As you probably already know from personal experience, fruits and vegetables account for 50 percent of the food that gets tossed in the trash globally. Personally speaking, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through an entire bag of salad mix, and there is a floundering spaghetti squash haunting my fridge as I write this. Naturally, I feel like shit about it. 925 million people on earth are starving, and yet it’s almost habit to buy foods that I know deep in my heart I will never get around to eating. But is there actually a correlation there? Is my food waste actually causing others to go hungry?
Probably not — but that doesn’t mean we should continue our farm-to-trashcan buying habits so freely.
In the U.S. specifically, 40 percent of all food is never eaten. Meanwhile, one in eight American families struggles with food insecurity. Beyond representing the cruel paradox of our country’s inequality, that food waste is detrimental to the environment. According to a 2017 report from the National Resources Defense Council, food represents the biggest portion of trash sent to landfills, at 22 percent. In landfills, food produces far more methane while decomposing than it would if it were properly composted. This methane is a significant contributor to planet-warming greenhouse gasses. In addition to wasting the food itself, uneaten food is also a waste of water, fuel and labor required to grow and transport it.
The problem isn’t simply that we buy too much food, it’s that we also don’t seem to know the difference between food that’s still edible and food that’s gone bad. In the NRDC’s survey of Denver, Nashville and New York City, they found that an estimated 68 percent of all food thrown out was still edible.
As you might expect, many of our big environmental issues are actually not the individual’s fault at all: Much of climate change is the result of pollution from large corporations — even when it comes to food waste, it would seem like restaurants, caterers, hotels and grocery stores are likely bigger contributors than your family of four. And sure, a restaurant might produce more food waste than your family alone. But cumulatively, households produce more food waste than any other sector. In cities like New York, households generate nearly twice as much food waste as restaurants, caterers, hotels and grocery stores combined.
So actually, yes, food waste is your responsibility.
Now that we’ve established that, what can the average person do?
The biggest thing would be to, you know, not buy so much food. The average four-person family spends $731 a month on food, and that’s just those who identified being on a “low-cost” meal plan. If 40 percent of that food goes straight to the trash each month, that’s $292 being trashed with it.
But the key to successfully buying, and thus wasting, less food is all about careful preparation. As such, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that everyone suffer through the process of meal planning. This includes tallying how many meals you’ll eat at home in a given week, the core ingredients for the meals your family enjoys, and combing through what you already have before doing more shopping.
Once you have the food, there are a few ways to ensure that it lasts longer or is more likely to be eaten. First, get a proper grip on the basics of food storage. This is especially important with meat, which can quickly become dangerous to consume if improperly stored. But there’s also a delicate art to storing fruits and veggies. Some do best at room temp, while some do better in the fridge. You might be more likely to actually consume your fruits and veggies if you wash and prep them as soon as you get home from the store, too.
Your biggest friend in preventing food waste, though, is your freezer. Frozen fruits and vegetables contain just as many nutrients as their fresh counterparts, sometimes even more. Same goes for meat. You can either buy these items already frozen, or freeze them yourself if you think you won’t get around to eating them fresh. Even if it’s already cooked, most foods will be perfectly fine if frozen and reheated later.
Often, we let food go to waste out of laziness. But ultimately, one solution is to actually be even lazier, and only buy frozen food. You might have to use your brain a bit and quit acting like a complete zombie at the grocery store, but you’ll probably save some money and feel less like a complete idiot. That’s a win-win, baby.