We All Know Food Waste Is A Major Issue...But What Can You (Realistically) Do About It?

Building more sustainable habits is easier than you think.

Admittedly, grocery shopping can sometimes feel more like a long-form exercise in impulse control than a practical errand. It takes character to refuse the siren call of, say, boutique strawberries that are reportedly 65% sweeter than their plebeian counterparts (at only twice the price!). And in an era when your standard supermarket carries 36 different genres of hummus, the pointedly privileged (and, well, bad) habit that is frivolous food shopping can be tough to break — but here’s the thing: It’s anything but innocuous. 

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According to a 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30-40% of the food supply in America goes to waste. “Wasted food is the single biggest material placed in municipal landfills each year,” says Jenny Murphy, Senior Supply Chain Director at City Harvest — a New York City-based nonprofit that rescues surplus food from donors, farms, restaurants, and grocery stores and redistributes it to soup kitchens and food pantries across the five boroughs. “Municipal landfills are one of the biggest contributors of human-related methane in the country, and that's accounting for more than 14% of all of those emissions.”

You’re hardly the only culprit, though: We’re talking about a major supply chain issue, here. According to data from environmental research institute, ReFED, around fifty-four million tons of food are categorized as “surplus food” in the U.S. annually — which includes anything unsold or uneaten at restaurants, super markets, and at home. And while food rescue non-profits like City Harvest are dedicated to finding ways to re-allocate some of that good surplus food towards communities facing food insecurity, the vast majority ends up either in landfills, incinerated, down the drain, or left to rot. Mathematically speaking, that equals out to about 9 billion meals that aren’t going to folks in need. And on top of that, whether or not it gets discarded, each and every food item we encounter utilizes resources in its production, packaging, storage, shipping, and preservation. Which is to say, all those wilting greens you’ve purchased for a salad you’ll never make are part of a larger, toxic pattern.

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Yes, you’re burning through precious resources — but the problem is twofold. You’re also doing so in a climate where more than 38 million people in the United States are food insecure, and according to the USDA, that number is not getting smaller. “Since the start of the pandemic, food insecurity rates in New York City have risen 36% and nearly nine in ten food pantry users say that they expect to rely on pantries more often this year because of rising food costs.” says Murphy. “And according to the research that we're seeing, we expect this high level of need to persist throughout at least 2025.”

Now, we’re well aware that sitting and doom-spiraling about the state of the world (and your role as a cog in the machine) can be far from productive. But in this particular instance, there are indeed manageable steps we can all take to help slow the cycle or at least shrink the scale of the problem. “In recent research, we learned that about a third of millennials believe their purchase decisions have the greatest impact on society — and that's almost as many as believe that their voting decisions have the greatest impact,” says Surbhi Martin, Vice President of Greek Yogurt & Functional Nutrition at Danone North America.

Martin oversees Two Good Yogurt, a brand on a mission to address food waste and hunger through their One Cup, Less Hunger program. For each cup of Two Good sold, the company donates a portion of proceeds to both City Harvest and We Don’t Waste, another food rescue nonprofit run out of Denver, Colorado*. And right now, that equates to 42 million pounds of rescued food (or 36 million meals for folks in need) that might’ve otherwise ended up a landfill. “Our program puts these consumers in the driver's seat and allows them to vote with their dollar every time they purchase a Two Good product,” she says. “And really, they become the catalyst or the hero when it comes to helping reduce food waste while feeding more people.”

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It goes without saying that both hunger and food waste are multi-dimensional issues — but often, if you want to incite change, you have to start small. Picking up a City Harvest volunteer shift or opting for Two Good at your local grocery store are both worthwhile modes of contributing — and valid places to start. But there are also countless small ways we can make an impact — or at least, reduce damage — from our very own kitchens. Here’s how to dive in (without overhauling your lifestyle).

Audit your kitchen

In order to truly build greener consumption routines, you’ll need to properly take stock of your fridge…and your (gasp) trash. What do you reach for consistently? What do you often find yourself throwing out, half-finished? What do you find regularly going bad before you can consume it? “By auditing your kitchen compost or garbage for the products you most consistently toss, you can start to chip away at your waste stream by targeting those products and finding strategies to upcycle them,” says Plakias.

On the other hand, if you’re pressed for time — or simply do not have the energy to conceptualize the project of upcycling — research community fridges in your area where you can donate excess groceries or drop off leftovers for folks facing food insecurity. The fridges, set up throughout major cities, are meant to operate as a resource for folks suffering from hunger. They’re stationed outdoors and on street corners so the goods inside are accessible to anyone in need.

Plan! Your! Meals!

Sure, the phrase “meal prep” can feel vaguely cringey. Giving up a Sunday afternoon in order to sort out meals for the week is hardly a sexy proposition. That said, even a light-touch version of preemptive menu drafting can make a difference. “Meal planning can help you make use of what's in your fridge  — and it can also help you stop purchasing more than you need,” says Anastasia Cole Plakias, Chief Impact Officer at Brooklyn Grange — the leading rooftop farming initiative in the U.S. “It’s a way of being more discerning at the grocery store.”

But how do you actually go about prepping effectively? “When I go to the store, I make lists of what I'm going to buy beforehand,” says Martin. “That way, I’m less tempted to purchase more than what my family needs — and I find that, by planning and then systematizing my shopping list on my phone, grocery shopping is quicker and less expensive, and I’m producing less food waste because I’m planning out each purchase beforehand.”

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Of course, this approach leaves limited room for spontaneity. But for that reason, Martin is careful to bake some flexibility into her weekly plans. She recommends planning for something like stir fry or enchiladas at the end of the week that can a) make use of any leftovers from earlier in the week or b) invite a little creativity or personal embellishment. “I always have rice, a few stir fry sauces, tortillas, and enchilada sauce in my house so that I'm prepared to use whatever's left in the fridge at the end of the week to avoid it going to waste,” she says. 

Pay attention to portions

“The first step to cutting back your kitchen waste is source reduction: the less you bring in, the less goes out,” says Plakias. “That doesn't mean eating less, it just means shopping more thoughtfully.”

As she sees it, being wary not just of what you're purchasing, but also how much can seriously curb your food waste. It’s not exactly rare for one’s eyes to be bigger than one’s stomach, so taking care to purchase in quantities that don’t allow for surplus can make a huge difference. “Reducing portion sizes is actually one of the most significant ways that individuals can help curb food waste. It diverts around 2.4 million tons of food waste,” adds Murphy — who recommends paying close attention to how much you’re consistently finishing versus throwing away, or investing in meal kits that pre-portion ingredients so nothing is wasted. 

Vet your products

Beyond taking care to purchase goods you know you’ll use — in amounts that feel sufficient — it’s also important to do your research when it comes to the brands or corporations you’re regularly supporting. “Voting with your dollar is one of the best ways that you can send a signal to the market about what resonates with you as a consumer,” says Martin. “So when you support products and brands like Two Good that have a measurable, positive impact on society and the planet, you're sending a signal to companies to create more of those offerings.”

As far as vetting goes, she recommends keeping your eyes peeled for the B Corp™ logo — identifiable by a capital B enclosed in a circle — on anything you buy, as this indicates that the product in question has been verified by third party non-profit, B Lab, as meeting the highest standards in terms of environmental and social impact. When any for-profit company you support is a certified B Corp™ (take Danone North America, for example), you can take solace in knowing they’re measurably helping to build a more sustainable and inclusive economy.

Upcycle your left-overs

Like with old clothing, there are plenty of opportunities for creative reinvention when it comes to food refuse. “Most of the food we waste is perfectly edible or usable, we just haven't found a good use for it,” says Plakias. “If there are things we’re consistently throwing out, it can be helpful to find strategies to upcycle them: You can make face scrubs with your coffee grinds, for example, or pesto with tough kale stems and toothsome radish tops. And you can always save old herbs and peels for cocktail garnishes or infusions.”

On that note, when it seems that your food is going bad faster than you can consume it, you’d probably do well to make better use of your freezer. No, frozen veggies likely won’t taste as delicious as fresh ones — but they’re certainly still functional. And if you don’t want to eat them as is, you can put them to use in soups and smoothies, instead. “If I've got too much food for us to possibly consume on a given day or week, I will definitely freeze things in smaller batches to avoid wasting food,” says Martin. “That way, I can easily defrost a second or third meal out of the primary meal I put together on any given day.“

Compost

We’d all like access to sprawling backyards (with thriving compost pits) — but that’s not always a possibility. And while city government programs across the U.S. do indeed pick up some compost, the service is rarely wide-spread or reliable. Nevertheless, it’s still a critical effort: “Home composting actually rescues about 10,000 tons of food from landfills annually,” says Murphy. “Can you imagine how that number would grow if we all composted?” And fortunately, even for yard-less city dwellers, composting is still an option. Murphy recommends that you check local listings for community gardens and farmer’s markets that accept compost — then make a habit of stopping by regularly on their drop-off days. Odds are, there’s one within immediate walking distance. And in the time between drop-offs, Murphy advises keeping your food refuse in bags in your freezer so it doesn’t smell or attract bugs. 

Listen: You’re busy. We get it. But here’s the thing: Taking pivotal (small) steps at home can indeed make a massive difference when it comes to both fighting hunger and reducing food waste. Whether it’s looking to organizations like We Don’t Waste, Two Good Yogurt, and CityHarvest, or updating your own composting routine, small acts can have major ripple effects. Let us help you help the planet.

*For every cup sold, Two Good donates 2¢ (5.3oz) and 12¢ (32oz) to food rescue organizations.

Tagged:

Food, sustainability, green, Money, cooking

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