USDA and EPA Launch U.S. Food Waste Challenge

By Analiese Paik

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced that it has, in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, calling on others across the food chain—including producer groups, processors, manufacturers, retailers, communities, and other government agencies − to join the effort to reduce, recover, and recycle food waste.

According to the release, the goal of the U.S. Food Waste Challenge is to lead a fundamental shift in how we think about and manage food and food waste in this country. The Challenge includes a goal to have 400 partner organizations by 2015 and 1,000 by 2020.

We consumers can and have to do our bit too! The USDA cited this statistic, one that you’ve heard from me before: Food waste in the United States is estimated at roughly between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply.  In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food from U.S. retail food stores, restaurants, and homes never made it into people’s stomachs. The amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants was valued at almost $390 per U.S. consumer in 2008, more than an average month’s worth of food expenditures.

My immediate contribution to the US Food Waste Challenge is sharing ways to cut down on your own personal food waste while saving money. This is a reprint of an article dedicated to the topic that I published in October, 2012, 10 Ways to Reduce Food Waste and Save Money.

Nearly 40 percent of the food grown in this country is wasted every day. That figure includes everything from surplus and imperfect food left to rot in farmers’ fields, to damaged food thrown out by stores and restaurants, to the food that goes bad sitting in your refrigerator. A large percentage of food is wasted at the consumer level – an estimated 254 pounds per person each year. With a few simple, money-saving changes in how you purchase, store and consume food, you’ll be well on your way to wasting less.

Why is reducing waste important? The price you pay for food is a fraction of the value of what’s being wasted. When we stop to consider all the energy and natural resource inputs along the way – fossil fuels used on farms and during transport, packaging materials, water used to irrigate the fields and fertilizers to enrich the soil – it becomes clear that tremendous time and resources have gone into the production of our food. All that is wasted when food is wasted.

And it’s more than just waste. When you throw food in the garbage, it winds up in a landfill where it cannot decompose. Instead, it emits methane gas, a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change. With a few new food management rules in your house, you can become part of the solution to food waste. Choose at least one action item from this money-saving list of 10 Ways to Reduce Food Waste today to get started in your own personal Food Waste Challenge.

  1. Buy less to avoid buying more than you need. Bulk fruit and vegetable purchases should be avoided unless you have a plan to use them within a few days. I’m thinking of those bags of lemons and limes that are such a tempting value, but typically go moldy.
  2. Make sure food is properly stored in your refrigerator. Leafy greens should be wrapped in plastic to avoid wilt. Herbs should be stored upright in a jar with their feet wet and heads covered (water in the jar and a plastic bag on top). Fish, poultry and meat should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator (bottom) – not the side doors or pull out drawers unless designated as such by the manufacturer. Before freezing food, make sure it’s well chilled. Overstuffing the refrigerator prohibits air circulation and leads to food spoilage.
  3. Prep fresh fruit and vegetables to make them into convenience foods. Cut up melon and other fruit and store in glass containers for easy use in hot and cold cereals, yogurt, and as a snack. Peel and cut carrots into batons for snacking and dipping, then wrap in damp paper towels and store in a glass container. Moisten paper towel as necessary to prevent carrots from drying out.
  4. Eat down your refrigerator and freezer before buying more. Does the sight of an almost empty refrigerator scare you? Challenge yourself to make a meal using what little you have. I keep Asian noodles and dried seaweed in the pantry and organic miso paste in the fridge (lasts almost indefinitely) to make miso soup with any vegetables and protein I have on hand. Dried mushrooms also make a fantastic instant broth to use as a soup base.
  5. Make “Use it or Freeze It” your mantra and use your freezer to save food for another day. Uncooked vegetables can be chopped, blanched, shocked in cold water, spun dry and frozen for convenient future use. Dark leafy greens are excellent candidates. Squash can be peeled, cubed and frozen raw.
  6. Ignore “best if used by”, and “use by” dates on food. They are not a reflection of food safety, rather optimal freshness and therefore flavor and quality. Tip: Make it a habit to keep foods with the shortest shelf life at eye level and have a plan to use them. Leftover cream? Make a caramel sauce that will keep much longer than the leftover cream. Chocolate ganache, made with chocolate and cream, can be frozen and defrosted for frosting your next birthday cake.
  7. If you know you’re going away or otherwise won’t be eating at home for an extended period, don’t set yourself up for a refrigerator clean out when you return. Give away or freeze all fresh vegetables and fruits and freeze all meats when planning to be away from home for a few days or more.
  8. Declare “Clean Out the Refrigerator Night” once a week to eat all the leftovers and rescue what’s about to go bad. Consider it a night off from cooking a full dinner! Don’t forget to check in the freezer to see what you stashed there last week.
  9. Start a compost pile in your backyard. Collect your egg shells, coffee grinds, vegetable and fruit peels, corn cobs and husks and any other raw plant matter in a kitchen composting pail. Each day, when the garbage is taken out, toss the food waste in your compost pile. Cover it with grass clippings and leaves regularly to complete the “recipe” for making compost. Over a few months’ time, they’ll decompose with the help of worms and turn into compost – gardener’s gold. You won’t need to buy compost when you start your organic garden! Visit Rodale’s web site for some expert composting advice.
  10. Order less when eating out to avoid leftovers or ask for a doggy bag. If you’re going to an event after dinner, pack a cooler in the car to ensure the food is stored safely.

The choices we make three times a day have a profound impact on our health and the environment, so eat smart and eat green!

As part of its contribution to the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, USDA is initiating a wide range of activities including activities to reduce waste in the school meals program, educate consumers about food waste and food storage, and develop new technologies to reduce food waste.

USDA will also work with industry to increase donations from imported produce that does not meet quality standards, streamline procedures for donating wholesome misbranded meat and poultry products, update U.S. food loss estimates at the retail level, and pilot-test a meat-composting program to reduce the amount of meat being sent to landfills from food safety inspection labs.

Through its Food Recovery Challenge, EPA will provide U.S. Food Waste Challenge participants with the opportunity to access data management software and technical assistance ( www.epa.gov/smm/foodrecovery/) to help them quantify and improve their sustainable food management practices.

To join the Challenge and learn more about USDA’s activities and the activities of those who have already joined, visit: www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/index.htm.

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