who would love to have help collecting food donations around the holidays.

There are also a lot of canned food drives right now, so donating money instead lets that non-profit buy what they need - they're usually able to maximize that food dollar better anyway.

Your book, American Wasteland, came out in 2010. What developments have occurred around food waste since then?

There's been a lot happening in the UK and a groundswell of interest is starting here in the US. The American grocery industry has begun thinking about waste and working on studies and campaigns, so we'll see what comes of it.

Also encouraging is that a few states are planning to ban food waste from landfills, which will encourage composting. I think that's a wiser plan - considering food waste as a resource and hopefully treating it with more respect and care. I think that the attention on waste will also increase as food prices keep rising. Everyone - from individuals, to restaurants and supermarkets - will have to start thinking about how we can be wiser with our food supply.

Help your holiday favorites last longer with these helpful produce storage tips from Greenling: