May marks the opening of many Farmer’s Markets in our fair province! We do have some year round markets, but when all the markets come to life again, it opens the floodgates for tantalizing Spring veggies, new vendor creations, and fresh everything!
I’ve noticed that when I purchase local, fresh food, especially from producers I know personally, I tend to treat it with more reverence than imported grocery store food. It becomes even more precious if I’ve grown it myself. Does anyone else notice this?
Food should be about personal connection. We truly enjoy it more when there is an emotional connection with the people who grew or prepared it, the place it grew, or the people you share it with.
Growing food also takes time, effort, and resources. When we experience this first hand, by growing our own food or spending time on a farm, we begin to understand all of the resources that go into growing that bunch of carrots. Grocery store food is impersonal. When we buy food from a well stocked shelf in a store, especially when it comes from another country far away, that essential connection is lost.
I think, because of that, we treat it with less respect and are more likely to waste it.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this!
A Minimalist approach to food
No matter where my food comes from, I can confidently say that we waste very little, if any, food in our family. Whatever we don’t eat goes to either our chickens, our backyard compost, or the municipal green bin. At the end of the day, no food goes into the landfill bin. (Yes, we call our trash can a landfill bin instead of the garbage – mindset matters!)
I don’t know if I have a bit of French homemaker in me – or just good old Nova Scotian frugality and economy – but I take great pride in using every scrap of food to create nourishing meals. I’ve built up knowledge and skills in the kitchen, not ever wanting my small budget to keep me from enjoying good, nourishing food. (I’m fortunate my parents modeled cooking and gardening skills.)
I’ve always been resourceful, but I had some hoarder tendencies for a while that led to some food waste. I felt that by stocking my pantry, I would cut down on grocery store trips, save money by buying in bulk, and be prepared in an emergency. Hoarding food felt like security to me. But I was fooling myself, really, and wasting money and space, both physical and mental.
Buying only what you need or can reasonably use within a few weeks or months is a more minimalist approach.
We still have a freezer and buy and make things in bulk or batches – like local, organic meat, local farm fruit, garden veggies and things we make every year like tomato sauce and pesto. I’m just more realistic about what we actually use on a regular basis and more comfortable buying small quantities of things more often like spices, special baking ingredients, and fresh veggies.
Scarcity mindset vs true food insecurity
We often choose convenience over other perfectly viable options that require some effort – it’s a deeply ingrained and entitled habit. Do you ever open your fridge, freezer, and cupboards, stare at the jars, produce drawer, frozen meat, random bits of things and think “there’s nothing to eat!” I love to cook and I’m skilled in the kitchen, and I certainly feel that way sometimes (especially when I have hungry, growing kids nipping at my heels).*
My point is that we need to learn to view food differently if we’re going to stop wasting it. This scarcity mindset when we open our pantry needs to shift. Sometimes I view food as a magical portal to pleasure – aesthetic and sensory; but often, food is simply fuel, and the more nutrient dense, the better. It doesn’t have to be fancy or beautiful, or even delicious! But food should always be appreciated and valued.
True food poverty is one thing, and that is a very real issue here (1 in 5 Nova Scotians experience food insecurity!) – but many of us take our privilege for granted and place our values of convenience and comfort ahead of those issue. We throw things like organ meats and veggie scraps away when they could nourish us or someone else. Wasting food when other people are going hungry is just not acceptable.
I also just want to say that this is not intended to shame anyone. These habits and social issues have been built up from decades of a broken system – I believe that to dismantle it, we need to look at our habits and have difficult conversations so that we can make larger change happen.
One other thing I want to add is that my Instant Pot helped with that scarcity mindset – I can cook a frozen chicken in under an hour now, and beans from dried on the pantry shelf to creamy perfection in less than 30 minutes. This awesome (and energy efficient) technology helps our family make better food decisions every day. This is the one I have.
*Food preparation and even waste management are most definitely feminist issues as well, but that’s another post entirely. Feminist Food Scholarship intersecting with Food Waste studies is super interesting! I came across this paper from the University of Guelph: Waste management as foodwork: A feminist food studies approach to household food waste
Food Waste & Food Loss
An estimated one third of all food produced globally is either lost or wasted. Food loss happens when food is lost in the supply chain between producer and consumer – for example, pest-infested crops or improperly stored or handled food. Food waste happens when food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption is discarded – like imperfect produce, foods that are close to best before dates, or uneaten leftovers from households or restaurants.
“In an age where almost one billion people go hungry, this is unacceptable. Food loss and waste (FLW) represent a misuse of the labour, water, energy, land and other natural resources that went into producing it. Food embodies much more than what is on our plates. It is, therefore, important that we recognize, appreciate and respect the value of food.”
Most food waste and food loss takes place before it ever reaches the consumer.
While this may seem discouraging and disempowering, it is possible to influence change at the individual level. As consumers, we hold the power. Here are a few things we can do on the individual level:
- Educate ourselves on proper food handling, food storage, best before dates.
- Build habits into our lives that help reduce food waste (more below)
- Educate others by sharing information and skills
- Choose the less than perfect produce (or support a program that does)
- Buy food close to best-before dates if you know you can use it
The FAO of the UN predicts that we could feed every single chronically undernourished person on earth with the food that we throw away. Yikes – you can’t tell me the system is not broken!
Here are a few tips from my kitchen to yours, because shifting our household habits is a great place to begin.
When you buy local food directly from farmers and producers you know & trust. It reduces possible food loss by shortening the supply chain. When you have direct access to the people who grow or process your food, you can ask them yourself about their waste reduction practices and they are more likely to change their practices according to customer demand.
Everything makes so much more sense when it brought down to the local level! Food isn’t meant to be a big, complicated global system!
Buy only what you need
I used to be a bit of a hoarder when it came to food. I would buy huge bulk bags of grains, marked down produce for preserving, great food deals. I thought I was clever for buying in bulk, saving money, cutting down on trips to the store, and preserving food to use later. The truth was, however, that a lot of that food went to waste. Well, it still went to chickens or compost, but it didn’t exactly translate into the intended savings and someone else could have eaten it.
I wasn’t being realistic about my time or energy. I wasn’t being honest or compassionate towards myself, which just piled on the guilt and regret. I also wasn’t considering the importance of fresh food. The grains would sit there for months to a year and go bad; I would work so hard to prepare, portion, and freeze food, only to dump it in the green bin or compost a year later when I cleaned out the freezer.
Make compost soup
My mother-in-law calls this Touskie – which is short for “Tous-ce qu’il y a dans le Frigo” (Everything that’s in the fridge). Before grocery or market day, you survey the contents of your fridge and pantry shelves, and make a soup! Chop up veggies, a soft tomato, wilted celery, half an onion, some shriveled herbs, bits of meat, cheese rinds, small quantities of pasta, grains, or potatoes.
The results can be surprisingly good! Kids love it because they think eating garbage is hilarious.
Also, you can save up your veggie scraps from cooking and stash them in the freezer until you have enough to make veggie stock. And don’t throw out parmesan rinds – they make a delicious stock (here’s a recipe for parmesan rind broth).
My cousin Morgan wrote a song about making soup from scraps – check out this video of him performing his original song, Compost Soup.
Put a date on it
Label your leftovers! When I’m not sure how long something will last – like raw or cooked meat, half a tin of tomato paste, or buttercream icing – I look it up on Still Tasty. This is a great resource with guidelines on shelf life and food safety. I make my own best-before dates and use a sharpie and washi tape or masking tape or write right on a container lid. You could also have a notepad or whiteboard on your fridge with a list of leftovers and ingredients so that you remember what’s in there.
Also, before I shop for food, I do an inventory to see how many meals I can make with what I have, and then fill in the gaps. When I want to save money, I sometimes challenge myself to cook only from what I have for an entire week.
Meal plan and batch cook
It isn’t always easy to anticipate the weekly rhythm, especially when you throw kids into the mix. If planning out a whole week’s worth of meals seems daunting, try planning just 3 meals for the week and buy what you need for those. Likely the leftovers combined with pantry and freezer ingredients will make up a few more meals.
Working in restaurants taught me how to batch cook and use every bit of an ingredient. In small cafe businesses, where many decisions come down to cost, waste is a big no-no. I learned to peel and dice broccoli stems to use in tasty, crunchy salads; have a plan to use up the entirely of something before I opened it; and get creative about specials to use up perfectly good bits and bobs.
Once you learn how to batch cook and store things conveniently, its really easy. Like most things, it takes getting into a rhythm and prioritizing the things that are important to you.
I make bone broth weekly, out of roasted chicken or beef bones that I save in the freezer – its a staple. We often make big batches of hummus and freeze in portions. I also like to make a double batch of rice or potatoes when I’m preparing some for a meal, thinking ahead to the next day’s breakfast or lunch – breakfast grain bowls and fried rice are go-tos around here, which brings me to. . .
Eat your leftovers
We are a family who loves and embraces leftovers! From what I understand, not everyone feels the same way. When Mat worked full time away from home and I was home full-time, our lunches were almost always whatever we had for dinner the night before. We all got used to it. I do admit, I’m happy to make smaller suppers now, but I’m certain that it saved us money and definitely made life a bit easier.
If you find you have unappetizing leftovers that go bad in the fridge and get tossed, start making smaller dinners or eat your leftovers the next day.
Store food properly
Improper food storage leads to waste.
Store cut veggies in beeswax wrap, storage containers, or cut side down on a plate. I try to use an entire veggie in whatever I’m making so that I don’t end up with too many half eaten veggies and fruit as they are more likely to end up as food waste.
Pet peeve of mine? When someone uses most of a thing – like a can of coconut milk or a pepper – and leaves a small amount. If you’re using 3/4 of something and leaving a very small amount, either make a plan for those leftovers, or use it all up.
Clean your fridge
Sustainable Jane, who also manages the Zero Waste Nova Scotia Instagram account, has created some great content around this – she posts photos of her fridge before and after grocery day and opens up helpful conversations around food waste and food packaging. I’m not sure my fridge is quite as well organized as hers, but I do always know exactly what is in there, try my best to store things to minimize waste, and minimize plastic in my food shopping routine and food storage.
May 5 – 11, 2019 is International Composting Awareness week. I love composting and I really believe we need more education and community programs around it. Last week, I wrote an article for The Incredible Seed Company all about composting to raise awareness about food waste, climate change, and all the awesome benefits of making your own compost. You can read it here.
When food waste isn’t composted properly, it ends up in the landfill, where it rots and produces methane, with depletes the ozone layer and contributes to climate change. Whether its in your backyard, through your municipal program, or in a worm bin – learn how to compost your food scraps and divert them from the landfill.
Change on a larger scale
I will always believe in the power of the individual and grassroots led change. However, food waste and food insecurity are very big, complex issues and we need large-scale change and policy changes to address the whole problem.
When supermarkets, big agriculture, restaurants, hospitals, schools, day cares, etc make even small changes, the impact can be significant. I know many of you are really bothered by the waste you see in your workplaces, your children’s school cafeterias, and at events and conferences you attend.
I know I’m doing a good job at reducing food waste at home, but I know there is more to do and I would like to learn more about how I can help, so if you have a suggestion, please reach out.
Support Food Rescue programs
We have a few programs in Nova Scotia that tackle the issue of food waste, including Foods not Bombs, which uses leftovers from restaurants and individuals to make vegan soup to feed anyone who needs a meal. Another inspiring initiative is FOUND Forgotten Food, which is based in the Annapolis Valley.
FOUND collects ‘forgotten’ produce from farms, farmers’ markets, and local gardens, and donates to local food banks, community groups, and shelters, or sell fresh and preserved found food to local restaurants.
A few other local organizations working to reduce food waste through research and/or programs:
These groups work from the idea that food should feed people, not landfills – I couldn’t agree more.
Here are a few other interesting resources I discovered while researching this blog post:
5 Ways to Reduce Large Scale Food Waste – the info graphic above comes from this source
Sustainable Management of Food – “Wasted food is a growing problem in our modern society and an untapped opportunity.”
Food, Too Good to Waste: Implementation Guide and Toolkit – designed for households, with larger scale change in mind
How to Shop, Cook, and Eat in a Warming World – a neat interactive guide in the New York Times.