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A Blueprint for the Future of Food

Every year, the United States chucks nearly 40 percent of its food. Image Source: Real Simple & Getty Images.

Glass Tupperware sets were, and still are, my mother’s best friend. Never one to let last night’s dinner go to waste, she would always find ways to incorporate the leftovers into the next day’s meals. Even the extra ingredients she had washed and carefully prepared were neatly organized in Tupperware bowls, ready to be used again (most likely tomorrow).

So, it baffles me when I see that globally, about $750 billion worth of food is lost or wasted throughout the entire supply chain. From an environmental perspective, this footprint translates to about 3.3 billion gigatonnes of wasted greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, these statistics vary greatly country to country, with North America and Oceania accounting for close to half of global food waste (WRI). We, as American consumers, are responsible for the largest share of food going to waste — about 40 percent. Every year. Nearly 100 percent of the time, the food we chuck ends up in landfills or combustion facilities (EPA). As terrifying as the numbers may be, that also means we have the power to make a tremendous difference.

Clearly, reducing food waste is a crucial matter on the path to sustainable development. But at the same time, one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table.

Instead of just reducing food waste, why don’t we aim to bridge the gap between populations in our own communities who are struggling to fulfill one of life’s most important necessities? Why don’t we also aim to improve food security on our path to establishing not just sustainable development, but also social equity?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, here are some tips on how we can make our food systems more efficient for not just ourselves, but also our community (based off of the insights of Dana Gunders, the leading expert on food waste at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC)):

  1. Curb overbuying. A packed fridge may be comforting, but rarely do we eat everything in it. Using meal plans, shopping lists, and a little restraint can go a long way. Families can further reduce their footprint by making deliberate efforts to “shop their kitchen” and completely use the ingredients available in their own pantry before purchasing more.

  2. Store smartly. If my mother has taught me anything, it is that there is rarely any storage container more effective at preserving leftovers than the glass Tupperware sets with clasps. (I urge everyone to shy away from Saran Wrap and tin foil and, instead, invest in microwaveable ceramic or glass containers with lids.) Proper storage can maintain food quality and freshness.

  3. Use it up. Eat up everything in your fridge regularly. Frittatas, stir-fries, soups, even hotpots make great catchall recipes. Designating a special day for eating clean your fridge can help. Growing up, rather than the pizza nights that my classmates had, my mother designated Friday evenings to any remaining leftovers.

  4. Freeze. Almost anything can be frozen and kept fresh: bread (best sliced), milk (shake when thawed), eggs (raw but scrambled), and cheese (shredded for cooking). Don’t forget to freeze leftovers, even if just for a few days.

  5. Understand expiration dates. “Use by,” “best by,” “enjoy by” — these are generally not expiration dates but suggestions as to when the product is at its freshest. Most food is often safe to eat days, weeks, (sometimes even months, but do be careful) after those dates.

Most of all, do something! Change needs to happen at the household level. Because solutions to the enormous challenge of food waste can create equally extensive benefits, particularly at the local level. By reducing the amount of food that is thrown out, cities can stabilize their waste management costs and make progress toward climate and sustainability goals. By rescuing surplus food, municipalities can address food gaps in local communities. And by recycling food scraps, cities can minimize what goes into landfills and incinerators (NDRC). We all have a part to play and, no matter how sustainably we grow our food, it’s all for naught if we don’t use it to benefit ourselves, our community, and, perhaps most importantly, our planet.

Photography by Sahil Sethi, Lucy Grossmann, and others
©2020 by SEEC