Food Waste Management
After every meal, my father would carefully and meticulously pick up each fallen crumb off the dining table with his fingertips. He would then make sure every morsel was eaten and nothing was left behind.
As a child, I did not think much of this habit until one day he finally decided to tell me why he did it. When he was growing up, he had suffered extreme hunger, which taught him to treasure even the tiniest bite. This way of valuing food has stuck with me even to this day.
When I first got married, asking my mother for her recipes required doing too much math. She regularly cooked for our family of six, and I needed to reduce her portions down to only my husband and me. As an amateur cook, I would end up making way more than needed and have too many leftovers. Sometimes, it would take us an entire week to finish one meal in order to avoid wasting any food.
Not only does wasting food go against our beliefs, it has many negative effects on the environment. Food waste is just what it sounds like: any food substance that is discarded—be it raw, cooked, solid, or liquid. It is the second largest category of municipal solid waste sent to landfills in America according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That is over 30 million tons of food waste a year! How are we as individuals contributing to this number and what can we do to reduce food wastage?
For starters, it is important to plan meals ahead. Grocery shopping should be done on a weekly basis, so fresh food is coming into the house regularly. This way, only a few meals are planned at a time, and there is not an abundance of food stored in the freezer or pantry. Often times, food items end up expiring or going bad from not being consumed. It is estimated that 25 to 40 percent of the food that is grown, processed, and transported in the United States never reaches the plate. Let us not add more to this statistic.
One of the first things I decided to avoid in my quest to minimize food waste was over-ordering my meat. Instead of getting the meat packaged in excess, I simply ordered the meat in half-pound bags. That way, whenever I cooked I did not overdo the amount of meat I needed. I also made sure to reorder every few weeks to reduce storage. Now as a family of five, we need a little more than half-pound portions of meat, but I do try to follow the same method. I try to keep our meat intake less and serve it with plenty of fresh vegetables, rice, pasta, or lentils.
However, when planning to host a party or an event, estimating how much food to serve can be a challenge. It is important not to go overboard. In the case of leftovers, independent fitness coach Amani Rimawi encourages her guests to foil up unfinished plates and take food home with them. “I try to make sure all my guests take seconds of everything,” says Rimawi, who lives in southern Indiana with her husband and three children. “If there is still quite a bit of food left over, then I have them pack food to-go.”
Rimawi also shares that after an event at her children’s school, leftover platters are taken to a local food shelter to prevent food wastage. “This gives the kids an opportunity to serve others as well as recognize and appreciate food as a blessing,” she says.
To ensure my own children avoid wasting food, I send healthy lunches from home with them, as hot lunches may not always include food they prefer or offer halal options. On the days they might not finish their homemade lunch at school, they make sure to finish it after school. Part of dinner planning the night before includes keeping next day lunches in mind. I try to make just enough so I can pack leftovers for the kids and my husband to take with them to school and work.
Sometimes, this may require being creative. Houston resident and fiction author Afshan Malik, 30, is a mother of four under the age of 7. She finds ways to make old foods look and taste new for her little ones.
“It’s all about ‘re-inventing,’” says Malik with a smile. “To keep things fresh and interesting, I will take our leftovers and make them into a casserole or rice dish. Sometimes I’m even able to make creative wraps and tacos out of old dishes. The kids eat them up happily, and we are able to avoid wasting food as a family.”
As for over ripe fruit or uneaten vegetables, juicing or making smoothies is always a great option. I keep over ripe fruits like bananas in the fridge or freezer and just pop them out and blend them with some almond milk to make a quick and easy dessert. I like to avoid sugary drinks, so I take any extra produce from the fridge and make healthy fresh juices for the family. Juicing has become a regular staple in our home. If anything is leftover, it is fun to make juiced ice pops or freeze smoothies-on-a-stick for enjoyment another day.
So what about food that is thrown away then? According to the Feeding America organization, when food waste decomposes in a landfill, it rots and generates a potent greenhouse gas called methane, which has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. One-third of all methane emissions in the United States come from landfills. Methane gas is produced in a landfill when the municipal solid waste buried in it does not receive oxygen.
To help reduce methane emissions, eleven-year-old Mariam Shaikh of Lisle, Illinois, suggests composting uneaten food and other organic or nature-made items instead of throwing them away. Her robotics team recently won the rookie award for their project on managing waste. One solution she found in her research was the use of composting. Unlike a landfill, a compost pile undergoes aerobic decomposition. By turning the pile or using worms and other living organisms, the pile is exposed to oxygen and produces carbon dioxide instead of methane. If the pile is taken care of properly, it will produce far less methane than a landfill.
“Food waste can be a valuable resource,” notes Shaikh. “By composting, we can really reduce the amount of garbage we throw away each day and lower the amount of methane going into the air,” says the fifth-grader and eldest of three.
Through her research, Shaikh learned about the San Francisco Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, which requires all local residents to separate their recyclables, compostable items, and landfill trash into bins for curb-side pickup. Mandated in 2011, it became the first local municipal ordinance in the United States to universally require source separation of all organic material, including food residuals. Today, San Francisco has saved 78 percent of its trash from landfills due to composting. This inspired Shaikh and her teammates, which includes her eight-year-old brother Yusuf, to start a petition to their local government to introduce a similar ordinance in Illinois. In 48 hours, they obtained over 500 signatures.
“The problem is that people don’t know how much damage they can do to the earth,” says Shaikh. “It’s important to educate ourselves and our community about our environment. Even as one person, I have learned I can make a difference and be part of the solution,” she says.
The EPA states that when food scraps are properly processed, they can generate renewable energy and feed animals. Composting food waste also produces a natural fertilizer, which can create healthier soil and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers. It does not require fancy equipment or expensive artificial additives to break down organic scraps and turn them into something useful. You can compost indoors or outdoors, using the resulting soil for your garden, potted plants, or simply your lawn.
Feeding America notes that some of the food waste generated in the United States is not waste at all, as it is safe to eat and actually nutritious. In these instances, it is suggested to donate to food banks and other anti-hunger organizations, keeping it out of landfills while helping those in need.
In the battle against food waste, there are simple and easy solutions we can learn to incorporate into our own homes. Food is a blessing which we must remember to always value. It is important to have mindfulness of the amount of food we waste and gain an understanding of the consequences that arise from trashing it. Even if the changes are small, they can make a big difference in the long-run to increase the longevity and sustainability of our environment, not only for us but for the generations that will come after us.
Don’t buy in bulk! When it comes to food, only buy what you need for the week.
Pack a sack lunch! Send your kids to school with a lunch containing only the foods you know they like and will eat.
Be creative with leftovers! If your family does not enjoy eating the same meal for dinner two nights in a row, turn night one leftovers into a completely new meal on night two.
Compost! Not sure how to get started? Visit www.howtocompost.org for more information.
Donate! Send any leftover food you have to a local food bank.
Tayyaba Syed is an award-winning author and journalist whose work has been featured in numerous publications, including NPR. She recently co-authored her first children’s book. She lives with her husband and three children in Illinois.