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The food in your garbage 

How leftovers can help change the world for the better

There’s an elephant in the room, and it stinks. It’s that leftover serving of lasagna that lingered in the back of your fridge before being overtaken by colonists from planet mold. It’s that apple with a bruise that you didn’t bother trying to save. And it’s that bag of spinach that you never even opened, now a victim of eyebrow-raising brown slime.

It happens to all of us. Indeed, 14 percent of food that makes it into our homes is never eaten, but shuttled off to a landfill. What’s even more frightening is that households are actually relatively efficient when compared to the overall food system in the United States. Timothy Jones, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, studied food waste for a decade and found that 40 to 50 percent of food produced in this country is wasted. Allow yourself a moment for that statistic to sink in. Up to a full half of our country’s food becomes garbage or is ploughed into fields if a market fluctuation makes it uneconomical to harvest and sell.

Warming your belly … and the planet

As you might expect with anything that has earned the distinction of garbage, you probably don’t think much about what happens to food after it leaves your possession, should it be the fries you didn’t finish when you stopped for a burger or the aforementioned spinach with its unmentionable slime.

After making its way to a nearby landfill, that food is eventually buried by more trash. As there is no oxygen present, anaerobic decomposition commences. When organic matter decomposes anaerobically it generates methane, a greenhouse gas with up to 62 times the global warming potential of the oft-maligned carbon dioxide.

Besides contributing to global warming and requiring the rapidly dwindling resources of landfill space and fossil fuels for transportation, this food is effectively removed from the replenishing cycle that built the Earth’s fertility over millennia. Instead of being separated from the rest of the waste stream and turned into compost, a valuable soil amendment, it becomes a smelly, methane-generating burden.

Current U.S. food production methods have an even more considerable footprint across a broad spectrum of influence. Land use and social justice are two such areas that I often consider. While it is beyond the scope of this commentary to discuss the finer points of either of these, let alone the impact of food production as a whole, it should suffice to say that the bounty of cheap, disposable food that we enjoy in this country comes at great costs. These costs are hard to see because they are well hidden or, to use the parlance of industry, “externalized.”

Some of these costs include topsoil erosion, groundwater pollution, loss of wildlife habitat, questionable labor practices, and high incidences of many diseases among farm workers, including various cancers and Hodgkin’s Disease. The list goes on, but the disheartening point I wish to make is that many of these costs would be reduced if waste wasn’t built into the system.

You can be the change

Reducing food waste begins where you have the most control: in your home. Below is a summary of the tips offered by Professor Jones in an interview on NPR. Give some of these a try if you’d like to make use of more of the food you buy. In doing so, you could save some of the $590 that an average family of four throws out each year.

Shop at the end of the week, so you’ll be able to use any free time on the weekend to prepare items like fruits and vegetables.

• Be realistic: Buy enough for your lifestyle and family, no more.

• Instead of surrendering them to the back of the fridge, freeze your leftovers for later use.

Perhaps you’re wondering about the food that is carted off before you even have a chance to buy it. There is waste at every point in the system that brings food to your local supermarket or restaurant. Consider the various channels through which food travels and can be “culled”:

• The field, orchard, or feedlot—wherever it is produced

• The warehouse or granary where it is stored before being distributed

• The processing facility where it is turned into another product

• The distributor’s warehouse where it waits to be shipped to an end-user

• The final outlet, should it be a grocery store, restaurant, or soup kitchen

As you can see, there are abundant possibilities for loss. As food passes through more and more hands, it becomes less likely that any waste will be returned to the soil to grow more food.

Given the presence of this corporate juggernaut of waste, it may seem pointless to even consider changing anything in your life. Actually, there is something very simple you can do: Stop giving them your money! 

Purchasing as much food as you can as locally as possible not only keeps money circulating in the local economy and supports small family farmers, but it inherently reduces food waste by eliminating middlemen. If possible, try to buy directly from a farmer. Visit to find farms, farmers’ markets, and CSAs in your part of the county.

Once you’ve hooked up with a farmer, consider some of these suggestions for fun ways to be more involved in what you eat, all of which will also reduce wasteful middlemen:

Cook more meals at home. There is a rich history of coming together around food; make food preparation a joyful tradition in your family or neighborhood.

• Try your hand at preserving in-season produce or making healthy snacks.

Prepare meals in bulk and freeze leftovers for quick and delicious meals during the week.

Most importantly, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! Allow yourself to gradually integrate this article’s suggestions into your life as you find the time and space. And don’t despair. For many years, this scale of waste was not the norm, so it is certainly possible to work toward reducing it. Do what you can as an individual and be open to helping others do the same. You have more influence than you think.

Send comments on Rory Wood’s thoughts to [email protected].

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

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