The no-waste food preservation plan
40% of all food produced worldwide, and nearly half of all food produced in the US goes to waste. When you break down the realities of food waste, you see that in the developing world, much of the waste is due to lack of ability to preserve food – no refrigeration means that sheep you slaughtered is waste if all of it isn’t eaten or dried or otherwise preserved immediately. Lack of energy to run grain dryers means that rain at the wrong time results in moldy grain, etc…
In the Global North, however, the vast majority of food is wasted not in the field, but in the process of getting to our homes. Whether it is lost to minor imperfections that don’t affect taste, to shape differences that mean that industrial processing equipment that shaves down the carrot to make those “baby” carrots can’t handle them, to losses in shipping, on display at your local market, and finally, rotting in the back of the fridge.
As food prices rise and hunger rises world wide, as the population grows and food prices are increasingly tied to the rapidly rising price of oil, reducing food waste becomes absolutely critical to making sure everyone gets fed. In a recent post, I focused on parts of plants in your garden that you may not realize can be eaten and enjoyed. Again, thinking about how to maximize access to food, let’s talk about how to make the most of the food you have by using food preservation to minimize waste – that way you save money and don’t have to buy as much, moreover, you reduce marketplace competition for food and waste – like so many of the things we do, this is a win-win thing. You get yummy food, lower bills, less guilt, less slime in the fridge and less time in the stores – how often do you get so much good stuff out of something so simple?
Moreover, western food waste has a particular quality to us – we pack as many calories of fossil energy as we can into the food we throw in the trash to make methane at our landfills. The WAY we waste food – that is, later in the food chain, after lots of processing and preserving makes a huge difference. Supermarkets throwing out lightly dinged cans and crates of produce, households buying food and burying it in the back of their refrigerators – this is the picture of food waste in the Global North. It is worth noticing that specifically speaking, larger quantities of wealth and technology make absolutely no difference in total food wastage – the difference is that we run energy hungry refrigerators and process food into cans *before* we throw it out – investing 20 times more energy in our food before we put it in the trash. Talk about resources down the drain. The average American wastes nearly 800 dollars in food per year – that’s a lot of money down the drain as well. We must change this!
Ok, so what can we do to reduce food waste from the time that food enters our hot little hands either from the garden, the market or the store? There are some obvious tools to reduce world food waste, and some not-so-obvious tools. Some of the obvious ones involve making better use of the food you do have, making more meals out of your leftovers, using food scraps for compost and to raise livestock in populated areas (converting waste into fertility and more food), building networks to distribute perfectly good food, encouraging freegans and dumpster divers, and simply doing more sharing – if you can’t eat that CSA share, instead of letting it rot, give it away!
One of the less obvious available strategies for us in the Global North, however, is small scale home food preservation. As more and more of us look locally for food, we have more power to reduce both food waste, and the energy used in the food system before we waste. Buying in bulk, preserving what is abundant and cheap at the market, in our garden or in excess in the wild (many invasive plants are delicious), and using methods of food preservation to reduce home food waste can make a significant difference in the overall picture. Just as your pasta molding in the fridge is a link to a much vaster cultural problem, the fruit leather from overripe fruit about to go moldy is a link in the chain that begins to address this fundamental problem.
How do you use food preservation to reduce waste? Well, in an emergency – which might be a power outage when everything in your freezer is vulnerable or a hard frost you weren’t prepared for that threatens the tomato crop, you can get out your solar dehydrator, your canning jars, your salt, the root cellar, and protect that food from loss. With a CSA share or a relationship with local farmers, you can get access to cheap food – not industrial cheap food, but the food they have that is so abundant that there are discounts for bulk purchase – and put that food by. Doing so saves you money on higher priced food come winter, but also reduces farmer losses. A particularly good time to do this is around frost – most farmers and gardeners will harvest everything they can right before the frost, leaving them with large quantities of bulk produce available to customers who know to ask.
Gleanings programs that glean agricultural fields for food missed by tractors and harvesters can reduce hunger in your community and also give you free food to preserve. So can wild harvest of edibles that grow in abundance or in excess – no need for that garlic mustard to rot into compost, you might as well eat it first. Your farmer or supermarket may be willing to sell you “seconds” – fruit with minor imperfections.
But most of all, at the home scale, food preservation can reduce the loss of food in our refrigerators and root cellars. Apples got a brown spot? Don’t dump them, make applesauce or apple leather. Cabbage dried on the outside? Give the chickens or rabbits the outer leaves and make sauerkraut with the inner ones. Do you have a little bit of extra oatmeal? Make crackers. Many of us have a mental image that food preservation is something one does in vast stretches of time, canning a truckload of tomatoes, or a bushel of peaches – and perhaps you’ll want to do some of that too. But really, the simplest forms of preservation involve putting a little bit of what you’ve got a lot of up for your own enjoyment later. Freeze that bit of leftover chicken, and add it to your tacos later. Yes, it is worth making broth with the bones from the chicken wings you had from dinner for your risotto or a pot of soup.
When your basil goes to seed, you needn’t pull it – cut the flower heads off and use them to flavor basil vinegar. Frost going to take your squash? Dry that green pumpkin to make green pumpkin pie later, like the Ingalls family did on the prarie, or treat your green squash like zucchini. Pickled watermelon rind is delicious, squash seeds should be dried and spiced for eating.
Small amounts of cooked meats can be dehydrated for jerky, or frozen. Cooked leftover grains make wonderful crackers, can be added to breads. Fruit past its prime makes wonderful fruit butters and fruit leathers. Apple pulp from making sauce or apple butter can be used to make vinegar. Dried apple peels mixed with cinnamon and cloves make a delicious tea.
Every animal bone in the house gets cooked for stock here – and there’s nothing like real stock. The water vegetables are steamed in makes a nice soup base as well.
Ultimately, getting in the habit of cruising through the fridge or the root cellar and looking “what do we need to eat or use soon?” What could I preserve? It takes a certain amount of getting used to the idea that food preservation isn’t just about the glut, but a small part of a daily system, but the rewards are profound.
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