food waste in USA & making meaningful changes
Starting sometime on a Hallmark jingle or at the cue upon seeing a faint blur of red and white, we are reminded, unfortunately in mid-September; that the holiday season will be upon us soon. We are given all possible excuses to shop, to cook, to indulge, to gift, to save and scrimp only so that we can spend later. Be it Halloween, Eid, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, or any other derivative of the numerous ‘special holidays’ – we have various opportunities to recognize that we, as individuals and as people have the power to commune, to appreciate, to honor and to give. We have the ability to contribute and participate in our communities, towards religion, to the economy and the lack of. And how do we do it? Poorly; allow me to elaborate.
Over the last few months, I received several emails about collection drives for canned food. They are worthy causes. There is a genuine need and many people in our community are fortunate to have the ability to fulfill these needs. And yet, sometimes, ‘giving’ is taken for granted where giving becomes the event, and the true meaning of it eludes some of those who participate in it. Each time I drop off cans – I am reminded of how many people exist in the rest of the world, who do not have enough to eat. While one has excess, another is in dire need. I grew up in Mumbai, India, a city and a country that has more than its fair share of poverty induced hunger. I saw hunger and desperation up close – too close.
And I have seen gluttony too, not just in India, but here too. Adults and children in many underdeveloped countries are forced to eat scraps, leftovers and stale meals because it a far better alternative, to starving. Can you imagine living a life just to ensure that ones’ family is fed and able to survive? A life where education is secondary, having health-benefits at a job is tertiary and having a roof above ones’ head, civic respect or access to recreation - a luxury? One study estimated that in the entire world, one child dies due to hunger or starvation every 5 seconds. The numbers are mind-numbing.
To appreciate how this problem hits home, here in the USA, one in six Americans is ‘food insecure’. Yet, the EPA estimated that in 2009, food scraps represented the second largest percentage of waste produced in the country, at a staggering 14% second only to paper products. Food waste is also bad for the environment – it creates 21 times more methane gas emissions than other items in the landfills. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the US population does not see this. We buy in excess, over-indulge in cheap and poorly made foods, and throw out on an average about thirty four million tons of food, everyday.
Although in the US, a higher percentage of food waste occurs before it even gets to the table, it was estimated that in 2004, 14-15% of edible food in the US is untouched, unopened, and is discarded. It amounts to $43 billion wasted. On average, it was also estimated that 93% of our population is guilty of purchasing food products that they will never use. In our present state of economy, we too are contributing to the waste of our own monies. If we do not waste food, perfectly good edible food could be made accessible to ‘food insecure’ Americans.
Another dimension of this food crisis is what happens with our children in our homes, schools and our communities. Rampant childhood obesity, binge eating, anorexia and starvation coexist. While some children have access to more calories than are healthy for them others go hungry on days there is no school. The key is to start young, as good habits and social responsibility are best learned at an early age. But outside of home, this has to be a collective community effort too. Children are in the care of the school environment 8 hours a day, for thirty six weeks! This is such a significant chunk of time – a time that can create a world of a difference, even if parents and educators take baby steps at influencing a change of mindset. The ‘Want not-Waste Not’ ethic must be reinforced: be it for school supplies, or paper and especially food. Having a ‘recycling’ policy or a one-person committee is not enough to address the challenges of large institutions. While lawmakers haggle over the correct amount of tomato sauce on a pizza served at school lunches and debate about its standing as an entire serving of vegetables, there is no accountability towards the mounds of food each child throws away at a school lunch table. So much food makes it to the large trash!!!
Our vulnerable children occupy elementary and secondary / middle school lunchrooms with little or no guidance towards developing a sense of responsibility or appreciation towards what they receive. Nutritional food is ‘offered’ without further guidance – thus missing the last link, causing children to subconsciously believe they don’t really need to be responsible for the food that comes to their plate.
Everything, including generosity and respect begins at home. When the next time a meal comes to your table, ask yourself, what did it take to get from the farm to your plate? Once consumed, how is it going to nourish you? If it took bazillion hours to process is it really food or is it a food-like product? Will it ever be useful to your body? Without loading up your plate or being morbid, ask yourself what would happen if you had to fight a neighbor for nourishment or if you were not going to be able to eat for a few days? What would you do if everything that came to your plate – came with a price beyond the cost of the meal? Now, look at your plate again. Whether or not you are on a diet, have been starving or have been bingeing, are at a holiday party or at a food event – this will make you think again.
This is a nation of Supersize. Yes, we have created a supersized monster too but a problem that we can kill on the very feet it stands on. We CAN: develop a social and food consciousness, reduce food wastage, limit reliance on the over commercialized cheaply available and nutritionally inept eats, prevent the slow death of the small farm, curb the brewing of a culture that routinely accepts rhetoric versus making a conscious choice, eliminate complacence towards allowing legislative banter to govern how ones’ dinner tables are set, stop the abandonment of small and local for large and cheap. We CAN: ask how can our cities help create consumer friendly resources for backyard composting? Does our city need a curbside food collection program for food scraps so that it can be converted to usable compost? Will people participate? Of course! We as consumers have the ability to make change, let us try a little harder.
Here are some very simple things we do at home to tackle food issues at the root of a problem.
• Kiss The Cook:
I have a young child. Each day, I work with my child at meal times, to ensure there remains some responsibility for the food that is served. I remind my child, not to plan for the apocalypse on their plate. If it is a large meal with many components, I will serve individual plates even before they leave the kitchen, and have a small bowl of extra things – for seconds. If the extras are not consumed, they find space in the fridge. I take each meal as an opportunity to remind our family about respecting the cook and what is available to us. I know it will go a long way.
• Picking Our Battles:
We all have things we don’t like to eat, but some of these things make it to the table in some form as part of the meal. We try very hard to be reasonable with these requests – and work out new ways to get around it. Sometimes it tastes better mixed in with a special ketchup / sauce and sometimes it just needs an extra sprinkle of pepper. A small serving of the contentious item, followed by a small reward for consumption works too.
• The Recipe Rescue:
I have, on many occasions inadvertently made a large pot of something for our table at home, and for various reasons, I have a feeling that it will not be well received as leftovers. I have resorted to tricks like converting it into soup, making stuffed grilled sandwiches or tortillas with it, or adding it to pasta. Believe me, it tasted loads better. One time I over-baked a batch of biscotti by 2 minutes and they turned a shade too dark to share. Still perfectly good to eat - they made delicious ice-cream toppings and custard cup bases for impromptu desserts.
• Lunch Duty:
When possible, I go to my child’s school at lunch time. When the kids see me at the table, some of them cringe and others are ecstatic. Only because, I talk to ALL of them while we are eating and remind them to focus on their meal too, rather than shooting peas at each other when the monitors are not looking. We tell stories at the lunch table, tell jokes, we make funny faces at each other – you name it. My third graders are still children - they love the interaction and the attention. They don’t know better about not wasting food, I do.
• Weekend Crunchy-Munchies:
When looking for a weekend activity to do, especially on a cold rainy morning or a dreary afternoon, with an empty fridge, I peek into the pantry to ensure we have basics like butter or oil, salt, pepper and some of my favorite spices. Then we are off to the local grocer or market to check out their produce. If possible, I take all the diners with me and pick things that look like fun, interesting or just plain crunchy and tasty. We return, look up recipes of what to make with the few things we’ve picked out and use the raw materials as a base, I really don’t sweat about the dish when we are doing this. We find that we will eat every scrap on our plate, not because it was all we had to eat – but because it actually tasted really good.
• Do The Hostess A Favor:
When throwing a party or bringing food to one, instead of taking one large platter, I plan to take the same food in several small serving dishes, bringing out things one at a time and keeping the rest cool until ready to eat. Not only is it infinitely easier to transport, I find that guests are more likely to pay attention to how much goes on their plate. If we wind up with untouched containers, they make wonderful hostess gifts; I can take the left-over’s back home, or offer it to someone who really enjoyed the dish at the party. It is not only sanitary, it remains fresh longer and most importantly, it stays out of the trash can.
• Keeping Up Appearances:
When at a party, I always try a small serving of something first, especially if I don’t know how it is going to taste. Shh.. do you want to know my sneaky trick? If I am terribly unsure, I either ask the host about the dish or wait until a few people have tried the dish first to see if someone mentions a strong flavor that I don’t really handle well. Same rule goes for the little people. Even politeness does not have to come with a price, right?
• Party Leftovers:
When I throw a party and if I find little people trying to sneak away unfinished plates to the trash can, I offer their parents a container or two; encouraging them to take it home. It helps.
• The Galloping Gourmet:
We all have secret recipes, special tricks and favorite ingredients that we love to use in our homes and want to share with our friends. We are also a society too polite to turn down a home-made gift. I am a very spontaneous person and a foodie, a trait my friends will attest to. Rather than surprise them with a pre-made treat, I have learned to ask if I can drop off a treat for them on a specific day or if they would like an extra hand on some day with some part of their meal. I can time my efforts around when they need it and they appreciate the help more. That one phone-call or email shows an extra respect for their needs, tastes and time. Sometimes, I will create a basket of non perishable fixings to help them kick-start a special meal. If we are short of time or are overwhelmed with activities we also resort to gift cards to local restaurants they would like to try or a gift certificate to a personal chef service. These are fabulous ways to support local economies, small businesses and make changes to your community.
There are many ways of making small changes to what goes on your plate, in your body and what is left behind for the compost bin or trash can. Do you have a fun way of dealing with a picky eater, a junk food junkie, or do you have a superb way to rescue mashed potatoes gone crazy, or a casserole that just would not roll, until you did? Please share! I would love to hear how you are participating in creating a food conscious family and community.
If you did not already know there are plenty of resources on raising a food conscious and environmentally friendly family and community. Several accept online financial donations and there are several local food drives in our own communities. See how you can help.
North Fulton Community Charities
Environmentally friendly composting tips
Bread Dot Org
Atlanta Community Food Bank
(c) Nandita Godbole / Curry Cravings
This essay was originally published on my old blog site, currycravingskitchen.blogspot.com on 12/13/2011