I am grateful to the Washington Post for republishing, as it occasionally does, Slate's "Green Lantern" column - this one, "Much Food Goes to Waste ..." has some important truths about the waste of food in the U.S. Though a recent study suggested that as much of 40% of food produced in the U.S. is "wasted," that includes losses throughout the food chain, from trimming produce in the field, through transport and distribution, spoilage... and yes, eventually, the stuff we individual consumers throw out.
It's a lot of lost food along the way. There are some solutions. For example, wouldn't losses in transportation be considerably reduced if we grew and bought more food locally and settled for what's in season, rather than insisting on out of season fruits and vegetables from Mexico or Chile? (Locavores, take note.) Couldn't we dispense with some of the trendy, cheaper-to-produce but easier-to-spoil packaging we have these days, like the silly tuna pouches that can be destroyed by an accidental poke, rather than real cans that last almost forever?
But I'm especially interested in what can be done at the consumer end. In this as in other aspects of life, we've become a bit sissified; overcautious officials and food processors, concerned about lawsuits, have made us so, warning constantly of the dangers of food that may be "spoiled." These experts seemingly have no faith at all in the technology of refrigeration and freezing that man has invented over the years to prevent the waste of food.
We buy a lot of (well, almost exclusively) fresh fruit and vegetables for our household - no frozen, seldom canned, occasionally dried. We aren't vegetarians. We buy meat, and fish, and cheese, and most kinds of foodstuffs known to man. Now and then we do have to toss something, but it's rare. Here are a few examples of how we defeat the cycle of waste:
- When the power was out for three days after a hurricane, solemn food weenies advised that everything in refrigerators and freezers be thrown out. Sorry! Some things from refrigerators couldn't survive but if the freezer isn't opened, food can last for several days. Most of what was in our freezer was completely edible.
- We often cook something and store the rest in the refrigerator. It's not at all unusual for a week to go by before we finish it. Sometimes it's more. But if it's been refrigerated, and we're going to fully heat it again anyway, what's the problem?
- Last night I was whipping up a little dinner, just using odds and ends from the refrigerator. What to put with some fresh broccoli? I found a few basic white champignons gone brown and a little slimy, but why waste them? I rinsed them off, cut out a few of the worse soft spots, and they were delicious diced, sauteed with olive oil, marjoram, some balsamic, and mixed with steamed broccoli.
Just a few examples. There are many more. (By the way, eat your potato skins, too!)
Now, please don't take my advice - if you've been brainwashed by the food police, you'll be worried about stuff like this, you'll probably just get sick, and I don't want to be blamed. These experts are like the clothing manufacturers who put those labels on cotton garments telling you to "dry clean only" -- they're just trying to ensure nobody can blame them for anything. Personally, I don't believe them (or take them with a grain of salt).
But I believe in common sense. Even our caveman ancestors probably kept food longer than six hours without "refrigeration," which they hadn't invented yet. Let's not forget that spices were first used in Europe as a way of disguising the taste of food that might have gone a little bit "off." Even in our day and age, the U.S. is the only country I've ever lived in where eggs are routinely refrigerated in stores.
We could do a lot better, wasting less food at home, if we had a little better education in food preservation. More knowledge, fewer blanket rules attempting to cover all bases, all types of food, in all climates.