According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, food waste is responsible for 8% of global human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s take advantage of this life-altering moment in our history to make that change.
During the limitations (and the hardship) of lockdown we discovered and put in practice some good habits that once came naturally to our past generations. Habits that should be maintained even after the end of the health emergency. One of these is reducing food waste.
With lockdown we saw our habits and attitudes shift, undoubtedly. The way we source, prepare and store our food, for example. The renewed desire to bake bread and cook “from scratch” are also telltale signs of this adjustment. Out of necessity the concepts of “back to basics,” frugality and inventiveness come closer. Leftovers and scraps make their way back into our dishes. And, mostly, people are once again more important to us than things. I say ‘once again’ because this is how past generations lived. With less, giving greater significance to different, deeper values. Values that lockdown taught us to cherish. I say this is a good thing.
Limit food waste by choosing the “ugly food”
The first big lesson we’ve learned and that will shift our perception going forward is limiting the amount of waste we produce. I don’t remember accumulating this crazy quantity of trash when I was growing up. My family made reasonable choices and always had the fortune of putting enough food on the table fo feed the entire family, but in no way did we generate this volume of refuse. Partly responsible for this is the ridiculous amount of packaging resulting from the food industry. But we are also over-buying and our habits as consumers are not praise-worthy, either. We are directly and indirectly responsible for wasting a lot of food. Something that for a large part could be avoided if we were willing to appreciate, buy and eat foods generally considered “suboptimal,” meaning oddly shaped, blemished, discolored or bruised. Ugly, by modern standards.
I remember when I was a little girl, mom and I would go to the neighborhood market. She’d instruct me to choose the softest figs, the ones that looked the most beat up, because they were the sweetest. She’d ask me to find the potatoes most caked in dirt. Or the lemons whose peel was not bright and waxy, but rather opaque, unevenly yellow and knobbly. Better if with the leaves still attached. Influenced by the way food looked on TV and in magazines, I would naturally go for the plumper, firmer, blemish-free. Mom would steer me back to the “ugly food.” This was not activist behavior, she simply knew what tasted better!
Then the trend of perfectly polished stacks of geometrically identical (engineered) apples in the supermarket took hold here in Italy, too. All the same size, color, shape. All beautiful, all tasteless. Did we forget the difference? Biting into organically grown plants did we not have a Madeleine moment and suddenly remember the flavor, aroma and texture of the ugly food we grew up with, compared to the beauty contest produce found in big chain grocery stores? It became harder and more expensive to find the ugly food and our taste buds adapted to the dumbed down flavors.
Quarantine may have had us fighting over brewer’s yeast (never toilet paper) but it has also brought us back to small markets, valuing, buying and eating organic, ugly farmstead foods more sensibly. I say this is a good thing.
Support small neighborhood businesses
During quarantine, we also came to learn that there are good days, and there are awful days. It’s up to us to make the best of the good days, and not beat ourselves up for the bad, unproductive, sad and heartache days. When I’m feeling particularly optimistic (and I try my best to not get irritated by the people who disregard social distancing and who inch up to me without a mask during the queue at the grocery store) I focus on the rediscovered sense of belonging to my neighborhood and of the small village-like community that inhabits it.
I am loyal to a handful of trusted food artisans and small local businesses. Now more than ever these individuals have become dependable fixed points, heroes of our day-to-day existence. Antonio, my greengrocer. Patrizia and her retired parents at the home supply store. Alessandro and his two sisters who work tirelessly at the Forno named after their grandfather Franco. Gianluca, the fishmonger that cleans, scales and guts my fish every Friday morning. They have always been there, even when convenience and wallet made it easier for me to run to the supermarket to grab frozen peas, canned beans and detergent in one go. My neighborhood suppliers are still there, putting in the shopping bag way more than I purchased. A free cooking tip and odori (ingredients for mirepoix plus fresh herbs), a joke, a silent nod, a moment of human interaction.
During quarantine, these heroes are regaining the important role they once played in a time before big box stores and mass distribution. That daily routine when food shopping was a moment of socialization and important human contact. I find that by going to small neighborhood shops I purchase more wisely, instead of being attracted/distracted by the colorful aisles at the grocery store. I am more focused and only buy what’s necessary. Hence I waste less. I say this is a good thing.
Buy less to reduce food waste
To avoid food going to waste, I’ve learned to purchase fewer fresh products at a time. This is a common practice in Italy. Before quarantine, I would shop every day, for two/three meals at a time. During the 8 weeks of strict quarantine in Italy, we shopped for 14 days or more, stocking the pantry and freezer in order to limit grocery rounds; and then cooked and froze the food to extend its shelf life, as well as limit spoilage. It’s also smart to plan out weekly menus, balancing meals according to the expiry date and the perishability of various foods.
No food waste: use the scraps
In a recent post we shone the spotlight on a number of vegetables we shouldn’t be peeling. But to limit the amount of waste, we can take it one step further: we can rethink foods that we generally consider scraps, which can extend their precious nutrients to create tasty additions to your dishes:
- Make panzanella, meatballs, bread pudding, breadcrumbs and more with stale bread!
- We can brew a health-boosting tea infusion with discarded artichoke leaves.
- Mince, blanche and stir-fry broccoli stalks and any leaves as a tasty flavor bomb to add to sauces and stews.
- Strip the fibrous filaments from the white part of cauliflower leaves and stalks, finely chop for a delicious veggie curry
- Make pesto with carrot tops, adding pistachio or pine nuts, sharp cheese and olive oil.
Regrowing plants from waste
One of the ways to reuse food scraps, and reduce the amount of waste is regrowing: a way to bring back to life the last bits of onion, leek, lettuce and celery we’d normally throw out. All the unused parts of certain vegetables can be replanted to create “vegetative reproduction,” that is, without seeds. This method has multiple environmental values: by extending the life of these scraps we not only generate much less waste, but we can have access to fresh organic vegetables that are home-grown, local and at zero cost.
The best for this are lettuce, celery, fennel or spring onions: simply don’t discard the end part of the plant, cutting approximately 3 inches from the roots, place cut side up in a glass or a small jar with enough water to submerge the roots or the stalk part. Leave the jar in the sun for about a week, but make sure you change the water every day. The cut stalks will immediately start to regrow, at which point you can transfer to a container with potting soil, water regularly, and watch your food grow!
Home composting is one of the best solutions to make the best use of our scraps. Despite our efforts, it’s virtually impossible to not produce any waste. Fortunately we can salvage a part of this from the garbage dump. This precious “rubbish” can be transformed into important nutrients for the soil. Italians who live in apartment buildings rarely have their own garden (or garbage disposal system in their sink).
The good news is that it’s possible to compost even on our balconies. Scraps of fruits and vegetables can all go in the compost bin. Same goes for paper, sawdust and leaves. On the other hand, dairy products, bones, cooked foods, fats and oils cannot. The secret is to maintain the right balance between green material – such as vegetables, flowers and fruit refuse –– and what’s referred to as brown material, such as dry leaves, newspapers, egg shells, coffee grounds and nut shells. This balance allows the compost to develop nutrients for the soil without releasing unpleasant odors.
What efforts do you make to reduce food waste?