By Ellen Edwards, Chair, Bronxville Green Committee
Jun. 3, 2020: It's a frequently cited statistic—in the U.S. we waste 40% of the food we produce.
Perhaps now that you're staying home and cooking more often, you've become aware of the food your own family wastes. And maybe you want to waste less to avoid another uncomfortable trip to the grocery store, and because you're aware of food scarcity in Westchester county.
Food scarcity has been a chronic concern in our area, and now, with so many people out of work, food insecurity has skyrocketed. Yet it's estimated that an average family of four wastes $1,500 a year in unused food.
Bedford2020, a community organization devoted to informing residents on environmental issues and offering programs to encourage the switch to clean energy, has been running a series of terrific Zoom presentations on food, energy, and gardening.
On May 11, Leslie Lampert, proprietor of Ladle of Love and the Scrappy Chef, and Martha Elder, Executive Director of Second Chance Foods, discussed the documentary "Just Eat It" and their work in food rescue.
Leslie Lampert offered advice for home cooks seeking tips on how to reduce their family's food waste.
She suggests some general meal planning before heading to the grocery store, but beyond that, the key is to learn to use whatever you have on hand. Treat recipes as a foundation and improvise madly.
Don't be afraid of ugly, seemingly over-ripe fruits and vegetables: just wash and use them. Once they're cooked, they'll look fine, and they'll taste even better because the ripening process will have intensified their flavors.
Leslie and Martha suggested ways to store items so they last longer:
-Wash lettuce when you get home and dry it thoroughly. Store it in bags with paper or linen towels to absorb any lingering moisture.
-Mushrooms store well in paper bags that absorb moisture. If you wash mushrooms instead of merely brushing them, wait until just before you're ready to use them.
-Never throw away old bread or buy commercially-prepared breadcrumbs. Instead, pulse dry bread for a few seconds in a food processor to make crumbs, then freeze them. You can also cut bread into small cubes, toss them with oil, and bake them in a hot oven to make long-lasting croutons. You can also use dry bread in savory or sweet bread puddings.
-When you buy hearts of celery or hearts of romaine, you're supporting a system in which half of those vegetables have been left in the farmer's field to rot. Instead, buy only whole celery bunches and heads of romaine. Save the less perfect bits to make stock.
-To make herbs last longer, put the stems in a vase of water in the refrigerator. (My tip: choose a vase with a sturdy base that won't tip over.)
-Whatever you can't use in time, freeze--either raw or cooked. Take bananas out of their skins before freezing them. I cook over-ripe fruit with a tiny bit of sugar to make a topping for plain yogurt.
Consider using food you never thought to use:
-When you've used all the pickles in a jar, rather than pouring the juice down the drain, add cucumber slices or spears to make your own light pickles.
-Use pickle or olive juice instead of vinegar to make a vinaigrette salad dressing.
-Save the ends of carrots, celery leaves, fennel fronds, and other bits and pieces of vegetables in a zip lock bag (in either the frig or freezer) and use them to make stock.
Most of all, when it's time for dinner, rather than ask, "What am I in the mood for?" ask, "What do I have in the pantry?"
The documentary "Just Eat It" suggests that a common mindset results in waste. Restaurants, banquet planners, and home hosts all tend to think that running out of food is the worst thing that can happen. Having "just enough" food is considered embarrassing.
So, we order far more than we need and end up tossing tons of leftovers. Can we begin to change this attitude? If we make wasting food a strong taboo, maybe "just enough" can become "the perfect amount."
Food waste also occurs because of confusion over labeling. The "sell by" date is intended only for manufacturers and store managers. Ignore it.
"Best used by" means that the food will retain its ultimate freshness until this date. It is perfectly good and safe to eat afterward. In fact, according to "Just Eat It," there are no federal regulations regarding sell-by dates for food. Only baby formula is governed by specific regulations.
The environmental impact of food waste is enormous, so reducing it is a gift to planet earth.
Think of all the resources that go into growing that orange you just tossed or the overripe tomato you forgot was in the crisper. That includes soil that's often "enhanced" with environmentally-detrimental pesticides and fertilizers. It includes gallons of water, often in areas where water is scarce. It requires fossil fuel to operate the vehicles that plant, harvest, and transport the food, often over thousands of miles. And it involves the labor of countless people, from the farm-laborer to the grocery store clerk. Of course, producing meat and dairy requires exponentially greater resources than are needed to raise grains, fruits, and vegetables.
It's been estimated that four percent of all U.S. energy consumption is lost in tossed food. In the U.S., a huge percentage of wasted food goes into landfills, where it produces harmful greenhouse gas methane. In Westchester, wasted food from our homes, combined with regular trash, is incinerated at a plant in Peekskill.
Perhaps, like me, you've felt heartsick over recent news stories of fields of produce being plowed under and gallons of milk being dumped. Many state and local organizations are working hard to reconnect our broken supply chains and bring food to where it's needed.
But well before this pandemic, our system was deeply flawed. Too much edible food is left in the field. Too much doesn't meet the standards of perfection set by an industry that's convinced consumers won't buy ugly fruits and vegetables.
Too much good food is tossed into dumpsters by grocery stores, and too much is lost in our homes. It's thrown away because it's past the "best used by" date, or because it's too much trouble to save left-overs, or simply because it's left on our plates.
In recent years, dedicated individuals and non-profits have tackled the huge challenge of reducing food waste by "rescuing" food from farms, grocery stores, restaurants, and other organizations and donating it to people who are food insecure. Volunteers "glean" fields of perfectly good produce for which there's no commercial market.
In addition, community gardens like Bronxville's own Giving Garden, which donate food to local food banks, have sprouted up all over Westchester. And collecting food scraps for composting has become popular, whether it's at a drop-off site such as Tuckahoe runs or curbside pick-up available in Scarsdale. Residents are filling up more and more bins with food scraps during this time of home cooking.
On March 9, just before the official shut-down, the Green Committee presented to the Bronxville Board of Trustees its proposal for a food scrap drop-off site. If you'd support such a program, please let our Village officials know.
Resources For More Information On This Topic:
Village of Bronxville: villageofbronxville.com/; under the "Government" tab, you can click on each trustee's name to open a space to leave a comment.
You can watch "Just Eat It" through the Westchester public library system's streaming service, Kanopy: www.kanopy.com
Second Chance Foods, Inc.: secondchancefoods.org/
Ladle of Love: ladleoflove.com/
Photos courtesy The Green Committee
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