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
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Spinning Leftovers for a Week of Dinners—plus a Lunch

Leftovers are a common problem for solo cooks. Not just extra servings of a dish, but also all the vegetables, seasonings, meat, rice, and other ingredients left over from making the dish.  Making the Sauteed Beet and Snap Pea Salad in the next post, for instance, leaves behind nearly a dozen foods:

The Leftovers List

  • Sauteed Beets

    Sometimes beets are only sold in bunches.  If you don’t need that many for a dish, saute the leftovers for a fabulous salad topper–or mid-afternoon snack.

    One serving of the finished salad

  • Steak strips
  • Couple handfuls of sugar snap peas
  • 2-3 beets from a bunch
  • Beet greens
  • Beet green stems
  • Garlic
  • Cumin dressing
  • Cilantro
  • Limes
  • Rice or quinoa

Problem or Possibility?  All those leftover items in the frig could lead to some anxiety.  “What am I going to do with all of them?  They’re taking over my frig!”  Or those leftovers might become sparks of inspiration for a whole week’s worth of meals–plus at least one lunch:

Lunch the Next Day

  • Leftover Sautéed Beet and Snap Pea Salad with Goat Chevre and Toasted Walnuts
  • Whole Wheat Pita Wedges

Make creative use of leftover salad by serving with a different side and new toppings (substitute another cheese or nut to suit your tastes)

Night 2

  • Sweet Potatoes with Cumin Dressing
  • Salmon with Lime and Cilantro
  • Garlic Sautéed Beet Greens

If it’s too hot for sweet potato fries, microwave then grill wedges and toss with dressing. Grill the salmon, too, and top with lime juice and cilantro. Try sprinkling apple cider vinegar over the sautéed beet greens.

Night 3

  • Early Summer Meal Salad:  Lettuce, Sautéed Beets and Summer Turnips, Spicy Pumpkin Seeds, Garbanzo or White Beans, Cherries or Apricots—plus anything else you have on hand!
  • Lemon Tarragon Vinaigrette (or store-bought dressing of choice, e.g., Drew’s Sesame Orange or Braggs Vinaigrette)
  • Whole Wheat Pita Wedges

For an interesting addition to a salad, cut and saute the rest of the beets, along with some summer turnips, as directed in the Beet and Snap Pea Salad recipe .

Night 4

  • Snap Pea Stir-Fry

    Leftover snap peas make a great snack, or make a quick stir-fry with them. Learn the 10 Steps to Super Stir Fries in one of our classes

    Stir Fry with Snap Peas, Onions, Summer Turnips, Steak Strips and Carrots

  • Leftover rice or quinoa

Use up leftover summer turnips from Night 3’s salad.  Cut them and the carrots into 1/4″ matchsticks. Flash fry steak strips in a separate pan for best results. Combine everything and top simply with soy sauce and San-J Szechuan sauce for a little heat. Serve with rice or quinoa warmed in the microwave.

Night 5—Super Easy Meal

  • Readymade Lentil Soup with Beet Stems
  • Whole Grain Toasts with Chevre and Roasted Peppers
  • Optional Chicken—grilled, rotisserie, deli or sautéed

Relax at the end of the week. Simply slice leftover beet stems very thinly and stir into Amy’s or another favorite lentil soup.  Simmer 5 to10 minutes until tender to taste. Meanwhile, cut whole grain bread into quarters and toast or grill; top with chevre and diced roasted peppers. Serve chicken on the side if desired.

What to Do with Extra Eggplant?

A Story and Recipe

Eggplant is such a rich vegetable.  I only need one, maybe two each month to be satisfied.  So it was concerning when my vegetable box showed up with a HUGE eggplant.  Just half  was plenty for the tomato and fennel stew I had planned.  So what about the other half, which I had already peeled?

To begin with, I found that by wrapping it tightly in (recycled) plastic wrap, it stayed quite nicely in the frig, without browning or turning to slime.  That gave me some breathing room.

A couple days later, while demonstrating vegetables and talking about the Vegetable-a-Month club at a health fair, one gentleman shared the startling fact that something like 18 million tons of eggplant are grown in China each year.  I didn’t even try, or need, to translate that number into pounds to get the point:  These folks know a thing or two about eggplant, so when struggling with a surfeit of eggplant, think Chinese.

Typical of me, I thought Chinese but also quick.  So this recipe is more along the lines of fast Chinese flavors than authentic Chinese cooking.  It also, handily, made use of some leftover hamburger and took advantage of the pot of brown rice that is always good to have on hand (click link for cooking tips and instructions.)

Hamburger Eggplant Skillet with Chinese Flavors

  • 1/2 lb. hamburger (or up to 1 lb. if you’re not relying on leftovers)
  • 1 lrg. onion, diced to 1/2″
  • 1/2 lrg. eggplant (or 1 med. eggplant, if you’re buying fresh), peeled and diced into 1″ cubes
  • 1- 2 tsp. minced garlic (from a jar), to taste
  • 1-2 tsp. minced ginger (from a jar), to taste
  • 1 1/2 -2 Tbsp. black bean garlic sauce (I use Lee Kum Kee)
  • 28-oz. can diced tomatoes, with juices (Muir Glen are my favorites–lots of flavor)
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2-3 cups cooked brown rice

In a large saute pan, begin browning the hamburger, breaking it into small pieces with the end of spatula.  Once there is a little fat from the hamburger, stir in onions and cook a couple minutes, then add eggplant and cook about five more minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add garlic and ginger and cook two more minutes.  Add black bean sauce and tomatoes and stir to combine thoroughly.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Lower heat and simmer 5-10 minutes until eggplant is cooked but not mushy.  Sprinkle with pepper and serve over warmed rice.  (Note, you should not need any salt since the black bean sauce is quite salty.)

Leftovers:  If you have leftovers, freshen them up with lightly cooked, bright green peas (from frozen.)

Want more fun facts, interesting lore and easy recipes for vegetables?  Check out the Vegetable-a-Month club.

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