Reduce Food Spoilage & Waste by Changing What You Buy

A new Study from the USDA (Released in February 2014)  found  that: 

“In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels from 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion (using retail prices).”

Now while these numbers are taking into consideration losses from a variety of avenues during the entire process, from farm to fork, (including farming, post- harvest, packing, processing, distribution, retail & food service), for the purpose of this post, we will focus mainly on the household waste for the average U.S. household of four, which translates into an estimated $1,350 to $2,275 in annual losses, or about 25% of the household food purchased.

Why do we waste so much food?

The most common reason for wasted food is general food spoilage. Food spoils in homes for many reasons, but usually due to being improperly stored or being forgotten. A refrigerator with poor visibility can cause food to be left in a remote corner until it spoils and begins to smell bad. Common reasons for food spoilage include: 
  • Poor planning, impulse & unnecessary bulk purchases: Bust lifestyles, lack of meal planning, not keeping a shopping list, inaccurate estimates of meal preparation, and last-minute take-out or order-in meals can lead to food sitting & spoiling in your refrigerator before being used. In addition, many store promotions will lead to unusual or unnecessary bulk purchases which result in consumers buying too much or foods outside their typical diet, which then winds up spoiling/getting discarded. 
  • Confusion over expiration dates: Inconsistencies, and confusion regarding expiration dates cause many consumers to discard food prematurely. Expiration dates on food are generally not regulated and do not necessarily indicate food safety.  It is estimated that 20 percent of food in households is discarded because of expiration date confusion, which represents waste that could be avoided.
  • Lack of awareness or the undervaluing of food: Food that is cheap and readily available has encouraged shopping & eating habits that do not place high value on utilizing & consuming what food has been purchased. As a result, the issue of spoiled or wasted food is not a concern, even to those who consider themselves financially or environmentally conscious.
Household food waste has not always been a common occurrence. A study conducted in the late 1980's found that people over 65, many of whom lived through WWII or the Great Depression , wasted only half as much food as other age groups. 

There are many steps we can take to make food budgets stretch further and reduce waste. 

One of the ways is to learn to shop differently. Instead of buying food that spoils within days, (such as Kiwi fruit or baby spinach) buy foods that last a bit longer (see below) especially if you are not sure you will be able to eat them in a day or two. Some of these longer-lasting foods would include your typical 'root cellar' vegetables that your grandmother kept in the basement, (or in an actual root cellar). They used root cellars in the days before "Ice Boxes" and way before modern refrigeration, so food would not spoil as quickly.

I would qualify that while frozen vegetables are also a good option, during power outages (remember Hurricane Sandy?) you could lose your entire stock to spoilage. 

Since Jay and I are not a fan of canned vegetables, we tried growing and drying several varieties of beans this year, and it worked out really well. I know they are not technically vegetables (or fruits) but they are very easy to grow, harvest and store for the long term, so I would also add dried beans and legumes to these lists.

A word about pumpkins and winter squash: when selecting or harvesting, please be sure skin AND stem is intact or it will spoil within a week or two. Otherwise it will last well into the winter and beyond. If you are going to store fruits, store them separately, away from the vegetables. Fruits, especially apples, emit a gas that will ripen other fruits and vegetables much faster.

I have included some links that have compiled their information in a better manner than I could here. If you have another resource, please feel free to list it in the comments area below this post.