If you went and looked at your fridge right now, what would you see? For at least some of us, there would be moldy salsa or pasta sauce in the back of the fridge, wilted carrots in the drawer, or milk that’s gone sour.
It’s a common tale in the U.S.—and sadly, much of the food in our fridges end up getting trashed: Americans waste around 133 billion pounds of useable food every year, according to the USDA.
In The Walrus, Canadian writer Sasha Chapman chronicled her own experience with food waste—as well as her investigation into why we throw out as much as we do. She shares the insights of Martin Gooch of Value Chain Management International, who tells her:
“Volume is king,” he continues. “There is a desire to reduce the cost of food by selling more, and a consumer desire to buy more for less. We’ve made price a key factor in whether we buy one food over another.” We may be able to buy more for less, but if we’re throwing out more of that food, we’re wasting more dollars, too.
It’s not just how much we buy that’s a problem—it’s what we buy, too. Consumers have come to expect their produce to be pristine: unblemished, perfectly round tomatoes with just the right sheen, or long straight carrots (better yet, “baby carrots” that have been hewn to a fun and easy-to-eat shape). Yet our cosmetic standards for produce mean that much of what’s grown never makes it to the supermarket: it’s rejected simply because it looks ugly, has a few blemishes, or may be a bit too old. NPR also notes that many times, things are discarded because they wouldn’t last the cross-country journey from farm to store.
Once we get that food from the supermarket to our fridges, many Americans don’t make it through everything they’ve bought before things begin to “go bad.” Yet what does it really mean for something to be “spoiled”? Most of us don’t have a clue—we live religiously by the sell-by or use-by dates stamped on packagings. But those dates are often misleading; as Dana Gunders, author of “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40% of its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill,” told the Wall Street Journal in August, “They are meant to suggest peak quality. It’s not necessarily that the food will make you sick if you eat it after the date, but it’s come to be interpreted that way.”
Yesterday, NPR Food shared a variety of food-saving tips and ideas from Gunders. Many of her comments are surprising—for instance, she says eggs are good for three to five weeks after their expiration date. Wilted veggies can often be crisped up by submerging them in ice water. And you can use sour milk as a substitute for buttermilk in things like pancakes or biscuits.
A lot of chefs and food bloggers are striving to re-educate people on food, teaching us how to use things even when they may appear inedible. New York City’s WastED is one such endeavor. Food sites like Food52 are increasingly sharing recipes that use up kitchen scraps, or tips on how to store food better.
But it’s also true that we probably need to rethink the way we shop, and the sheer volume we usually consider acceptable. When should we buy in bulk—and when should we steer clear of Costco-sized containers? It’s a question that obviously varies from family to family. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to start calculating how much we spend, how much gets eaten, and to reconsider our budget and buying practices accordingly. Change may be as simple as serving smaller portions at the dinner table, and freezing leftovers when necessary. Buying less overall makes it easier to see what’s in our fridge, and may thus help prevent us from overlooking that bundle of radishes or container of tomatoes that otherwise gets buried in a corner.
Food waste is, some would argue, a woeful example of Western extravagance. And it can be, definitely. There are many people around the world who would stare in horror at the sheer lavishness and waste exemplified in the typical American fridge. But I also think there’s something to Chapman’s words: we’re obsessed with buying cheap, even when it means buying more than we need. And sometimes we forget that more is not better: that buying $40 worth of bulk groceries on sale may be a greater waste of our resources than using $25 to buy less overall—but to buy stuff we’re guaranteed to use.
When it comes to food, our tendency has been not to conserve or steward resources, but rather to act in a wasteful and thoughtless manner. Sadly, the consequences stretches far beyond our pocketbooks—and could affect the wellbeing of our planet as a whole. As we look toward autumn and the upcoming holiday season, it’s worth considering how we can begin to overturn some of those bad habits, and become better conservers of our food supply.