Pay Attention

Saving Waste

by Kathie Olsen

Saving Waste

Lucy Engelman

I do my best to pay attention. I pay attention to the food I feed my family: Keep it local, keep it fresh. I pay attention to our planet: Reduce waste, reuse what I can, buy used, and don’t drive when I can walk or use public transit. I often find myself doing my grocery shopping with worries nibbling at my brain: Global warming, energy consumption, hungry people around us, trash in the oceans, trash overflowing.

When I was asked to write an article on food waste, I was therefore prepared to get really depressed. To my delight and astonishment, however, my research has resulted in the first true optimism that I’ve felt in a long time. There’s good news out there! We can—if we choose—really do something to stop what feels like a free fall. Some of the smartest people around the world are working on solutions that make it possible for each of us to truly have an impact. We don’t have to wait for politicians or corporations to lead the way.

The Facts

Think reducing food waste is not important? Look at the following facts:

  • U.S. food waste has tripled since 1950.
  • According to the National Resources Defense Council, we waste 40 percent of the food we produce, which equates to 4 percent of the oil we consume. (That translates into 300 million barrels of oil used annually to produce food that is wasted.)
  • 95 percent of food waste ends up in landfills, where it produces 16 percent of U.S. methane emissions, one of the more noxious greenhouse gases. According to, 43 percent of all food wasted is from consumers.
  • Meanwhile, the number of hungry people in our country increases at an alarming rate, the majority of them children and senior citizens.

How We Got Here

It helps to figure out how we got into this predicament in the first place. Waste occurs all along the food chain, from farm to fork.

  • Farmers have a very small margin of error in their business. Market fluctuations and strict aesthetic food industry requirements, not to mention the vagaries of the weather, means that they must produce more than can actually go to market. What isn’t usable often lies rotting in the fields.
  • Food is damaged or lost as it is packaged and shipped. On average, food travels 1,500 miles from farm to table. Damaged food has to be dumped somewhere.
  • Some food goes to processing. Processed food requires vast amounts of resources, including water, a commodity that is becoming more and more precious each day. For example, Sustainable America calculated that it takes 45 gallons of water to produce one glass of orange juice. They estimated that food waste uses up 25 percent of our fresh water.
  • Next are the overstocked retail outlets. Retailers have to keep their displays looking fresh, and wise retailers want to have a wide variety of choices available to their customers. Expiration dates dictate when they must pull items from their shelves, and those dates are often arbitrary, unregulated, and flat out inaccurate. When the food isn’t purchased, or has to be pulled from the shelves, it is almost always wasted.

The good news is that all of this is solvable. The vast majority of food waste can be eliminated altogether or used to feed the hungry, feed animals, or to create new energy. Eliminating food waste can have a profound impact on global warming, water scarcity, and more. We can make a real difference.

On a grand scale, things are already being done. In 2014 Massachusetts enacted one of the most ambitious laws to stop large businesses and institutions from discarding food waste: Commercial entities (universities, hotels, grocery stores, manufacturers) that produce more than a ton of organic waste per week are required to find alternative disposal methods.

Composting is one such method; aerated piles of compost produce quality soil and water, and can actually produce energy through anaerobic digestion. Many municipalities nationwide are now collecting wasted food to turn into compost or energy.

The Kitchen Dilemma

Then there’s the nightmare of our own refrigerators. You know the story: you use half an onion, put the rest in the fridge, and then forget it’s there. Or, you have leftover chicken that you hope to use in tomorrow’s tacos, but then nobody wants tacos. The result? Wasted food.

  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, American households waste around 20 pounds of food each month. The Washington Post says that we have tripled our household food waste since the 1950s.
  • If you’re like me, you cook too much. Then you either forget to freeze the leftovers or don’t pull the leftovers out of the freezer until they’ve turned into a frozen slush that nobody wants.
  • You worry about the expiration date on that package. It doesn’t smell funny, it doesn’t look funny, but the date is there and that’s enough to dictate to your cautious self that you’d better toss it.
  • Let’s say you go out to eat (which Americans do more than they used to). Sustainable America states that the average restaurant meal is more than four times larger than it was in the 1950s. Restaurant diners leave 17 percent of their meals uneaten; 55 percent of those leftovers are not taken home, and 38 percent of those that are taken home end up getting thrown away.

Moving Forward

The problem, however, is bigger than simply how to deal with institutional and/or farm waste. Those of us who purchase and prepare food have to do our part as well. Just as we are learning how to recycle paper and plastic, we have to learn how to deal with our food in a new way. Food waste isn’t just expensive; it’s harming our planet. Eliminating food waste will help to heal and protect our planet. Here are some things that you (yes, you) can do:

  • Plan your meals and eliminate what waste you can.
  • For those of you with a garden, start a compost system. Put an empty pot with a good lid on your kitchen counter. As you prepare your food, put the peelings and shells and food waste into the pot. At the end of the day, when you take out your trash, toss your food waste into the compost. There are composters that are partially buried in the ground that you load from the top. There are drum-style composters that provide handles so they are easy to turn. You can even compost the old-fashioned way, by simply creating a screened space in your garden where you toss kitchen and garden scraps, turning it with a pitchfork. Each of these options has pros and cons. Look online and research which will work for you.
  • Break the habit of buying out-of-season fruit and vegetables that have had to travel great distances to find you.
  • Support your local farmers and food producers by purchasing their products.
  • Support those merchants who have food waste elimination practices and who support local products.
  • Encourage local waste companies to add composting to their practices (and don’t complain if it costs a bit more).
  • Take your family out for a fun outing and join Island Grown Gleaners for a morning of rescuing food.
  • Raise chickens or pigs, or find someone who does, and give them your leftover food.
  • Support local farmers’ markets, talk to the farmers and see how you can help.
  • When you go out to eat, split an entree with your dining companion. Think of it as less waste and less waist!
  • Check out the great website called produced by Sustainable America. Read it and find what appeals to you.

Case Study: on Martha’s Vineyard

On Island, about 5,000 tons of wasted food is shipped off the Island with our trash each year. But people are fighting back:

  • Sophie Abrams was hired in the Spring of 2016 by the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship to examine issues around the Island’s wasted food. As part of the study, a four-month Pilot Project was launched, collecting wasted food from six restaurants and bringing it to Morning Glory Farm to be turned into compost. In the first three months, they collected 10.1 tons (20,200 pounds) of food. Sophie says, “Morning Glory can’t handle all the food waste produced on the Island by itself. We need other farms to get registered to accept food waste, or we need a centralized composting facility.” She is hopeful and folks are working on the idea.
  • In 2009, Island Grown Initiative adopted a project that collects food left in Vineyard fields after farmers have finished their harvesting. Led by part-time staff and a hearty band of volunteers, Island Grown Gleaning now organizes regularly scheduled gleaning days, hosts school field trips, and manages delivery to 20 nonprofits and school sites Island-wide. Since 2012 they have rescued more than 130,318 pounds of food from fields and yards that would have otherwise gone to rot.
  • IGI’s Island Grown Schools project has gardens at every public school and many preschools on Martha’s Vineyard, where children learn about how food is grown, composting and its effect on soil health and water, and foods native to the Vineyard. Working with visionary school cafeteria staff, IGS helps children learn about the joys of eating locally grown food through a preschool–12th grade curriculum, and encourages schools to find ways to source local food within their budgetary constraints. Meanwhile, farmers find a local market in school cafeterias.
  • IGS also has an EPA-permitted compost system at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School where food scraps from the cafeteria are turned into compost, and they are building another one at the West Tisbury School. Other schools give their kitchen scraps to neighboring farmers to feed their animals.

You can—to put it simply—take food waste seriously. Make it a priority, and do something about it. You’ve learned how to recycle. You can learn how to do this. Everything from our planet to your budget will thank you.