Vail Behind the Scenes column: Full bellies, not full landfills
November 21, 2012
“Waste not, want not.” “Clean your plate! There are starving children in Biafra.”
Those were my mom’s admonitions in my childhood, less than 20 years after World War II ended. As someone who experienced food rationing firsthand, she knew how blessed we were to eat what we wanted, when we wanted. Yet, in our world of plenty of the post-war era, fears of food shortages don’t resonate with average Americans.
Globally, hunger kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. We see heartbreaking images of famine in far off places, but tend to overlook the hunger in our in own backyard and our own ability to end it. Chronic malnourishment exists in our country, and is prevalent close to home.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture – one of the most prolific regulatory agencies in the country – defines food security as “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Obviously, food insecurity is the converse. In 2011, 14.9 percent of American households were food insecure. Although I couldn’t obtain the numbers for Eagle County households, I did receive the number of meals served by the Salvation Army. Those numbers are not good. There has been a steady increase in people receiving food assistance from this stalwart charity between 2008 and 2011. Hunger is alive and well in our community where the rich and famous play.
So why the numbers on hunger? Isn’t it Thanksgiving, a time to enjoy the bounty of the harvest and give thanks for our blessings? Yes, but it’s also the perfect time to contemplate these issues and discover simple ways you can respect our food supply and help ensure there are more full bellies here.
Don’t waste Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is an American holiday we all celebrate in the same manner regardless of religious beliefs or ethnicity – feasting on traditional foods of the holiday. Americans will consume on average 3,000 calories at their Thanksgiving feast. If the recently released statistics on food wastage are correct, a great deal of that meal and what was used to make it will be wasted.
This past August, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a shocking report. Forty percent of all edible food ends up in landfills and incinerators each year. To put that in perspective, a few annual statistics: 33 million tons of landfill waste, $165 billion worth of food, $40 billion of which comes from households, $28 to $43 per person each month, $750 million to dispose of it, 4 percent of total U.S. oil consumption, and 25 percent of all freshwater used in the U.S. Following the release of the report, NRDC’s Dana Gunder stated, “No matter how sustainably our food is farmed, if it’s not being eaten, it not a good use of our resources.”
Food wastage jumped dramatically between the early ’70s and 2011. Perhaps due to increased portion sizes, Madison Avenue’s hand in marketing of “pretty” fruits and vegetables, increased litigiousness, and overzealous federal, state and local regulations that result in edible food being tossed. That’s a mouthful of statistics that could ruin anyone’s appetite. But I’m not finished with the numbers.
Let’s look at more disturbing NRDC statistics. Unsold fruits, vegetables and meat in grocery stores account for a large percentage of wasted food. Restaurants, through over-sized portions or poor product management, are major contributors to waste. But households do their fair share tossing that which could have been consumed if properly shopped, stored and utilized: 40 percent of fresh fish, 23 percent of eggs, and 20 percent of milk. Fruits and vegetables are on the list, too. I don’t mean to pick on consumers, grocery stores and restaurants, but losses in the farming and transportation end of the chain of commerce pale in comparison to these amounts of waste.
Now the good news
I could fill this article with more statistics on dire food production issues facing us, but I want to spend my remaining words sharing some thoughts on how to improve the situation. This is one area where lifestyle changes and less laziness in planning can reap benefits both at home and in the community.
The NRDC report states that a mere 20 percent reduction of food waste can feed 15 million people in the U.S. In my own home, I’ve found that it’s not such an onerous task. It just takes some planning and self-control at the grocery store and in restaurants. With Dana Gunder’s dire prediction that $280 million of perfectly edible Thanksgiving turkey meat will find be thrown away, this seems like the perfect holiday to commence your own food waste reduction initiative.
So here are some suggestions from chefs, Gunder’s blog and my own experience that you can try:
Portion control – This is simple. Make less at home. Order less in the restaurant. Or, if this is just not possible, remember to take home leftovers, but don’t shove them in the back of the refrigerator. Making large amounts at home is great, if you can freeze it.
Inventory your refrigerator – This suggestion comes from nearly a year of behind-the-scenes experiential research for my column. It requires a minor investment: blue painter’s tape, black felt marker and reusable plastic containers (I prefer Snaplocks from Costco). Mark the contents and date of everything that goes into your refrigerator and freezer, and organize both compartments according to food type. I saved a good deal of food – and money – utilizing this restaurant practice at home.
Use foods more than once – Turn dried bread into breadcrumbs and freeze. Ready to toss that loaf of bread? Don’t! Make “toasties:” Cut slices into quarters and place on a sheet pan. Fill a plastic squirt bottle with your favorite olive oil, and squirt the bread with oil and sprinkle with herbs, if desired. Place the sheet pan in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 15 minutes. Turn oven off and allow the bread time to crisp in the oven. Great for snacking and as crostini for hors d’oeuvres.
Boney flavor – I grew up in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where turkey and andouille gumbo are post-holiday favorites. Roast the carcass and make a stock with it. Great way to utilize remaining vegetables and herbs, plus that white meat that was a bit too dry will be perfect in your gumbo. Lots of recipes on the Internet.
Brussels Sprouts – The dark, outer leaves of Brussels sprouts seem to always make their way to the disposal. But at Splendido in Beaver Creek, David Walford’s cooks pan saute them in oil, sprinkle with red pepper flakes, salt and pepper for a delicious family meal side dish.
Go shopping in your pantry and refrigerator – Before you head to the store, explore your own stock of groceries. Maybe you can modify a recipe or find something on websites like http://www.yummly.com.
I have more ideas from local chefs and grocery stores I will share with you next week. This will get you started.
Best wishes to you and yours for a happy, bountiful Thanksgiving. We are blessed to live in such a beautiful place and in such a wonderful country. But we mustn’t forget the others who comprise that 14.9 percent who don’t share our food security.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com. Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.