PHILADELPHIA -- Take an onion, Jonathan Deutsch explained. Spend some time with it, thinking carefully what you could do with it. Or with fish bones. Or broccoli stems.
"Think about the potentiality of every item," Deutsch said.
This is not a culinary Zen exercise. It's a start to handling your household food waste in a more environmentally sustainable manner.
For Deutsch, a chef, professor, and founding director of the Drexel Food Lab, this is how the home cook should start dealing with our country's burgeoning plate to trash can problem -- one food item at a time.
The Drexel Food Lab has been awarded an EPA grant for almost $740,000 to develop educational videos for home cooks focused on preventing and minimizing food waste, and measure their impact.
Over the next three years Deutsch and his staff will work with 100 households hosting community-based education sessions featuring a series of eight videos on how to reduce household food waste throughout the food prep cycle including meal planning, shopping, consuming, storing, and disposing.
Assistant administrator Chris Frey, of the EPA's Office of Research and Development, said that the grants "will help us identify successful strategies to empower communities to reduce food waste while improving food security."
Back to the future
Until the 1970s, using every bit of an animal, fruit or vegetable was the norm. "Every culture had a way of dealing with food [scraps]. That's the idea behind scrapple, soups, sorbets, and agua frescas, for example," Deutsch said.
But attitudes drastically changed as agriculture industrialized, bringing with it low food prices and high food abundance. The result, a General Accounting Office 1977 report noted, was that food waste prevention was an activity that "did not justify the economic expenditure necessary to reduce loss."
We now waste 50% more food than we did 50 years ago. Once food starts to smell, look unattractive or taste bad, over half of Americans throw it away instead of repurposing it.
An estimated $162 billion worth of food a year is thrown away. For the average family of four, that's at least $1,500 a year tossed in the garbage.
Reducing environmental harm
Making matters worse, this food waste starts an unfriendly environmental domino effect.
Dana Gunders, formerly of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), wrote in an influential white paper a decade ago, "Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50% of U.S. land, and swallows 80% of all fresh water consumed in the United States. Yet, 40% of food in the United States today goes uneaten."
As landfills fill with organic waste, it leads to increased emissions of methane gas.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's food waste hierarchy, landfills should be the choice of last resort. The best move is to reduce whatever surplus you have, and to donate what's left to feed the hungry.
Food waste and hunger insecurity are related problems. A 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that wasted food "contains enough calories to feed more than 150 million people each year," far in excess of the 35 million estimated food insecure Americans.
Reversing the fork to trash cycle requires first understanding consumers' obstacles. Research has shown they include heavy demands on their attention and time, as well as bureaucratic government policies and regulations.
In 2021 NRDC worked with two community groups, Strawberry Mansions CDC and Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition, to host focus groups to better understand how to craft food waste prevention messages that will resonant with the community. Residents discussed barriers to food waste prevention that included the inability to shop often, which resulted in larger purchases, the lack of access to a freezer, and pre-packed charity food boxes that contained unwanted items.
Rethinking your garbage
Despite a lack of large scale efforts to reduce food waste, Deutsch said you can start today in your own kitchen. He encouraged cooks to be creative, think about the ingredients they are using, and then play with their food.
Here are some waste reduction tips to consider:
1. Use your leftovers and don't let them get buried in the refrigerator.
2. Buy what you need and use what you buy.
3. Always carry containers or plastic baggies to restaurants to reuse the food you couldn't finish.
4. Put your vegetable scraps in plastic freezer bags to eventually use in broths.
5. Use fruit scraps in jams and sorbets.
6. Invest in a good vegetable scrub brush and eat the peels.
7. Compost your waste.
Upgrading once-ignored food into tasty, healthy treats is the brass ring of food waste prevention efforts. Take potato peels. They are becoming a star product of the potato industry, according to Potato News Today. But the home cook can benefit too with help from a growing number of food waste prevention recipes such as this one from the Drexel Food Lab for Potato Skin Crisps.
POTATO SKIN CRISPS
4 large Idaho potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/8 teaspoon dried parsley.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thoroughly wash the potatoes and make sure all dirt is scrubbed off.
Peel the potatoes trying to keep the skin in larger pieces.
Toss the peels with olive oil and salt and place in a single layer on a baking sheet.
Sprinkle the top with paprika and parsley.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until crisp. Serve as potato chips with dip, on a salad to add some crunch, add to the top of green bean casserole, or just eat as snack.