By Analiese Paik
I’m reading Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, which unabashedly describes environmental degradation as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity and our greatest sin.
Since we’re the ones to blame for the sad state of the earth, each of us must work towards solving the problems contributing to the destruction of our “common home.” “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet” The Pope wrote in the opening paragraphs of his letter. (Read the full letter here).
The sense of urgency and enormity of the problem communicated in this beautiful letter inspired me to share a few ways we can rise to the Papal challenge to change our ways and live more sustainably.
First, let’s recognize that we must dramatically change the lens through which we view food in order to shift our thinking and behaviors. Our food supply is so plentiful that we take it for granted and devalue it. Few, if any, of us have ever suffered from a shortage of food. On the contrary, food is so cheap and plentiful that we are more likely to be overweight and obese (and unhealthy as a result) than undernourished.
If we think of food as a precious gift of the Earth rather than a plentiful resource that can be wasted without consequence, we are more likely to value it, respect it and hold it dear. Why is reducing food waste so 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, refrigeration used to keep it fresh, plus the human labor used to move, store and display it – it becomes clear that tremendous time and resources have gone into the production of our food. All that is wasted when food is wasted.
Viewing food as something precious, and therefore not to be wasted, can recondition us to be more mindful and careful, and less inclined to overbuy, let our fruit wither and ferment on the counter, allow forgotten vegetables to slowly rot in the fridge, ignore frozen food until it becomes freezer burned, or cook more food before we’ve eaten up the leftovers. 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.
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.
Choose at least one action item from this money-saving list of 10 Ways to Reduce Food Waste today to get started, then continually adopt additional practices from the list to become waste free. Be sure to recycle all bags and packaging and choose local and organic food first. Travel with reusable bags and always pack a cooler in the car when heading out in the summer. You never know when you’ll have leftovers to keep cool.
- 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 and end up as garbage or expensive compost.
- 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.
- 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. Keep radish roots in water to keep them crisp.
- 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.
- 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. Berries can be frozen on cookie sheets, the bagged for future use.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.