A Book Review: Two Perspectives on Food Waste
Statistics on food waste are sobering. In the US, it is estimated that 40% of food produced is not eaten. In Canada, only 71% of the calories purchased are actually consumed. However, despite growing awareness of this issue, food waste numbers have not budged. Although the problem can be clearly articulated, it is much less clear why we are so wasteful and what we can do about it.
Two books, David Evans’ Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life and Dana Gunders’ Waste Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food provide a much needed practical look at food waste on the individual level. Rather than simply bemoaning our culture of disposability, these books provide evidence-based insights into why people actually waste food.
Evans’ book is a sociological study of individual food waste habits in a neighbourhood in the U.K. He approaches the issue from a refreshing perspective. He emphasizes that he is not aiming to write a polemic on the issue or to judge individuals for their waste, but instead tries to understand why people cannot seem to stop wasting large quantities of the food they buy. Evans’ focused look on a dozen or so people shows that individuals’ reasons for waste are very different, and hence any change must focus on these individual motivations.
The modern tension between the desire to eat as healthily as possible and a lack of time seems to be at the root of much food waste. Busy lives lead to routine, including buying the same items each week whether or not last week’s groceries have been used up. The people described in Evans’ book also sometimes abandoned plans for healthy meals and snacks in favour of convenience food, which is cheap and readily available. Several of the individuals wrongfully believed fresh produce is always better than frozen vegetables and fruit. This misconception often leads to greater food waste, especially when only a small part of a vegetable is used to produce a healthy meal, and the rest discarded.
In Waste Free Kitchen, Dana Gunders provides realistic solutions to the food waste problem. Her credentials make her an expert on this issue; she works as Senior Scientist at the US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Similar to Evans, she identifies a number of typical reasons for excessive food waste:
- Wishful thinking: for example, buying ingredients to make a healthy smoothie, even though you do not like smoothies.
- Too-large portion sizes: many of
us buy and cook meals with portion sizes that are often beyond what we can, or
should, eat. For example, recipes in the classic cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, have increased by 33.2 percent since 1996.
- Lack of kitchen know-how: we either buy food we do not know how to prepare, or lack the skills to incorporate leftovers into future meals.
The overall framework of Gunders’ book is based on simple suggestions that we have all heard before:
- Meal plan and shop with a list.
- Use an online portion calculator to ensure you are not cooking too much.
- Plan ahead. Do not assume you will cook everything from scratch or even home cook every meal. How often do you end up meeting and eating with friends and family? Be realistic.
Gunders also provides a number of scientifically-sound tips regarding food storage and safety. A major reason why people dispose of food is because they are not sure if it is still safe to eat. Erring on the side of caution, they toss items that are still perfectly safe.
Food poisoning can be very serious, even fatal, and people are not willing to risk their families’ health unless they are given sufficient information about when food becomes unsafe to consume. Gunders does an excellent job providing consumers with useful information meant to help them confidently make decisions about food safety in their own kitchens. She prefaces this information with a disclaimer that special groups need to be more careful: individuals who are pregnant, babies and toddlers, the elderly (75+), and those who are immune deficient.
Gunders explains that food poisoning is usually either due to infections by living microorganisms or toxins they produce or other toxins in food, not by the decomposing process per se. This means that anything that will make you sick is usually in the food before you even get it, and does not just develop as perishables age.
Furthermore, and despite their ubiquity on packaged food, expiration dates are not regulated, and are not reliable indicators that a food is, or is not, safe to eat. It is entirley up to manufacturers to decide how to date their food. The date could be based on lab or consumer tests, and often indicates when the food is no longer at peak freshness, rather than having anything to do with food safety.
Surprisingly, eggs are OK to eat 3-5 weeks after sell-buy date. Given that many stores only sell eggs by the dozen, it is very helpful to know that an egg does not go bad as rapidly as the sell-by date would suggest.
Gunders’ tips about properly organizing your fridge were also very interesting and easy to implement:
- For maximum longevity, stand up some produce in the fridge, in a glass or container of water, resembling flowers in a vase: cilantro, basil, asparagus, kale, etc. (From my own experience, I would recommend dedicating a container as an herb vase to avoid scents from absorbing into your glasses.)
- It is key to keep your fridge at 4°Celsius. It is might be helpful to buy a thermometer if you don’t have one in your fridge already.
- The bottom shelf is coldest, so keep meat there. This is also good in case meat drips.
- Keep an 'Eat Me first box' to make items that need to be consumed visible.
- Keep nuts in the fridge if they will not be used up in a week or two.
The book concludes with a directory listing common foods and includes valuable information for each - how long it lasts, how to store it, freeze it, keep it in a root cellar, use it up, or even revive it. Gunders also included recipes for foods that are more difficult to use up: including “anything-goes -soup”, sautéed lettuce, and frozen banana purée.
Although food waste may not simply be conquered by exposing people to alarming statistics-if we become attuned to the reasons why we are wasting food-we may be able to make small changes in our habits to ensure that more of the food that we buy is actually eaten.
Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life: by David Evans. Bloomsbury Academic: London, 2014.
Waste Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food: by Dana Gunders. Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2015.
 Waste Free Kitchen.
 With the exception of baby formula.