When you’re tired, hungry and in a hurry, the grocery store is the last place you want to be. And yet it’s probably the place you need to be.
So you make the best of it. Apples? They’re healthy and five-pound bags are on special. Into the cart with them. Lettuce? Broccoli? Yes, must eat veggies. Plus burgers, and an 8-pack of buns – they're on sale. In they all go. To the checkout at last, stomach grumbling, and there’s a giant bag of chips for a low, low price, and hey, that’s a new flavor. Why not?
Zoo Quest teaches families about food waste
When Sidney Clark and his son William volunteered at the Oregon Zoo last summer, the impact of wasting food really hit home. As they helped visitors at Zoo Quest – a summer exhibit made up of interactive learning stations – they learned how the production and disposal of food can damage wildlife habitats and harm animals.
William is 11. His favorite activity was teaching Stellar Cover visitors about the impacts of livestock and dairy farming on sea stars. The Clarks also learned some valuable tips for reducing food waste at home.
“Did you know that you can freeze milk?” William says. “When you go on vacation, don’t throw your milk away. Put it in the freezer and it won’t go sour.”
“Properly storing food, especially fruits and vegetables, makes a huge difference in reducing waste,” says Sidney, adding, “I learned that we are all connected.”
It’s a recipe for waste.
20 percent of all the food Americans buy never gets eaten. “That’s like going to the store, leaving one of your five bags in the parking lot and driving away,” says Brian Stafki, senior program educator at Washington County. He helped develop the Eat Smart, Waste Less Challenge to help residents of Washington County, Beaverton and Gresham eat more of the food they buy.
It might seem obvious, but when life gets busy, sometimes it’s not.
Let’s unpack those hasty purchases: First the apples: Oops, there are still Granny Smiths in the fruit bowl. The greens? Into the crisper, but first remove last week’s greens, which got soggy when you ended up working overtime. You snack on chips while cooking the burgers, and the kids ate after soccer practice, so no one's hungry for a big meal. After dinner, the chips and unused buns go into the cupboard. Eventually stale and inedible, they follow the mushy apples, wilted greens and half-eaten burgers into the trash.
Wasted food wastes resources – and your hard-earned cash
Here in the Portland region, food accounts for nearly a fifth of all garbage going to the landfill. That includes food that could have been consumed, along with scraps like carrot peels, egg shells and chicken bones.
And that waste has a variety of impacts.
The food we buy at the store, Stafki points out, has made it all the way from seed to store, after having used valuable resources such as land to grow it and oil to transport it. It takes 660 gallons of water, for example, to produce a 1/3 pound hamburger.
In addition, when food decomposes in a landfill – where most of the Portland region’s garbage ends up – it creates methane, a powerful contributor to climate change. That’s a key reason some cities have introduced residential food scrap collection programs and why Metro is currently exploring ways to ensure that businesses keep more food out of the garbage.
Of course, tossing food also has very personal impacts – on the wallet. A family of four making small changes in the way they shop for, store and prepare food can save as much as $1,500 per year.
Tips for tossing less food
Pre-shop at home: Check to see what you have on hand – those Granny Smiths in the fruit bowl for example. Scan the refrigerator, freezer and cupboards.
Make a list with meals in mind: Be realistic. Will you have time to cook every day? If your week is likely to include take-out or frozen pizza, plan for those. That way you won’t be tossing wilted greens along with your good intentions. If it’s hard to plan meals for a whole week, try a shorter mid-week shopping trip – with a list, of course.
Don’t go to the store hungry: Sometimes cliches are true. A full stomach makes it easier to resist impulse buys.
Buy only what you need: Avoid pre-packaged produce and two-for-one deals. Look for loose fruits and veggies. And if those “buy more for less” deals are too good to pass up, have a plan for freezing or preserving the extras.
Shop the bulk bins: Get exactly the portions of beans, pasta, nuts or grains you need. It’s also useful for small quantities of spices.
Make the food you buy last as long as possible. For example, those mushy apples in the fruit bowl would have stayed crisp in the refrigerator. Potatoes and garlic keep best in a cool, dark cupboard, and bananas and winter squash on the table or counter.
Make an “Eat This First” section in your refrigerator: Label a container or designate one shelf for leftovers or items that need to be eaten soon.
Tips for storage in the refrigerator
Freeze food you won’t be able to eat soon: Chicken breasts you didn’t get to? Leftover hamburger buns? Freeze them now and pull them out in a later pre-shop instead of buying more.
Prep in advance: You’re more likely to eat your greens if they’re ready to go straight into the salad bowl or skillet. If you have time, cook several meals at once, or a bigger batch of a single recipe, and then freeze them for easy meals later.
Pay attention to what you throw away: Could it have been eaten? How much did it cost you? What can you do differently?
At the end of the day – or week – pretty much everyone is throwing out some food scraps, even it’s just apple cores and egg shells. If you live in a city that collects food scraps, be sure they get into the right bin. You might also consider backyard composting.
Check out Eat Smart Waste Less for more tips