Food waste is a national problem — a global one, in fact, that adds to climate change — but the solution to it is local, and it begins in the home.
Consumers appreciate the importance of reducing food waste but often don’t understand their role in solving it, according to ReFED, a national network of business, nonprofit and government leaders committed to solving the $161 billion food waste problem in the U.S. The problem is so huge that the federal government has set a goal of reducing our food waste by 50% in the next 10 years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average family of four tosses two months’ worth of groceries in the trash every year. That’s a whopping $1,500 to $2,000 dent in the family budget, depending on the family’s meal plan and where they live.
Why do we waste so much food in our homes? Among the main drivers of preventable food waste at home are lack of awareness, poor storage, poor meal planning, confusion over date labels, impulse buying, and overbuying.
"It starts with awareness," said Sara Elnakib, a registered dietitian, educator, and food researcher in the Family and Community Health Sciences Department at Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Passaic County. “Just being aware of foods we have on hand and planning accordingly is one of the best ways to reduce food waste,” she said in an email. “Being aware of what's in our fridge and cupboard and having the discipline to use that first can be very effective.”
Proper food storage is key, Elnakib said. To keep perishables safe, set the fridge temperature at 40 degrees or lower and the freezer at 0 degrees. She suggests organizing your pantry and fridge by creating an “Eat Me First” section in the front for older foods.
“It is easy to waste food you can’t see,” she said. Some refrigerated foods that won’t be eaten within a few days can be frozen to extend shelf life; be sure to label and date foods for freezing. For advice on storing specific foods to preserve maximum freshness and quality, download the USDA’s FoodKeeper app to your mobile device or view it at foodsafety.gov.
Even if you are not super organized in the kitchen, a few simple steps can save you money and prevent food from winding up in landfills.
“Meal planning really makes a difference when you are grocery shopping,” said Joanne Kinsey, associate professor for Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Atlantic County. “Use a list, and shop with specific meals in mind to avoid overbuying. Visit the local farmer’s market where the produce is fresh, the quality is excellent, and you are not sidetracked by other items, like in a large grocery store,” she said by email. If you do overbuy, though, donating to food banks is a great way to share the wealth.
What to do with all those vegetable peelings? Start a backyard compost pile. You’ll keep garbage out of the landfill, end up with nutritious plant food for your garden and save money by not buying fertilizer.
Finally, there’s the issue of confusion over food label dates such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before,” which leads many Americans to occasionally throw away safe, edible food. For most foods, expiration dates have to do with food quality, not food safety. “We waste so much just because we think it's not safe,” Elnakib said. “The truth is, it might not be the best quality food as per the manufacturer, but it can be perfectly safe.”
Food waste is a growing problem, but as consumers we can be part of the solution. “As global citizens we all need to understand the issue of food waste and do our part to reduce it as much as possible. If everyone makes small changes in their homes, the impact on a grand scale can be significant,” Kinsey said.
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