“The best thing we can do with food is to eat and enjoy it–not waste it.”
This is the message Tristram Stuart delivers in his TED Talk about food waste. His presentation and the fact that more people are at home cooking during the COVID outbreak put me to thinking a lot more about food waste lately. I want to share some stories and encourage everyone to appreciate food more by wasting less.
Lessons on Food Waste
Growing up on a farm, we wasted very little food. We had pigs, chickens, and compost to feed our waste. As a child, I slopped the animals. I watched my dad delight at the steam coming off the compost pile in the winter. Over the years through the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been, I’ve learned a lot more about how to enjoy and fully use food.
1. Ecuador: I remember watching my host mother, Margarita, crack and egg and wipe the whites out of the shell with her finger to get every last bit. I remember thinking how much sense that made–it shows respect for the value of the food and it is cleaner than dragging strings of egg white across your counter. But I wondered: why have I never seen someone do this before?
2. Other kitchens: After every meal preparation, my friend Rossi would gather up all the naked rosemary stalks, celery tops, potato peelings, bones, shrimp peelings and other things I would put in the compost or trash. He would zip it all into a bag and pop it in the freezer. During the weekend he would use these scraps to make stock. Only after squeezing every last nutrient and flavor molecule out of the scraps would he compost them. Again, I thought, why have I never seen this before?
3. Foods we look down on: When you travel outside your country, you see that in many places other folks eat with less waste. People in the US often look down on the food culture of other people, but as omnivores, our extreme squeamishness about some foods seems silly. In travel I’ve seen whole fish served with the head on–people eat the eyeball and cheek meat first because they are the most tender. Margarita cooked dishes with every kind of organ meat–tongue, pancreas, liver, heart–to show me I had prissy food assumptions. I have learned I like broiled beef tongue and pancreas stew. I learned from rancher friends Andrea and Tony Malmberg that “the heart is just another muscle” and barbecued it is amazing. (Unfortunately, I haven’t come to love liver yet, but I always save the beef livers from our beeves and find people who love liver. It is a real treat for them.)
4. Ashley’s Roadside Oranges: Last week local artist Ashley Barnes drove upon a pile of oranges that had fallen off a truck. Ashley is quite a cook and baker, so she collected them and took them home. Although they were past their prime, she peeled them, dried them and made orange powder for baking and cooking with. Where others saw trash, she saw an opportunity. I’m with Ashley. I am known to dodge traffic on Cabbage Hill for roadside potatoes and onions.
Why Food Waste Matters
Carbon emissions: When food goes into the garbage instead of nourishing you, animals, worms or compost, it “rots” anaerobically in the landfill. This means your wasted food produces methane gas which is among the worst of greenhouse gases–worse than CO2.
Land & Wildlife: When we reject imperfect food or waste it instead of eating it, more food has to be grown to feed us. We are deforesting the Amazon to grow soy and sugar cane. We are turning wild places into agricultural land and displacing plants and animals. This is not hyperbole–you can draw a line from food waste to food production–it is called supply and demand.
Wasted Effort: Our prim expectations for perfect looking food or our lack of imagination when it comes to using produce that is old or wilted is a problem. Think about the water, seed, effort, and time that made your food. Think about the farm workers bent over for long days picking your food. Think about animals who became our food. We can honor effort and life of our food by eating it and enjoying it rather than wasting it.
Tips to eat and enjoy more of your food
1. Embrace the imperfect foods
As a farmer bent over all day growing fresh, nutritious food I have a hard time with the expectation that it also look absolutely perfect. That’s not how plants grow! They don’t all ripen at the same size or shape. They sometimes look a little weird. My mom says, “use soft eyes” to appreciate and eat the uglier of the food. It is also better to assess food with your eyes than your hands–your handling creates damage that leads to more food waste at the market and grocery store.
2. Properly store your food
The fridge is dry and vegetables are alive! If they are a stock (celery) or have a way of taking up water (heads of lettuce, herbs), try storing them in a glass of water on the counter rather than in the fridge. Try mesh bags for things that usually get slimy. Otherwise, use your crisper–it is more humid and dryness is death to veggies.
3. Rescue sad veggies
If something goes limp, just cut off the root end and stick it in a glass of cool water to revive. For roots, fill a Tupperware with cool water and submerge. Stick it back in the fridge and they will perk up.
If they don’t refresh, well, that’s what stir fry is for.
4. Plan your meals
This is the best way to avoid needless trips to the store and food waste.
5. Triage your food before you start dinner
Maybe you’re planning on spaghetti, but before you start boiling water, triage your fridge. If you see broccoli going south, again, that’s what stir fry is for.
6. Use your scraps
Like Rossi, let’s save our scraps and make stock. Save your veg scraps, bones, and even shrimp peelings to make stocks and broths. Everything you cook is better cooked with stock. Here are some recipes for shrimp stock, beef stock, and vegetable stock. These are starting points so don’t buy anything. Use what you have.
7. Freeze ahead & after
Double your recipe and freeze quick meals. Are you tired of eating lentils? Freeze them and use later rather than overdosing on left overs. Most things freeze! Milk, rice, cheese, butter, whole bananas, soup, etc. Just leave head room for freezing expansion.
8. Preserve your food
Most food will preserve by pickling, canning, freezing or drying. Google it!
9. Make new products
My mom suggests searching for recipes for using avocado and peach skins for face masks and other skin products. (I’ll never forget the first time I saw a hippie in Eugene eat an avocado, flip the skin inside out, and rub his skin with it!)
10. Get chickens or worms
Most of our kitchen and farm food waste goes to making eggs. It is a magical thing. Worms are a good alternative if you can’t have hens. Order worms online or find the Red Wiggler Worm Ranch in Union to get started with a worm bin.
Not everyone can have chickens, plus they don’t eat citrus, avocado or onion peels. Try composting. Listen to this great podcast about how to get started in composting.
For more ideas on how to decrease your own food waste, here’s another enjoyable podcast.
Here’s to eating and enjoying our food more!
Your grateful farmer,