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.

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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

Affordable Organics?

Learning to Double Your Vegetable Dollars Is the Secret

“I’d like to buy organic vegetables, but they’re so expensive.”  Ever catch yourself dreaming of more affordable organics?  Try this on for size:   What if, every time you purchased an organic vegetable, you actually got not just one but two or three vegetables?  No doubt that would make the  economic equation a lot more attractive.

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Here’s how to make that his kind of magic happen:  Waste Not.  For example, in last week’s Farmers’ Market Excursion class, we made beet relish, using a gorgeous bunch of organic red and golden beets from Red Wagon Farm.  The bunch cost $4.00, but

  • we made enough relish for two meals,
  • the next day, the beet greens were the centerpiece for another meal, and
  • the following day the beet stems went into a lentil soup.

In other words, that’s four meals’ worth of vegetables for $4.00, or $1.00 per meal for amazingly delicious, don’t-harm-the-environment, don’t-harm-me, super-nutritious vegetables.

Beets with luch, full beet greens

People in my classes always exclaim, “You really don’t waste anything!” In our food culture which routinely wastes tons and tons of food, I guess my actions do seem odd: Retrieving kale stems when class members mistake them for compost, saving the ends of grated ginger root for tea, stuffing onion ends and skins into a bag to make my own (very cheap) broths. But maybe it’s time for the new, less-wasteful food culture that Every Day Good Eating is bringing about.  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Bear in mind, too, that this was no ordinary bunch of limp beets with scraggly tops.  They were firm and dense, the tops lush and huge and the stems plentiful.  Every part of the beet was rich with flavor–leaving the taste buds completely satisfied and providing plenty of vegetable nutrition.  Could anyone really argue that  $1.00 per meal is “too expensive” for this caliber of vegetable?

“You get what you pay for” is a universal law.  Pay little and you get little.  Happily, it works the other way, too, however.  Pay a fair price and you get a fair–often more than fair–product.

Now that you know the magic that makes organic affordable, begin learning how to use all parts of a vegetable.  Join us for our last class on beet relish at Isabelle Farm on Thursday, July 26.  Then check out the next blog for a quick way to use beet greens.  For the stems, just saute and toss them into your favorite lentil soup (which could be a canned variety, too.)

The Cabbage Core Challenge

4 Tricks for Taking the Sting Out of Bitter Vegetables

There’s a reason grocery store displays of broccoli rabe, rutabagas and turnips go

Cabbage Core

Does my "waste not-want not" motto really extend to cabbage cores?

untouched for hours at a time.  Some members of the vegetable kingdom are just a little harder to like than others.  But we still want the flavor and nutrient diversity they offer.  Happily, there are ways of preparing these difficult specimens that make them more palatable.  Although the following article focuses on cabbage cores, a particularly challenging vegetable, its tricks can be used to form a good working relationship with any of the harsher vegetables.


Here’s an honest admission:  I have a “waste-not-want-not” thing going on. My Twitter column is filled with vegetable dishes fast enough for breakfast and lunch—a good many made with stems, stalks, cores and leaves that normal cooks would pitch.  But not me.  I have this thing about waste, so I set myself a personal goal of starving my compost pile as much as possible.

To date, things have been going pretty well.  I’ve been turning kale stems, cauliflower leaves, broccoli stalks and other such “refuse” into tasty dishes—boosting my vegetable intake and stretching my vegetable dollars.  But then came yesterday’s cabbage core.  Couldn’t I safely pitch that without violating my self-inflicted waste code?

Tasting a piece of it triggered deep, gastronomic memories of everything bad about cabbage.  I now knew why the cabbage itself was unbelievably sweet and light:  Every bit of the head’s strong, musky, sour and harsh taste had been sucked into the core!  And that foul taste is what I got upon testing a bite.

I immediately started to scrape the whole thing towards the compost bin.  Not until the last

Cabbage Core Headed to the Compost Bin

The compost bin got the moldy end of the core, but the rest got chopped for a higher purpose.

second did my better self rise to the occasion.  The compost bin got the moldy end of the core (I do have some limits!), but the rest got chopped as I decided how to transform it into something I could stomach.  Working with vegetable parts that are frequently discarded, I’ve learned a few tricks to render them not only palatable but pretty decent-tasting.  This core was about to be my biggest challenge to date.

Trick 1:  Cook It Cooking is the best way to extract the bitterness from a vegetable.  In this case, I didn’t even consider steaming or sauteing but went straight to boiling, which is the preferred cooking method for really tough vegetable characters.

I know that boiling has lost favor over the years, probably because we get vegetables shipped in year round that are tender enough for just a light steaming or sautéing, which is generally better taste wise and nutritionally.  But imagine a pioneer farm wife faced with some garden remnant in November—it may be tough and gnarly, but it’s the closest thing to fresh that she will have for four months.  She is going to make those stalks or stems taste good no matter what, and boiling is the tool for the job.

Note, however, that boiling isn’t limited to throwing vegetables in a huge pot of water, cooking the vegetables to death and then pitching the water.  On the contrary, I simmer rather than boil my vegetables in a tiny, not a potful, of liquid.  This means any leached out vitamins and minerals get concentrated in an amount of liquid small enough that it can be fully incorporated into the finished dish, minimizing nutrient and flavor loss.  Also, I only simmer until the vegetables have lost their bitter or harsh taste, which is often when they are still crisp-tender.  My cabbage core had to be cooked beyond crisp-tender, but still far short of mush, before losing its harsh taste.

Trick 2:  Inject Flavor While water certainly works as a cooking liquid, experiment with

Simmer in Imagine's Vegetable Broth

This broth has plenty of flavor, so little additional salt was needed.

different broths.  They can inject flavor into the spaces left by the extraction of the vegetable’s bitterness.  I used Imagine’s Vegetable Broth, which has plenty of flavor to spare.

Third:  Salt Salt is also good at both drawing out bitterness and imparting flavor.  Your broth might be salty enough as is, but if using a low-sodium variety or water, try adding a little (maybe 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp.) of good sea salt.  I used about 1/4 tsp. of Celtic salt in my simmer water.

Fourth:  Combine with Other Flavorful Ingredients.

I always say that sausage is a miracle ingredient.  Add just a little and the entire dish tastes great—no work, little cost and no cooking knowledge required.  Sausage was the primary tastemaker I added to my simmered cabbage core.

Sausage and Onion are Great Taste Makers

We just received a shipment of sausage from pasture-fed pigs. It I had no fat, so I had to add olive oil to saute the onion. Less than 1/4 lb. is all I needed for a great-flavored dish.

I also added sweetly browned onions and sweet snap pea shoots (I rescued a few from thegarden before last week’s snow.)  Their sweetness balanced the trace amounts of bitterness left in the cooked core pieces, as would other sweet vegetables (red peppers, corn, etc.) or sautéed fruits (like pears and apples), or just rice, chicken, tofu or some kind of sauce with a little sweetness.

The end result?  I think I met the challenge with a delicious for lunch that wasn’t just another sandwich–not by a long shot!

Cabbage Core with Sausage and Onions

For a little color, I added vivid green pea shoots at the end.

Frugal Renaissance

David Brooks of New York Times fame wrote an editorial earlier this month titled “The Great Seduction.” It lamented the corrupting influence of wealth and how wealth has destroyed the very frugal, industrious and ambitious values that are responsible for our affluence to begin with. Based on the imperatives laid out in a recent think tank study, “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture,” Brooks sounded a call for the re-embracement of good old-fashioned frugality.

What’s this got to do with food? A lot. If we’re looking to revive the virtue of frugality (not a bad idea in today’s economically uncertain times), the kitchen is a good—and easy—place to start. Statistically, 14% of the food we buy goes to waste. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Brooks focused on the importance of frugality and debt management for the financial soundness of our entire economy. In the happy coincidence that comes from right thinking and acting, frugality’s benefits extend to many other areas, too: The positive impact on our individual pocketbooks is obvious. Over the course of a year, our average food waste adds up to $590 per year, in 2004 dollars. With food prices soaring, the potential savings are far greater today.

While money savings are unquestionably important, there’s another equally important side to kitchen waste. Maybe it’s my upbringing by Depression-era parents, maybe I took the “starving children in China” thing too seriously, but I get uncomfortable seeing all the food that gets tossed in our culture without a second thought. Food is just a little vital to our survival, which is why it gets my utmost respect, especially when there are so many people living on a few kernels of grain and whatever other morsels they are lucky enough to scrounge up.

I don’t exactly believe in karma, but I figure it can’t hurt to do my best to avoid waste. Even if there isn’t any future payback, maybe the frugal energy I send out will inspire the same in others, and with enough people showing care and respect for food, maybe a way will be found to siphon a little more to those in need.

The environment also benefits by a reduction of kitchen waste. When food is tossed, a lot more goes in the trash can than just the rotted cantaloupe or leftover lasagna that no one ate. Also wasted are the energy that went into growing, transporting, manufacturing, refrigerating and cooking it, the polluting pesticides and fertilizers that went into producing it, and the costs of transporting and landfilling it as trash. May not seem like much for one rotten cantaloupe or a measly corner of lasagna, but environmental degradation is a numbers game. There are thousands and millions of people, all wasting 14% of the food in their households. Things add up. . . .

So how do we prevent waste in the kitchen. There are lots of ways. Stay tuned. . . .

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