Food Waste and Food Contamination

Food contamination is a big topic these days–and for good reason, with plenty of food recalls making the news.  While certainly concerning, the previous post pointed out that the food scares most often created by Big Food are then used by Big Food as a marketing gimmick.  Potential food safety threats are used to scare us into tossing perfectly fine food, so we must then spend extra dollars to replace it.

As always, balance is necessary here, which is why I was glad to see this post pop up in my email today:

Food Safety: What do Expiration Dates Really Mean?

This post, from Nutrition Action provides a sensible overview of food safety, starting with a quick explanation of all the dates you might find on a package.  In summary, “the vast majority of these dates are related to food quality, not food safety. For example, a product may taste, smell, or feel fresher if it’s eaten by the date on the package—but the date won’t reflect whether the food might be contaminated with bacteria.”

Read more about:

  1. What do all the different dates on a package mean, e.g., “sell by,” “use by,” and “best used by”
  2. What’s the most important factor affecting food safety (hint: the way the product has been handled, especially around refrigeration)
  3. How can you tell if a food has gone bad

Hope this helps you find the right balance between being safe but not getting needlessly sucked into wasting perfectly good food.

Waste Not, Want Not: How Ordinary Home Cooks Can Help Prevent World Hunger

Together a family of four pitches 1,656 pounds of food–the amount pictured here in the Food Waste display © AMNH/D. Finnin**

This is a blog about everyday meal making, so you’re likely wondering why an article on world hunger?  Because I have met and talked to most of the people on our newsletter list and I know they, like most people, really, have a deep concern for the plight of others.  Usually, it feels like there’s nothing we can do about big problems.  Happily, however, everyday meal making provides an opportunity to change the world.  Three times a day, seven days a week, we have a chance to make food choices that, e.g., lead to less food wasted so more food is available for those in need.  This Waste Not, Want Not series hopes to build awareness of these opportunities so we can exercise our power to effect change.

Those who have taken one of our healthy meal making classes will chuckle at the heading for this article.  For those who haven’t, I am known for hoarding the bits and scraps from our cooking adventures that most people would toss:

  • Are we making a salad with kale leaves?  Save the stems for making a soup!
  • Is the saute pan covered with the bits and pieces from browning chicken?  Deglaze it and save the juices for cooking carrots!
  • Broccoli on the menu?  Peel the tough stems and boil for a lovely puree!

While I admit to being a (lighthearted, I hope) miser, there is a heartbreakingly serious side to this waste not, want not quirk of mine:  Hunger.  It is fast increasing, even in our own country, the wealthiest in the world.  National Geographic recently profiled what hunger looks like in America:

“[T]he number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to 48 million by 2012–a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s. Privately run programs like food pantries and soup kitchens have mushroomed too. In 1980 there were a few hundred emergency food programs across the country; today there are 50,000. Finding food has become a central worry for millions of Americans. One in six reports running out of food at least once a year. In many European countries, by contrast, the number is closer to one in 20.”

AND YET. . . we waste 30% of our food supply!  Picture the groceries you buy each week.  Now imagine tossing a third of them in the trash can.  Wow.

In a previous post, I described the potato blight display at the Global Kitchen exhibit in Denver.  In addition to that display the exhibit featured another illustrating our food waste problem.

  • In the developing world, it explained, food waste occurs for lack of things like storage, refrigeration, distribution and technology.  E.g., there is a big crop of mangoes, but it can’t be refrigerated to spread out the harvest, can’t be widely distributed to more people in need and can’t be dried, canned or otherwise processed for year-round eating.
  • In the developed world, on the other hand, food waste occurs just because we are thoughtless and picky.  To begin with, each year every man, woman and child in the United States throws out 414 pounds of food at home, in stores and restaurants.  But even more food is lost on farms and in processing and transportation.  E.g., huge amounts of produce is discarded on farms and at stores simply because it isn’t quite pretty or fresh enough for the American consumer or has a few blemishes.**

Wow, again.

Certainly the food industry bears some responsibility for our quick-to-toss mentality.  It happily stokes our fears around food contamination:  A little wilting on the lettuce–pitch it and go buy more!  Asparagus been in the frig for six days–must be bad so go buy more!  Apple have a brown spot–get rid of it and go buy more!

Note the “go buy more” theme?  It is to the industry’s advantage to take advantage of food safety concerns.  Pitching a tomato with a bad spot means you run to the store for a replacement.  Ka-ching!

There is no question that food safety is important, but for goodness sake:

  • Old does not automatically equal inedible.  In asparagus season, it is sometimes 7 or 10 days before I can get to my last bunch and it is absolutely fine.
  • Wilted does not automatically equal inedible.  Our Monroe Organics CSA lettuce is often wilted after a long day from harvest through delivery and pick up, but as Jacquie Monroe always reminds us, dunk it in a bowl of cold water for a couple hours.  Presto it becomes just like new!
  • And mold does not automatically signify that an entire produce item has gone bad.  In tomato season,  have plenty of tomatoes that start to turn, but I cut off all of the bad spot (plus a margin of good tomato) and what’s left is fine.

Many of us were raised in the post WWII, “starving child in China” era.  Parents cajoled us to eat our peas because there were “so many starving children in China.”  I don’t know whether our parents truly cared about the kids in China or just needed a heavy moral stick to make us eat nasty canned peas.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before we wised up to the absurdity of it all.  How in the world could eating nasty canned peas in America save some kid in China?

So we proceeded to toss out the kid in China nonsense.  But we didn’t stop there.  As each ensuing decade brought an ever-increasing abundance of food, we continued pitching, ultimately abandoning centuries-old traditions of gratefully treasuring and carefully husbanding food.  In place of those traditions, we giddily created into a cool new credo that took food for granted, gave little respect to the miracle of abundance and thoughtlessly, almost wantonly, wasted.

And now each of us wastes 414 pounds of food a year, while our neighbors go hungry.

Apple and plum sauce made from the abundance of fruit in our Boulder area this year.

So as Food Day approaches, when we can reflect on our food consumption, am I suggesting a return to the starving child in China mentality?  Lick my plate clean and starving kids somewhere are magically spared from hunger for a day?   That does sound silly, but what if:

  1. On a tangible level, what if the money saved by not wasting food is directed to hunger organizations (and while food banks are great, I favor organizations that address the root causes of hunger.)
  2. On a less tangible level, what if each of us, by paying a little more attention to revering and deeply appreciating food, contribute to a shift in the cultural norm.  Embarrassing waste is no longer accepted and food is treasured.  I’m guessing that kind of culture would more quickly find and effectively implement the solutions that already exist to end hunger.

If you have any more thoughts, please share in the comment box below.

Autumn, the season of harvest abundance, is a perfect time to begin building awareness around food waste and cultivating reverence for the food miracles nature bestows, day after day, season after season.

If you’re ready to take action, there are many ways to avoid food waste.

  • Wondering what to have for dinner?  Instead of running to the store for something, go foraging in your frig and find uses for a couple treasures in danger of going to waste.  The “Building Block Cooking Systems® shared in our healthy meal making classes make this kind of thing easy and fun to do.
  • These beans got forgotten in the garden, but not need to dump them; with the right kind of cooking, they can be turned into a delightful dish.

    Also included in our healthy meal making classes are lots of waste not, want not ideas, especially around using and enjoying leftovers.

  • Interestingly, joining a CSA helps prevent food waste as farmers can distribute food that is first quality in taste but not quite pretty enough for a farmers’ market or grocery store display.  Using this less-than-perfect produce keeps it from going to compost.
  • Check out Jen Hatmaker’s book, “7, an experimental mutiny against excess.”  It’s a “funny, raw, and not a guilt trip in the making” account of how she took 7 months, identified 7 areas of excess and made 7simple choices to fight back again the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism and overindulgence.  No surprise that food was one of her 7 target areas.  The surprise came in how humbly but hilariously she awakened–and awakens us–to the “filthy engine where ungratefulness and waste are standard protocol.”
  • Finally, check out the recipes in the previous posts for green beans past their prime and arugula (or any other vegetable) that’s so bitter you’re tempted to toss it.
Notes
The New Face of Hunger, Tracie McMillan,National Geographic, August 2014,
** From the Food: Our Global Kitchen exhibit; American Museum of Natural History

Autumn’s Harvest and Food Day

Those who have been readers for a while know I always wax poetic come autumn.  You’ll remember, too, that I always encourage some kind of harvest-y type of activity.  Stop long enough to notice this moving change of seasons and deep-rooted feelings get touched.  As those feelings are exposed to a little autumn light, the reward is a unique warmth and comfort.

Pickling is a great harvest-y thing to do. You can pickle just about any darn thing. Have you ever Googled “pickle recipes”? Three of us went crazy one day in September. This is what 45!!! jars of pickles looks like.

Harvest-y activities are easy to find.  Head to a pumpkin patch, make a thick butternut squash soup, can some tomatoes, freeze some peppers.  And this year, apples are everywhere, often going to waste.  Pick your own or a neighbors, cut out any bad spots, chop roughly and throw in the slow cooker for a totally autumn batch of applesauce.  Cinnamon and raisins are good additions.

For something a little different this year, I’m linking to a lovely harvest-time post appropriately titled, “The Sweetness of the Season.”  It is made all the more lovely by the fact that it was written by a bright young woman who is devoting her energy, intelligence and skill to growing amazing food for people in Pennsylvania.

Something else is special about autumn, i.e., Food Day on October 24th.  This nationally recognized day has several goals:  1) to celebrate and honor the food that is at the heart of our survival (and which we can easily take for granted in a nation of such fabulous food wealth); 2) to change our own diets in ways that are healthier for us and the planet; and 3) to  gain awareness about and take action to correct serious deficiencies in our food system.

You can easily take part in Food Day.  Head to FoodDay.org for ideas and resources and to find out about hosting an event–which can be very simple, e.g., having friends over to share a great healthful meal, bringing healthy snacks to an office meeting, hosting a neighborhood potluck, etc. .

For 2014, Food Day is focused on food access, a glaringly sad deficiency of our food system in the land of plenty.   In honor of that goal, the following posts address the problem with food waste, how it affects hunger and food access, and how we can do something about it.

This series of Waste Not, Want Not articles is part of Food Day’s first-ever Coordinated Blogging Event.  Please check out the following blogs written by other authors participating in this Event:

Scantily Clad Photos and Burgers by Denise the Dietitian posted on A Dietitian’s Diary: Finding a Healthy Balance

Waste Not, Want Not Quick Health Saver Tip

It’s tempting to toss little bits of leftovers.  They don’t seem worth the time it takes find a container (and its lid), transfer the leftovers, and then find a place for the container in a (usually) overcrowded frig.  But those little bits can be healthy diet savers.  E.g., you come home after work starving.  Instead of digging in to expensive and not-so-good-for-you snack foods, microwave the leftovers and get some real food satisfaction, plus valuable nutrition.

Leftover Curry

Instead of tossing the part of dinner you can’t finish, put it in a microwaveable dish to quickly satisfy a snack attack.

Case in point: I had a little leftover curry the other night–not enough for a full meal, but I stowed it anyway.  The next morning I got up for an early hike and Farmers’ Market visit and needed something to tide me over until I could get back.  What a pleasant surprise to open the frig and discover my little bowl of vegetable-rich curry.  Perfect!

Waste Not, Want Not: Quick Dessert Idea

You know those pears pictured in the previous post that looked like compost material?  The creamy insides become even more incredible when sliced (about 2-3 cups) and sauteed in 1 Tbsp. of coconut oil until golden brown (about 15 to 20 minutes over medium to medium-low heat.)

Suddenly, those rotting pears became a tempting treat.

Sprinkle with a little nutmeg or cardamom, if desired and eat as is.  Or sprinkle with granola, turn off the heat and cover for 10 to 15 minutes.  Instant pear crisp!

Of course you can top with a splash of cream, yogurt, coconut cream, or even ice cream.

Waste Not, Want Not: Reflections

Sometimes with produce, as with people, it’s easy to get hung up on outer appearances . . .

. . . and miss the sweetness inside.

I know most bloggers fill their posts with gorgeous food pictures, but this is a different kind of post. No one harvested these poor pears, leaving them instead to get blown off and smashed to the ground to rot. But it only took 30 seconds to slice off the rot and discover some of the best tasting pears I’ve ever had!

Waste Not, Want Not Recipe: Ginger Cardamom Green Beans

Tough beans. Maybe they didn’t get harvested before becoming huge and gangly, or maybe they were forgotten in the frig. At any rate, the quick steaming and poaching methods that are perfect for tender, fresh beans won’t make a dent in these guys’ armor. But instead of tossing them, try boiling them. Nowadays, vegetables aren’t often boiled, since it can soften vegetables too much and take out too much flavor–but that’s exactly what’s needed for tough old beans. And the cooking liquids remain part of the dish so nutrients aren’t lost. Of course you can also use fresher, younger beans for this recipe.

Ginger Cardamom Green Beans

The last of summer’s green beans and tomatoes make a delightful pairing, enhanced by the exotic flavors of ginger and cardamom.

  • 4 to 5 cups green beans, sliced into roughly 1½” lengths (from about 1½ lbs. green beans)
  • 2 to 2½ cups fresh tomatoes, diced to roughly ¾” (from about 2 large tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • ¼ tsp. sea salt
  • ¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper

Step 1–Cook Beans  Stir together in a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until beans are tender, to taste.  (For young beans, this may be 5 to 10 minutes; for older beans, 20 to 30 minutes.)

  • 1 Tbsp. coconut oil
  • ½ tsp. ground cardamom
  • 2 tsp. grated ginger, prepared or fresh
  • ½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Bury the coconut oil, cardamom and ginger together in a small well in the center of pan, where the flavors will cook and meld in the residual heat.

Step 2–Bloom Seasonings, Soften Coconut  Once beans are fully cooked, remove pan from heat.  Push beans to sides of pan and bury the coconut oil, ginger and cardamom, all together, in the liquid in center of pan.  Sprinkle coconut over the entire mixture, then re-cover pan and allow seasonings to bloom and coconut to soften in the residual heat of mixture, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Serve  Stir mixture together, season with more salt and pepper to taste, and serve, using small bowls to contain liquids, if desired.

Cook’s Notes
Winter Options  In winter when decent green beans are hard to come by and flavorful tomatoes are non-existent, substitute a 16-oz package of high-quality frozen beans and a 15-oz. can of Muir Glen tomatoes.
Cooking Options  Because I had to leave on a quick errand the first time I made this dish, I boiled the beans in my rice cooker so I didn’t have to worry about burning them.  It worked quite well which leads me to wonder whether a slow cooker would also work.
Coconut Flakes  Unlike the usual shredded coconut, these are more like ribbons, about ¼” wide.  They can be found at Vitamin Cottage, but regular shredded coconut can also be used.  Because it packs more densely, use only ¼ to 1/3 cup.
If You Have Time. . .  For a sweet finishing touch, hold off adding the coconut as directed.  Instead, toast it in a warm dry pan and sprinkle over each portion when served.

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