Hannah Koski is the director of procurement & sustainability at Blue Apron.
Food waste is making headlines. The closure of much of the food service industry has turned the food supply chain on its head. The news is filled with photo after horrifying photo of vegetable crops rotting in fields, and gallons of milk being dumped out. Coronavirus has scrambled the way that the United States produces, distributes, and consumes food, and the results have been catastrophic.
The pandemic’s impact on food waste is staggering. Tens of millions of pounds of food are being discarded as service industry demand plummets, and this problem isn’t new. Before schools, restaurants, and other venues shut down, we were already wasting 30-40% of our food supply in this country. ReFED, a leading multi-stakeholder non-profit committed to reducing food waste in the United States, estimates that 52 million tons of food are wasted every year. That amount is equivalent to $218 billion, or 1.3% of GDP. More than 40% of that waste, in excess of 20 million tons annually, occurs at the household level.
Today, Americans are grocery shopping—and stockpiling—more than ever. It seems inevitable that the amount of food ending up in trash cans, and ultimately in landfills, is going to be on the rise. That wasted food comes with enormous environmental costs. According to the USDA, food waste contributes roughly 18% of total U.S. methane emissions from landfills. Factor in the energy that was used to grow, manufacture, and distribute that food, and it’s clear we have a big problem. This waste has a social cost as well. Feeding America estimates that 37 million Americans struggled with hunger before the coronavirus pandemic, and food banks have experienced record demand since.
There are, however, some simple things we can do. These tips can help limit how much food we, as consumers, are sending to the landfill.
Plan your meals. Plan out meals each week to use up what’s already in the fridge and pantry, and keep cross-utilization in mind. If one recipe calls for kale, plan on a second kale recipe so that you can use up the whole bunch. Make a list and stick with it when you shop. Be careful to not buy too much of what you already have.
Store food correctly. Storing food correctly will give it the longest possible shelf life, giving you time to use it up and prevent spoilage. Keep your fridge organized and you’ll be able to keep an eye on what needs to be eaten. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has an interactive food storage guide at savethefood.com.
Learn about labels. A “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” date refers only to quality, not safety. Food that has passed any of those dates may still be good to eat.
Get creative. Designate a “clean out the fridge” meal; make croutons from stale bread or play around with pickling. “Recycling” food can cut down on spoilage not only from surplus stocks, but also from those scraps that would otherwise get thrown in the trash.
Donate! Buy too much? If you went a little overboard on the stockpiled flour and rice, donate what you can to your local food bank. Feeding America allows you to search for the food bank nearest you by zip code on their website.