The topic of food waste has been slowly creeping its way into the mainstream, introducing masses of consumers to new ways of thinking about their food habits and purchase decisions. In 2017, the late Anthony Bourdain produced the documentary Wasted!, calling attention to food waste in America. In the United States, the average family spends $1500 a year on wasted food, and 10 million tons of produce go unharvested each year. Here in Hawaiʻi, the City and County of Honolulu Department of Environmental Sciences estimates show we throw out over $1 billion per year. That means Hawaiʻi residents spend an average of $700 loss on food that goes straight to the garbage. On Oʻahu, 15 percent of residential garbage is food, equating to about 435 pounds of food waste per household per year.
Hawaii residents know all too well that food doesn’t come cheap. We pay some of the highest food prices in the United States, but we still waste more than a quarter of our food supply. Wasted food equals wasted money. Besides the financial impact to each individual or family, how else does food waste affect Hawaii?
Environmentally, wasted food rotting away in our landfills cause greenhouse gas emissions such as methane, which is at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, a main contributor to man-made climate change (Environmental Defense Fund, 2012). Preventing food waste can help reduce methane gas emissions and improve climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a Food Recovery Hierarchy as a guide on how to reduce and prevent food waste listing most preferred methods beginning with source reduction to reduce the volume of surplus food generated; donating extra food to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters; converting food scraps to animal feed; converting waste oils and food scraps for energy; composting food waste to be used as fertilizer; to the least preferred method of landfill disposal or incineration.
Food waste also affects our local economy and sustainability of local food systems. In 2015, Matthew Loke and PingSun Leung from the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (UHCTAHR) published a study quantifying the amount of food waste produced by the state and found that a significant share of the food waste in the state begins at the ports, instead of on the farms during harvest. Imported food has to travel more than 2,500 miles in a shipping container from the mainland. Hawaii’s hot, humid island weather makes food spoil faster and one-third of our island’s total food waste is food that’s already been spoiled before it reaches consumer hands.
While Loke and Leung’s study shows that most food waste occurs at a consumer level, followed by the distribution and retail stages, the least amount of waste occurred during post-harvest and packing stages at local farms. Consumers can use their purchasing power to reverse the damaging effects of food waste. By choosing to buy local over imported, consumers can drive demand for local products and decrease our reliance on imported product while improving our local economy at the same time and support the sustainability of our food systems. Shopping at farmers markets, choosing local products at the grocery store or joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program like the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation’s (HAF) Local Inside CSA, consumers can reap the benefits of having produce that’s been harvested only days before its sold, making it fresher than anything that’s been imported and spent weeks to over a month in a shipping container or mass storage facility and will quickly go bad after being purchased by the consumer.
So now begs the question––How do you stretch the food you’ve already bought so it doesn’t go to waste? Humans have employed several food preservation methods long before modern technology. Freezing, fermenting and canning are the most common methods for preserving food. Here are some easy tips for you to follow:
- Freeze fresh produce and meat to use when you need it or cook your meals in big batches and freeze smaller portions to reheat and eat on a later date. You can also save bones and vegetable scraps together in a bag or container in the freezer to make homemade stock or broth.
- Fermenting fruits and vegetables before they reach the point of having seen better days is easier than you might think. Check out these tips and tricks on How To Ferment Vegetables.
- Learn how to can your own pickles and preserves at home with this guide to Home Canning Basics.
- Find a recipe in this new cookbook published by the James Beard Foundation––Waste Not––on how to make the most of your ingredients and “turn every root, bone, rind, and stem into an irresistible dish”