Recovering Food “Waste”: The Benefits to Putting Food Scraps to Work

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We’ve all been there; after a long week of work or school, we open the refrigerator to see what food we can prepare and we find week-old (or older) leftovers shoved in the back of the fridge that are “past their prime.” No one likes to throw away food, and on a national scale, food waste is one of the largest categories of waste going into landfills (21.6% of all municipal solid waste generated in the US in 2018, based on EPA estimates). Moreover, food waste rotting in landfills releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, exacerbating impacts of climate change. However, the food waste we generate as consumers is within our power to change, and we can develop more efficient strategies to shrink our food waste footprint. Today we will focus on ways to use food more efficiently and repurpose “lost food” to make a positive impact, and these tactics can be implemented in all parts of our community, whether at home, the office, community gardens, or larger institutions like school cafeterias.

Revamp your food purchasing and meal planning practices to reduce food waste.

By being more mindful of our food inventories and with a little proactive meal planning, we can be more effective with our food purchasing and use ingredients before they go bad; further, this can lead to cost savings, if you are consuming more of what you purchase. Carving out time each week to plan out meals and creating grocery lists based on these meals can help grocery shopping trips be more efficient by eliminating impulse purchases. Cooking in bulk and repurposing ingredients for different meals throughout the week will help reduce time spent in the kitchen and ensure leftovers are used. For example, you could cook several chicken breasts on a Sunday and use a portion to make chicken pasta one night and then chicken quesadillas the following day.

Being more vigilant of food quality while shopping and storing food appropriately can also help mitigate food waste. Avoid packaged or canned foods with tears or dents in the containers, which could compromise food quality and safety. Also check expiration dates and select products with the furthest date out to give you more time to use the food before its past its prime. For food storage, use tightly sealed containers and keep shelf-stable products in cool, dry places.

Preserve excess food for the future or share with food relief agencies.

If you will not be able to use the food you purchased before it goes bad, why not preserve it for later? Preserving food allows you to enjoy produce past its seasonal availability, such as serving butter beans from the garden for Thanksgiving dinner or using canned pumpkin to bake muffins in spring. There are various methods to preserve food, including freezing, drying, pressure and hot water canning, and more. You can also donate excess food to local food relief agencies to distribute them to those in need. Many food pantries accept produce donations from gardeners, farmers, gleaning agencies, even grocery stores! The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 provides protection for individuals who offer food donations to nonprofits feeding the food insecure, as long as they donate apparently wholesome food in good faith.

Turn kitchen scraps into human or plant food.

Did you know that we often throw away many parts of plants that are edible? For example, the green, leafy tops of carrots and beets can be eaten (and are delicious!), as well as watermelon rinds, squash seeds, broccoli stems, and more! Overripe bananas are great to use in smoothies or baked goods. Produce scraps like peels can also be used to make vegetable broth.

If food has reached the point of no return and is no longer safe to eat, composting is a great way to put your food waste to work to feed plants in your garden or home. Recovering Food WasteBy combining food scraps with yard trimmings, manure, and other organic materials in appropriate ratios and supplying adequate time and moisture, these waste items will become a valuable nutritional amendment for plants, increasing water retention of soils and improving yield of edible plants. Further, composting reduces the amount of methane released into the environment compared to food rotting in landfills. There are many types of composting bins available for purchase, and for a low-cost option you can just make a pile in your yard! You can even set up a vermicomposting system, which involves using earthworms to create higher quality compost with additional benefits for plants.

For more information on reducing and repurposing food waste at home and in other parts of the community, contact North Carolina Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.