February 1, 2020

Food Waste: It It That Big A Problem?


I am as guilty as anyone. Each Friday morning, my wife and I clean out the refrigerator just before our weekly trip to the grocery store. Inevitably, there is what is left of a wilted lettuce head, somewhat squishy cucumber, seriously wrinkled piece of fruit, or broccoli that has turned somewhat yellow along the edges lurking in there.

The cost of buying and then tossing unused fruit and vegetables irritates my thrifty side. If we buy it, why don't we use it? I really don't know. No matter how carefully we plan a menu and look for opportunities to use up what we bought, a handful of something always makes it into the garbage. If we cut back on produce or fruit this week, there is still stuff from a week or two earlier that needs to go. The waste isn't huge but consistent. I chalk it up to poor planning.

Then, I saw a report published in the New York Times that brought the issue of food waste into stronger focus. Consider this quote from the December 11th Climate FWD newsletter:

"In the United States alone, food waste generates the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That accounts for both the energy used in agriculture to grow unused food, as well as the methane that’s released when the food rots in landfills."
I had no idea of the scope of the problem. I have heard the jokes about cows and their contribution of global warming. I am aware that producing meat uses massive amounts of water, chemicals, and land. Transporting it in refrigerated trucks all across the country adds even more to the environmental toll.

But, to learn that one year's food waste produces the same greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars is mind-blowing. Food waste and packaging make up 45% of the material that ends up in a landfill. Those numbers are huge.


According to this study Americans waste 40% of the food we produce. Consider buying 5 bags of groceries at the store, and then dropping two of them in the parking lot as we drive home. Who would consciously do that? We do.

Roughly 40 million of us are food insecure, meaning those people don't have access to enough food to remain healthy. One third of the food we waste would free every single one of those people from this risk.

Sometimes just being aware of a problem can start the process of fixing it. Now I know that my food purchase and disposal habits are a big deal. You can be sure I will not look at the stuff in the produce drawer the same way again.


Can I guarantee no more edible food finds the garbage can? No, but I can make an attempt to improve. Now that I understand my habit is directly connected to our planet's health, I have a motivation that is stronger than wasting money. 


Just in: a report in Food & Wine magazine says that thanks to the work of several non-profits and their volunteers, an estimated 30,000 pounds of food left over from the Super Bowl will be distributed to five shelters in southern Florida this week. The massive undertaking is—surprisingly—the first major food recovery effort to follow a Super Bowl.

What an encouraging addendum to this story.


55 comments:

  1. that is why i keep a small flock of chickens around.

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  2. I guess it means, for most of us, that food is too cheap.

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  3. I am guilty of this and I really do need to focus on making some changes. It's mostly salad fixings I don't use up. I don't really enjoy eating them if I have to make them. If I buy pre-made salads I swear I can taste the preservatives on them. Your statistics are a startling reminder I need to plan better and shop wiser.

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    1. Our throwaways are almost always fruits or vegetables. Who knew tomatoes could turn so many interesting colors? I'm afraid we are simply lazy. To make a full salad just seems to take too much time...silly, I know, but that is the main culprit.

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  4. One thing to keep in mind is that it's not all or even most "food waste" is by the end consumer (you and me that is). It is correct from that field of wheat you see only about half of it is actually consumed as food but there is a lot that happens along the way to the end consumer. Some is left laying in the field lost during harvesting, pests and vermin eat some, some is contaminated for one reason or another, some is lost due to spillage, some may be in foods that go past their "best before date" on the store shelf, I imagine some finely ground flour blows away with the wind, and of course I might throw away a few slices of bread that went moldy because I kept it too long.

    We should all do what we can to not waste food but it's a bigger issue than careless or lazy end consumers. Sometimes splashy headlines are a case of "Lies, damn lies, and statistics" (with credit to Mark Twain).

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    1. All the issues you mention are probably right and contribute to the problem. I can only affect my small part of it and stop throwing food in the garbage and money down the drain.

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  5. I don't really understand this. I appreciate that I am in the minority---but there is no food waste at this house. I keep track of what is in the refrig and plan meals accordingly to use up the food. Even if it means cutting up all leftover fresh veggies and making them into a soup of some kind. I have always done this. Maybe because, even though we are comfortably retired now, life wasn't always so. When we were newlyweds, 53 years ago, my husband was in the Marines. We had a very tight budget....after figuring our expenses, to pay our bills, we had $35 dollars every 2 weeks for groceries!!! I would spend (at the commissary) $17 for the first 2 weeks and $18 for the 2nd 2 weeks. At the end of the 2 weeks, we were even down to 1 pat of butter!! Very tight budget,but we sure didn't starve. You'd better believe I learned how to stretch a pound of hamburger, sometimes into 4 meals! Also a chicken! As I gift I got a cookbook on 365 ways to fix hamburger! LOL

    My point is that one has to make a deliberate decision not to waste food. I could site many examples, but now you get the picture!

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    1. You have hit the nail on the proverbial head: plan to use what you buy based on planning before you go to the store. My wife and I are big fans of leftovers. We will usually make several main courses one week, and use the leftovers the next.

      It really is the produce we toss. Occasionally we don't use up the half gallon of milk before it starts to get stale (is that the proper term?). But, rarely is meat or poultry or fish wasted.

      Making homemade soups is an excellent idea. We have an Instant Pot that is designed for that. Now, we just need to do it.

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  6. **I meant to type $35 for the month...not every 2 weeks.

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    1. Wow...that is quite impressive. I'm not sure what that would translate into today's dollars, but it would still be very good.

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    2. $237 in today's dollars.

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  7. We have become very conscious of this over the years and do everything we can to use up every bit of food we can, whether it is coming from our large pantry or our separate upright freezer. One thing that we have also gotten into in a big way is composting all appropriate food scraps. If everyone did this it would cut down quite a bit on methane gas coming from landfills, in conjunction with sensible food buying practices in the first place. This topic is an important one and should be talked about more for the benefit of the whole country and the planet.

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    1. Composting has been talked about in our household. With only 2 of us and being light eaters, we figured a compost pile wasn't really practical. For those with the room and the commitment, the compost makes excellent soil additives for vegetable gardens.

      Yes, it is a topic that hasn't receieved a lot of press. But, after seeing those numbers I really couldn't shrug it off.

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    2. Our community prefers we do not compost as it attracts bears and skunks. Several "bear proof" composters have been tested and have not lived up to their name. Meanwhile, the city of Calgary has a composting program that accepts even meat scraps and paper napkins.

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    3. Where we live the municipality collects all food waste for composting and separately from recyclables and general refuse. It does keep it out of the landfill though generally it isn't used for garden compost as the salt content is too high (which says a lot about what we eat). They also collect garden waste as another separate waste stream. Things like leaves, hedge trimmings, small branches - anything from a plant as long as any stems or branches are less than 3 inches in diameter and shorter than 8 feet in length. This garden waste is composted and given away by the municipality twice a year as garden compost.

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    4. Where we live one can also get a regular weekly pickup. But because of construction in a nearby area that was long fallow we have pests. And coyotes. So it's simply not a realistic alternative. ...

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  8. I am guilty of this as well, but I‘ve gotten better (especially since beginning to live on a fixed income!). As mentioned above, we end consumers are not the biggest culprits. Pictures of farmers dumping mountains of butter or of apples or whatever are truly nauseating (in the EU, for example).

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    1. The tariff battles aren't helping any either. Pictures of tons of milk or soybeans being destroyed is, as you say, nauseating.

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  9. I think we do fairly well but our eating demographics have changed lately and we are trying to catch up so this is one of the major goals for our year...to eliminate food waste. Also, to be honest in retirement we dont always do the scratch cooking to use up everything. And still struggle to cook for one or two.And of course while groceries have gotten better they dont sell stuff for singles and couples as such. I end up spending more in the prepared food sections just to waste less.and yes there are other culprits. Grocery stores that throw out less than perfect produce and old meat, restaurants that serve portions larger than most of us can eat and dispose of food at the end of the night rather than donating it or allowing employees to take advantage come to mind (although smart consumers always ask for a box).

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    1. I hope the various organizations that collect end-of-the-day food and make it available to homeless or women's shelters become more well known and get better support. You are so right: most of the food supermarkets dispose of is just cosmetically not perfect, and restaurants toss all sorts of end-date food that is still quite edible.

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    2. I agree with trying to leverage end of day leftover food from restaurants to give to shelters. I believe that some municipalities strictly forbid this practice due to contaminated/spoiled food concerns. In the community where we live, our local supermarkets donate foods nearing their "end of freshness" dates to the local food pantry. This donation includes frozen meats and shelf stable products in addition to produce. The challenge I saw when I volunteered at the food pantry was that the people who "shopped" there were given a weight budget based on their need, and they would load up on the less healthy shelf stable products (cereals, candy, snack food, etc) meaning that the produce and even frozen meat would eventually have to be discarded due to lack of interest by the consumers. We live in a top 5 US metro area, and the areas of town with the highest need for fresh foods and aid would rather spend the little money they have on fast food and unhealthy packaged food products. It's really quite troublesome.

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  10. About fifteen years ago, I took up dumpster diving. I read that an MD and his PhD wife in Nashville dumpster dived for food. I was very careful and had rules for dumpster diving to stay safe. Then, everything was washed at home, includeing the packages of salad and gallons of milk. I gave the milk and eggs to a friend who did not tell her husband where it came from. I could write a book on what I got and how I handled it. I figured I got $75 to $150 dollars worth of food each week. I was astounded! I even got envelopes from cards, handsful that I am still using. There were poinsettias, candles, things not affected by time. I took no chances and only three friends knew what I did.

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    1. Your choice is probably not ready to go mainstream, but you emphasize the point I made above: food that is very edible ends up in a landfill just because easy options are not well known. We are a disposable society in too many aspects of our life.

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  11. We do have a compost heap in the far corner of our backyard so food does not go to the landfill so at least no methane here. It's great in my garden beds each spring!

    Aging veggies and peels can be tossed in a freezer bag and when it's full either make veggie stock or a veg soup. I freeze stock in 2 cup portions and rarely need to buy it. And the house smells yummy when a pot is on the stove especially in winter.

    I do have waste-I'm not pretending that I don't. I too could do a better job. We just had guests so I bought up a ton of veg as it usually is never enough. This time over the week, there was no one snacking on veg/hummus. Go figure! Hubby and I are trying hard to finish it all up before spoils happen but I'm not sure we can consume 4 large cucumbers in the next 2 days. The carrots will keep for another week.

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    1. I like cucumbers sliced, lightly salted, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

      I like the idea of freezing veggies that are getting near their end date and then using in soup. We have a bunch of miniature sweet peppers that we could freeze.

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    2. Hi Bob, If you dice those peppers into the size you generally use, freeze them 1h flat on a tray and then bag them, you can use them in any cooked dish and they will act and taste as fresh peppers.

      Today's SuperBowl snacks will be cucumbers and black bean hummus......and Greek Salad :-)

      Gotta use this stuff up!

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  12. My husband and I struggle with this also. As much as we try to use everything, we can't always do that before the produce starts to rot. We compost so I guess that makes us feel a little better, but it's still waste. Another related waste I hate to see - but often happens in our area - is the waste of fruit on neighborhood trees. Just about home, it seems, has at least one citrus tree covered with way more fruit than one family could consume.

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    1. There is a large public park not far from us with at least a dozen citrus trees just waiting to be gleaned. When we walk the dog we take a bag home, but most goes to waste, I am afraid.

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  13. I can't say that I never throw vegetables out but I try to buy less than the full amount for the week and supplement with frozen.I mostly don't need to use the frozen but it is there as a backup. I think that we buy more fresh vegetables than we need because we want to be healthy and they are pretty inexpensive.

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    1. Too bad they don't sell half a head of lettuce. With two people that would be plenty. I don't like to buy the bagged lettuce; it tends to go bad in a few days. We do use the frozen steam-in-a-bag veggies probably more often than we should, just because it is so convenient and there is no food waste afterwards.

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  14. I am horrified by the statistics that you quote. Naively I had assumed everyone’s waste bins were full of unnecessary packaging rather than the contents of the packs too. We have always planned our menus in advance to make a shopping list and, coupled with picking our own from the garden as we need it, avoid impulse buying and rarely throw anything out. Mind we did have one period of hiccup when it took some practice to reduce portion purchase sizes after the kids left home!

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    1. Ah, the joys of leftovers when only cooking for two. Yes, the numbers quoted above are shocking. Packaging is a big problem and one that is not easily solved. Not everything can be purchased at a farmer's market, I'm afraid. I hope those who package food look for ways to reduce the total reliance on plastic.

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  15. My young cousin boarded with me a few years ago. I brought her to the garbage can and threw a $20 bill in it. Her eyes got big. I explained that's what's happening if we throw out food. In my house, we eat leftovers. I've lived alone for almost 3 decades and cook well for one. My menu is often dictated by what's in the fridge and pantry to avoid food waste. When I see veggies getting close to their prime, they're turned into a suitable dish to use them up or prepared for the freezer for later use. As consumers, we're attracted to the eye candy of perfectly formed fruit and vegetables arranged so appealingly. A local carrot producer sells the culls at a markedly reduced price; they taste the same as the uniformly packaged product in the store. Why are we so lazy and spoiled?

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    1. I like your $20 lesson....good for you. The overall problem may be that food prices for most of us are not a huge part of our monthly budget. Certainly in my area, competition between major grocery chains has resulted in steadily lower prices on most items. It becomes easier to toss than to go through the effort of finding a recipe for the stuff that should be used up.

      Two days a month we do have a "pantry day." Our lunch and dinner are made up of whatever we find in there. That tends to be peanut butter, crackers, soups, beans, and pasta with some sort of sauce - all fine by me.

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  16. One last thought....if I have tomatoes going soft, I toss them in the freezer. When I have a gallon bag full, I cook them down for a marinara. I toss them in whole/frozen. I let them cook long enough to be all thawed. Meanwhile, I saute a diced onion and 5 cloves garlic in another pan. Once caramelized, I add it to the tomatoes, flavor to taste with salt and pepper and continue cooking for another 1-3h until I have the consistency I like.

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    1. Excellent idea and much less sodium than store-bought versions.

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  17. Those are pretty horrifying numbers! I agree most of us could do better, although I have considered composting and gave up the idea quickly because of the wildlife issues mentioned above. We already have a few pests around and I don't want to attract more.

    We are getting better on the leftovers, and I like to cook once/eat twice (or more). But we still have a few things that tend to go bad before we use them (lettuce and other salad greens are the most common). It's harder with only two of us and I would also love smaller portions available on certain foods. That said, I tend to try and stay in the aisles where I can choose and weigh my produce and control the volume. Randomly, I will buy a bag salad, but last night I bit into a small drill bit with rust on it. (Yes, just as disgusting as it sounds.) So I'm off bag salads for the foreseeable future. We've eaten them for quite a while, but that did it for me.

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    1. Bagged salads/lettuce seem to turn brown quite quickly. Don't know why, but they do.

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  18. According to Project Drawdown (https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/reduced-food-waste), one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste, and reducing food waste is their #3 most effective way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Composting helps to solve the problem because the food waste in a compost pile decomposes aerobically and returns carbon to the soil that is produced. Food that goes to a landfill decomposes anaerobically, producing methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. One way to address the problem of having too small a household to compost effectively is to ask your municipal waste disposal agency to set up a program for community-wide composting. In Maine and Massachusetts, there is a private company called "Garbage to Garden" (https://garbagetogarden.org/) that provides curbside collection of food waste from subscribers and gives them finished compost made from that food waste in return.

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    1. That is a great idea. I think p;arts of Portland has curbside pickup of compostable material. What they do with it though, I have no idea.

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  19. Another comment re: unused produce in gardens and public spaces. There's an organization in Edmonton, AB, called Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton (a.k.a. OFRE. Pronounced “offer”). Produce is collected and shared with the owner and pickers, some donated to food banks and some is processed for OFRE. Check out the website - operationfruitrescue.org.

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  20. Interesting choice of topic. We eat mainly a plant based diet. Not quite vegan but close. We chose this route after reading “The China Study” and watching documentaries including, what the health and forks over knives. (There are many other too).

    The chickens we buy are not your grandmothers chickens. They are way fattier. Injected with fat. And the meat? Full of antibiotics. We occasionally eat some meat from a local farmer and only buy eggs from a farm. We buy our produce at farmers markets or select carefully at grocery store. We live right near the Atlantic so eat fish on occasion. But not farmed fish. Or sword or other fish containing mercury. Most fish also contains microplastics. So we are flexible. Keeps our cholesterol low and blood pressure too. I plan meals carefully. If there are veggies getting old, I’ll make a stir fry. I do occasionally have to throw out food, but not often. Love the column...wish my google account worked with your format though...

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    1. I don't know why if you have a Google account you can't comment using it. But, continue to email me and I'll be glad to add your thoughts.

      Stir fry older vegetables...good idea. I wouldn't have thought of that. We are down to one red meat meal a week, though chicken fills another one or two.

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  21. I saw a post further up in this thread stating that for some people, food is not in the top list of expenses. I find that comment interesting because it differs from our situation. Housing is our top expense (mortgage paid off, but taxes, insurance, and maintenance consume the entire housing budget) followed by food/dining out, then travel. Spend on dining out was about 10% of our food spend and we always try to bring home leftovers to enjoy the next day. With food expenses being our #2 top expense, containing that cost is a key focus for me so we can enjoy more travel. I plan a menu for each week, and create my grocery shopping list based on what we plan to eat, what is on sale (stock up on meats, dairy that can be frozen, shelf stable foods), and what we are close to being out of. My wife and I cook most nights of the week and make enough to enjoy leftovers for at least one lunch if not two. We try to leverage fresh/frozen over pre-packaged food items and avoid many canned products other than tomato sauce and the occasional creamed soup mixtures used in recipes. We but meat in bulk when on sale, divide into the appropriate serving sizes for use and leftovers, and freeze them. We do occasionally have to dispose of uneaten leftovers because we sometimes did not like what we made or something came up and we did not eat them prior to our "5 day rule" for freshness. I used to work in the food industry many years ago and have seen what happens to cooked food left too long in the refrigerator (it can be dangerous to try to eat after 3-5 days). Most of the uneaten food is placed down the sink using the garbage disposal unit to send it on its way to the sewage processing facility. We rarely throw out much food as we have gotten fairly good at preparing just enough for our needs. Lettuce and cucumbers are the items that sometimes go bad in our produce drawers, and it does not help that much of the lettuce we find in our area is already starting to brown when on display at the supermarket. We also take shelf stable food items (canned items and the like) to the food pantry when we realize that we overbought a few items and their use by dates are approaching. I cannot stand to waste food, so every time we are throwing something out I get annoyed with having to do so and it reminds me to be more cautious with what we buy and how much.

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    1. Thanks for your thorough review of how your household deals with this issue.

      Food is our second highest expense, after medical. Vacations and travel are probably #1 but that is discretionary so it doesn't count for these purposes. We eat out once a week but that accounts for less than 4% of of our monthly budget.

      I like the idea of donating stuff to food banks that is still very usable but may not fit with upcoming plans.

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  22. As a follow-up to Jean's comment regarding food that goes to a landfill subsequently producing methane . . . We live in a rural area and take our trash, garbage and recyclables to a town "transfer station" - trash collection on a fairly small scale. Yesterday, after setting aside whatever material could be re-used, Alan and I needed to dispose of the remains of an old and dilapidated shed that had been on our property which required a trip to the county's facility for recovery of resources. It's a large facility used for trash processing and the recovery of many more types of recyclable materials than the smaller towns can handle. During the hour we were there unloading the truck and utility trailer, commercial garbage trucks kept rolling in, depositing mountains of trash and garbage on the concrete floor of the massive metal building we were working in. A staff member with a giant size loader, working around us emptying our (by comparison) tiny load, was almost continually scooping the trash and pushing it toward a colleague who was operating a huge claw. Alan could see that the trash and garbage was being dropped into some type of trough or channel, but couldn't get close enough to determine exactly what was happening to it. My point in recounting our experience: It was absolutely sickening to see the volume of trash and garbage being produced - and we were only there an hour. To know that such an enormous amount of it is possibly being processed eight hours a day, five days a week is disheartening. Although I've always planned meals to use up leftovers and tried to buy no more fresh produce than we can use in a reasonable amount of time, I can assure you that I'll be doubling my efforts to reduce the amount of trash and garbage that leaves our home. It was a frightening, but educational, experience, one that I can never "un-see" - nor would I want to.

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    1. Your experience was a powerful reminder of the mess we have created for ourselves. There is a gigantic landfill about 10 miles north of our home that we drive pass on occasion. The flames of the methane gas that comes from the rotting piles is disheartening. Not only does it offer visible proof of the problem, but all that gas is just being burned away instead of being captured and used in a manner that doesn't add to our pollution.

      A consumer-driven, consumption-oriented society produces enormous amounts of waste. But, for too many of us, out-of-sight-out-of-mind.

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  23. I’ve been doing better by going to Trader Joe twice a week.I buy ingredients for 3-4 meals.Some are from their frozen section.the mandarin orange chicken is awesome. The CIOPPINO, the frozen salmon, etc etc etc Last night we had a frozen pepperoni pizza and a bag of spinach salad.I am finding buying smaller packages and also some pre-peppered stuff is helping me use up our food and eat pretty well... I still buy in bulk at winco since we eat some vegetarian meals and soups like lentil,chickpea, split pea.. but TJ’s is turning out to be a real life saver..and small packages for jus the 2 of us.HEY GREAT TO SEE YOU ON SUNDAY!!!!! HI TO BETTY!!!

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    1. I have read that frozen vegetables are as healthy as fresh, as long as they are not covered with sauces or cheese. With that option there is no waste from stuff that must be thrown away. However, the packaging creates its own problems!

      I am beginning to think that, like you, going to the store twice a week and buying only enough to last 3-4 days might be a workable approach. As soon as we get our plug-in electric hybrid car that goes 26 miles on a charge, I would feel less guilty about the extra car trip.

      Yes, good to run into you and Ken at the library. You both look healthy and happy!

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  24. I do the grocery shopping in our house and I have no problem keeping a basic list of what we need. I try to decide what meals we want to make and then consider how to use the leftovers, too. It's not too difficult, really. Our vegetable garden, aka tomato garden, gives us lots of sources for meals. I make sauce that lasts into the winter. I'll make a pot roast and use the leftovers to create a stew. Chicken works in many ways. So, variety makes for less waste, I think. We also have a wholesale meat market near us that has restaurant quality meats at lower than grocery store prices. I visit them fairly often. I love to cook and, I make a point of not creating much waste. It's almost like a hobby for me. ;)

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    1. You make meal prep and using what is available like a challenge. I like that approach. What can we make that is both good for us and doesn't create waste or require exotic ingredients? What can we grow and how can we use it? Where locally is a place to find the best....whatever it is?

      I plan a good chunk of the menu each week and am always looking for something that will last for two, sometimes three main courses, and then a lunch sometime later. I feel as if I am beating the system!

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  25. Great post Bob, and a reminder that it’s not just about my pocketbook. I’ve gotten better but not good enough. Just a little while ago, I threw out some things for tomorrow’s trash pick-up and reprimanded myself for wasting food. My 73 year old French friend who hasn’t lived in France for over 50 years, does not waste a single lettuce leaf or crust of bread, a result of her childhood of being appreciative for something to eat.

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    1. We once had a neighbor who lived for a few years in Europe. She got into the habit of food shopping every day, just buying what she needed for dinner and the next day's breakfast and lunch.

      She carried the same habit back here. Unfortunately, where she lived overseas she could walk to the stores. Here she had to drive each time. While she didn't waste much food, she didn't help the environment any. It is a balancing act, I guess.

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