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Americans Throw Away 'Ridiculous' Amount of Food

By Rick Nathanson
Of the Journal
          The amount of food Americans waste is "ridiculous," says Albuquerque chef Joyce Woodard, a lead instructor in the culinary arts program at Central New Mexico Community College.
        "We have pantries filled with unopened boxes and cans that have outlived their expiration dates," Woodard says. Meats, poultry and fish have been made "inedible by freezer burn" from sitting too long forgotten. Our refrigerators contain restaurant and home-cooked leftovers that "went bad before we could eat them," as well as dairy products, fruits and vegetables "that seemed like a bargain when purchased in pre-packaged amounts" but is more than what can be eaten in a reasonably short time.
        U.S. restaurants are culpable, too, Woodard says. They often serve portions that are larger and more calorie dense than what people ought to consume. If restaurants regularly offer half-orders, that would reduce food waste and the amount of take-home boxes that wind up in the trash, she says.
        Too much food winds up in the trash because most people don't have a meal plan when they shop, says Cindy Schlenker Davies, a home economist with the Bernalillo County Extension Service.
        Annual loss
        The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Americans throw away more than 25 percent of uneaten and prepared foods from homes, restaurants, cafeterias and grocery stores. Factor in food losses from farms and the amount jumps to more than 40 percent.
        That translates to more than 31 million tons annually. It also accounts for about 13 percent of landfill waste, making it the third largest stream of landfill material behind paper products and yard waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
        Timothy Jones, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona's Bureau of Applied Research, estimates the financial cost at $100 billion a year. For a household of four, that's nearly $600 a year in spoilage.
        That doesn't include the financial loss represented by water, fertilizers, pesticides and petroleum to bring much of this food to market, notes Jones. Nor does it consider the effects of landfill methane gas emissions, the second largest man-made cause of this greenhouse gas in the U.S.
        In "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It)," freelance journalist Jonathan Bloom looks at the U.S. culture of excess and waste in the land of plenty.
        But we can reduce how much food we waste and save money.
        Plan ahead
        Davies recommends that people prepare meal plans before they shop, create a shopping list for those meal plans, and typically avoid buying in bulk.
        "You don't save much buying the large economy size of anything if you don't use it and it goes bad."
        Proportion is important, too. "Don't buy a pound of deli meat if you're only going to eat a half pound," she says. Likewise, if you can't eat an entire bag of apples, oranges, potatoes or onions, then purchase them individually.
        Americans tend to lose track of what's inside their large refrigerators, Woodard says. She suggests placing older items closest to the front of the refrigerator, freezer and pantry. That makes them more visible and are more likely to be used.
        People need to learn to "cut back," or "adjust" recipes for smaller servings to avoid food waste, and they should be armed with some practical ideas on what to do with leftovers meals and extra foods, Woodard says.
        Many shoppers buy a loaf of bread "and then eat only four or five slices before it gets stale or moldy," Davies says. At room temperature, breads and pastry can be kept three to five days beyond the expiration date. Refrigerating will delay mold but dry out the bread, causing it to become stale more quickly. In the freezer, bread can last up to two months in freezer bags or containers.
        Try buying smaller loaves of bread, which are becoming more common in grocery stores, or buy single buns in the bakery section.
        "Individually, they may be more expensive, but in the long run you will save money and have less waste," she says.
        Get creative
        Find creative strategies with leftovers. Chef Joyce Woodard offers these tips:
        Bread: Make bread pudding or French toast. Create croutons by cutting bread into cubes, season to taste and bake in the oven until lightly toasted.
        Raw vegetables: Blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water. After they cool, divide them into freezer bags for individual servings.
        Cooked vegetables: These do not freeze well, so use them in casseroles, or add to soups or stews with a base of cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup.
        Raw fruits: Bananas can be frozen and are terrific in smoothies, banana bread and banana muffins. Other hardier fruits can be blanched in boiling water, like vegetables, and then divided into individual serving freezer bags for later use.
        Cooked rice: Rice freezes well and is versatile. Eat it as a side dish, add it to soups or stews, use it in rice pudding or add carrots, celery and onions to make rice pilaf.
        Whole chicken: Cut the meat off the bone and freeze it in bags or use it to make chicken enchiladas, chicken casseroles, or add it to soups and stews.
        Ground beef: Use in tacos, burritos, soups and stews.
        Meatloaf: Cut leftovers into slices and make meatloaf sandwiches.
        Pork and beef steaks and roasts: Solid meats freeze better than ground meats. Pieces can be added to stews and soups along with leftover vegetables and rice. Pulled apart or shredded, these meats can be used in tacos and burritos. Create a roast beef sandwich with beef strips marinated in sherry and topped with melted cheese and sautéed onions and mushrooms.
        Fridge and freezer life
        Most produce should be refrigerated and ought to last a week to 10 days.
        Bananas, which shouldn't be refrigerated, have a shelf life of about a week before they turn brown, says Cindy Schlenker Davies, a Bernalillo County Extension Service home economist.
        Apples and oranges can sit on a shelf for up to two weeks and potatoes and onions up to a month. Refrigerating these may extend that by a week or two.
        Eggs should always be kept refrigerated and are good for four or five weeks. They don't freeze well, she says. Dairy products also should be refrigerated. Some can be frozen for longer storage, though not with the best results.
        Milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt and cheeses can separate, discolor and change in texture. After freezing, "they can be used for cooking, but not much else," Davies says.
        Butter and margarine are exceptions. Butter will stay frozen up to nine months and margarine and butter spread substitutes will last up to a year.
        Poultry, fish and dishes that contain them can stay refrigerated for about three days; beef and other red meats, as well as dishes containing them, are good refrigerated for about five days.
        When frozen, deli meats can last up to two months; poultry, nine months to a year; red meats up to a year; and fish, from six months to a year.
        Dry foods, like cereals and grains, can become stale on the shelf after their expiration date. Nuts, which have natural oils, can become rancid. But cereals, grains and nuts "freeze nicely" and can last up to a year and nuts up to two years without compromising taste or texture, Davies says.
        Share your ideas
        How do you turn your leftovers into something yummy? Send your ideas to Gayle Geis, food editor, at ggeis@abqjournal.com or 823-3852 by Feb. 9. Be sure to include your contact info.

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