One way to reduce food waste: Campus Style

UC Davis Dining Commons Demonstration of what college kids waste for Love Food, Hate Waste in January 2013.

Two days ago, I saw a headline in my news feed that I nearly passed over. It read: “Elimination of trays decreases food waste in dining halls.” All I could think about were the opportunities to trip classmates struggling to carry their milk and dinner plates to a table. And then I decided to read on, and learned that in just two years Manchester University has saved:

  • 15,000 pounds of food from becoming waste, and
  • 200,000 gallons of water.

How? They removed trays from the dining halls. They removed convenience, and judging from the article it wasn’t a popular solution. But its makes a lot of sense.

If you drive to the supermarket, grab a big shopping cart, and have a lift to carry your groceries from car to home, then it is very easy to just pile unnecessary food into your life. If you have to think about how you are going to carry it all to the car and into your home, you probably make different choices.

I like that one simple decision has changed how an entire community consumes. It would be interesting to see if that same choice also helped students maintain weight. I mean, if not using a tray helps that freshman not gain infamous 15 pounds that many do gain in the first term, wouldn’t they willingly embrace the idea?

If the same could be said about using smaller shopping carts to lose weight, would people be more willing to embrace a small change?

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Weekend food waste roundup – 28 April 2013

28Apr13

What happens when a politician attempts to tackle food waste? Well, if you are a politician in Great Britain, you get rotten tomatoes tossed your way.

In fact, when Environment minister Richard Benyon claimed that Britons were wasting about £50 GBP (or about $77 USD) a week, he kicked up quite the storm.

For a  while I felt like I was reading celebrity gossip and not news about ways to approach the complex issue of solving our food waste issues. And then The Guardian publishes “Should it brie in the bin?” which attempts to look at the numbers and explain how food waste is a problem in a nation facing severe austerity.

Here in the United States, Liz Neumark summarized what she learned at the National Food  Policy Conference in Washington DC. She shares some new numbers on food waste in the  nation:

  • 1 in 4 Americans need government food or nutrition assistance program.
  • 68% of food-insecure families have at least one adult working full-time.
  • About 30-40 percent of what travels from farm on the way to the fork becomes food waste. That is over 65 billion pounds of food a year according to the EPA.

And finally, there were two articles with nice tips and strategies for helping individuals reduce the amount of food they waste. First, “Having a meal plan— and sticking to it — can cut waste and your waist” in the Calgary Herald makes the case for more discipline in shopping and cooking. Second, Care2.com recommends a FIFO (First In, First Out) approach to food in your fridge.

Composting–one year later

About one year ago, Jean-Francois and I adopted a small colony of red wrigglers, following a sustainability session at the Natural History Museum. As proud parents, we immediately set about finding the best bedding, bins, and strategies for keeping our new arrivals happy. The biggest challenge for us, as apartment dwellers in a large complex with strict rules, was finding a bin that would pass as patio furniture. (Since we don’t consider compost trash, we assumed that the rule about trash did not apply.)

We settled on the Worm Factory 360. It looks enough like a Japanese Stone Lantern that it could be argued that it is decorative. We supplement our system with a bamboo compost pail for the kitchen. And, we spend an evening making our worms comfortable.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

Our worms get regular doses of coffee grounds and tea leaves, toilet paper rolls and scrap paper and linens. They also get a lot of egg shells, banana peels, okara (when I cannot find a use for it in time), and bread that goes mouldy.

And they are thriving. Sure, we are still trying to figure out the right mix of brown and green (see pdf below) to add to the mix, but we are learning.

This pdf is useful for helping us determine what browns and greens our worms needs.

At six months, we even expanded our bin by adding a new layer. All winter things moved along fine, albeit a bit slowly. But as Spring set in, so did culture shock.

  1. Our worms were reluctant to move to the new layer.
  2. Worms were escaping both the bin and the balcony.
  3. Other bugs started to appear.
  4. The worm castings on the second layer were WET. We could not get them to dry.

We are now trying to manage moisture, bugs and a growing ickiness-factor (at least on my part, Jean-Francois seems to enjoy mucking around in the compost). And, we have no way to share our worm tea or our beautiful worm pooh with gardeners. The grounds here are landscaped by a company that has no interest in going green.

Any thoughts on how apartment building and condo dwellers can help urban gardens and communities by composting? We are moving to a street lined with apartments, and I’d love to find a community solution that we can advance. It may also be a way to help people eat better and waste less food BEFORE it goes to the compost.

I am not alone either. Others have written about the challenges facing us Urban Composters and some offer solutions. If you are square foot challenged, and lack a green thumb, but really want to try composting, here are a few resources we have found useful:

BTW, I would not recommend the bamboo pail. It looks old and beaten up after two months and is also too soft a material for life on our kitchen counter.

A tall glass of celery

In Japan, celery is not cheap. It’s not sold in bunches; it’s sold by the stalk – and a stalk costs about a dollar.

Celery-ginger limeade

Really the real thing

Strangely enough, I miss that.

I don’t miss the price so much (though it did have the virtue of discouraging waste), but I do miss being able to buy just what I need. Maybe it’s my imagination, but bunches of celery seem much bigger than they were 15 years ago – and buying that much celery makes me uncomfortable. I wonder if I’ll be able to use it all before it shrivels up and becomes unusable. When you’ve thought in terms of individual stalks for so long, the thought of half a bunch of celery in the bin feels … well … just a little bit obscene.

So, since I’ve moved to the US, I’ve spent some time experimenting with things I can do with celery that has lost its crunch (besides throwing it out). One of the easiest is to toss it in a blender with some water, a bit of sugar or honey, and something to add a little extra flavor, like lime, ginger or vanilla.  It’s better tasting than a soft drink, better for you, and better for the planet – and if you miss the fizz, you can always get a soda maker.

The recipe for the version I made yesterday (which was pretty tasty) follows.

Celery-ginger limeade (2 servings)

Ingredients

  • 3 cups water
  • 6 stalks celery (about 18 ounces), coarsely chopped
  • I lime, peeled and quartered
  • 1 piece ginger root about the size of your thumb, coarsely chopped
  • 2.5 Tbsp sugar (or to taste)

Directions

  • Blend ingredients on highest speed until liquified.
  • Filter through a cotton kitchen towel, or wire mesh strainer.
Fun facts
Celery per serving 3 stalks
Length of celery per 12 oz serving, if stalks laid end to end about 99 inches
Average distance from the Earth to the moon 238,855 miles
Number of 12 oz servings it would take to use up the amount of celery which, if laid end to end, would span the average distance from the Earth to the moon 152,867,200
Amount of celery-ginger limeade every American would have to drink to save that amount of celery from landfill 5.8 oz – ½ of a 12 oz serving
Average annual consumption of soft drinks per person in the US 57 gallons – 608 12 oz servings

Puffy veg

I recently read Spree’s blog post about “pint-size” spinach soufflés, and it got me thinking. I’d gotten out of the habit of making soufflés in Japan (where the typical gas oven is roughly three inches tall), but they’re a perfect way to use all sorts of vegetables, not to mention cheeses and herbs. I got more beets this week, so decided to try my hand at making beet green soufflé.

Beet green soufflé

Beet green soufflé, sans souffle

The results are in the photo to the right, and tasted pretty darn good – though my soufflé lacked a little souffle. I think I need to get my soufflé skills back up to speed before I share any recipes, but for now just wanted to share the idea with those of you whose skills are already there. This is one classic dish that you can play with, and use to make the least sexy of ingredients taste great, and (my recent experiment notwithstanding) look like something worthy of a five-star restaurant.

I served the beet green soufflé with carrots in a lemon dill vinaigrette, and froze the peelings and ends for the next time I make stock — one of the many great tips that Zo shared in her blog entry, Save our skins – deliciously and easily.

Fun facts
Weight of beet greens rescued from landfill per serving 1 ounce
Reduction in food waste if every person in the developed world saves just 1 ounce of beet greens from landfill About 31,250 short tons
Weight of the average sperm whale bull 45 short tons
Number of average sperm whale bulls needed to balance 31,250 short tons of beet greens About 695

Save Something from Landfill Day

As one commenter pointed out, today is 2/22 (thanks, Mami), which cries to be a special day on this tiny sliver of the web. Maybe when the 222 million tons Facebook “likes” swell to numbers well beyond the current 11, I’ll have the clout to lobby for February 22 to become International Save Something from Landfill Day. Until then, I’ll just have to try making a small dent in the problem by sharing observations like this one: beet leaves and stems are tasty.

Beet green linguine

They’re often overlooked for the same reason that watermelon rind is; they live next to a real attention grabber – in this case beets. But beet leaves are tender and flavorful, and their stems are red, crisp, and have just a hint of beet flavor. Unlike beets, they don’t overwhelm, but they do add color and character to salads and other dishes.

Our most recent experiment with beets greens was a linguine with beet greens, which was good enough to share here.

Linguine with beet greens (serves 1)

Ingredients

Linguine with beet greens

  • 2 oz linguine
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp fresh garlic
  • ¼ onion
  • 5 button or crimini mushrooms
  • 5 sun dried tomatoes (the ones packed in oil)
  • 1 tsp oil from sun dried tomatoes
  • 10 oz beet leaves with stems
  • 1 pinch salt, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp pepper, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp dried chili flakes, or to taste
  • ½ oz crumbled goat cheese

Directions

  • Fill a pot with water, and bring it to a boil.
  • You’ll be lightly sautéing the vegetables for this dish, and don’t want things to over cook while you’re busy practicing your knife skills or hunting for spices, so it’s best to do all the slicing and dicing up front. So, as the water comes to a boil:
    • Crush the garlic.
    • Slice the onion.
    • Clean and quarter the mushrooms.
    • Slice the sun dried tomatoes into strips.
    • Wash the beet leaves, remove their stems, and chop them into one- or two-inch lengths.
    • Slice the beet leaves crosswise into ¼ inch strips.
    • Crumble the goat cheese.
    • Get your spices ready.
  • By now the water should be boiling, so prepare the linguine according to the package directions. While that is cooking, you can cook the vegetables.
  • Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onions and garlic for two or three minutes, until the onions are translucent.
  • Add in the mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes and sun dried tomato oil, and sauté for two minutes.
  • Add in the beet leaves, and sauté until they start to wilt.
  • Throw in the stems, and sauté until they have imparted their color to the mushrooms and onions. Be careful not to over cook them, though, or they will become brownish and lose their crunch.
  • Remove from heat, and add salt and pepper to taste.
  • By now your linguine should be ready. Plate it, and top it with the sautéed vegetables.
  • Sprinkle with chili pepper flakes and goat cheese (I did that after I took the pictures).
Fun facts
Reduction in food waste per serving 10 ounces
Reduction in food waste if every person in the developed world saves just 10 ounces of beet greens from landfill About 312,500 short tons
Weight of pig iron structure of the Eiffel Tower About 8,000 short tons

Good for the sole

No all food is created equal, and some purchases make us complicit in waste on a massive scale. In the world of fisheries, there’s even a word for one aspect of that waste: bycatch.

Fish in Tsukiji market

One of many fish in Tsukiji market

My handy desktop dictionary defines bycatch as, “the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species” – and, as well as fish, it can include such creatures as sea birds, turtles, and dolphins. Often, bycatch is killed in the act of being caught or is thrown back into the sea injured, with diminished chances for survival.

Pure, unadulterated waste.

The scale of bycatch can be huge. In some shrimp fisheries, there are about six pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp caught. Fortunately, that isn’t true of all fishing, or even of all shrimp fishing. Unfortunately, you need practically encyclopedic knowledge of ocean species, their habitats, and fishing and farming practices just to buy a piece of fish responsibly.

Seafood Watch screen shot

That’s why I was happy to discover Seafood Watch last year. This Monterey Bay Aquarium initiative has developed several free tools that let anyone quickly look up any fish, and see if it is abundant, well-managed and sourced in an environmentally friendly way – and that provide alternatives to consider if it isn’t. The information is available on-line, as well as through free applications for both the Android and iPhone platforms. The mobile versions have a social dimension, and allow you to find & share the names of local businesses that have environmentally friendly options.

If you don’t have a smart phone, you can print the Seafood Watch pocket guide from their site, and carry that with you when you go shopping, or out for sushi.

Dirt cheap

It’s normal to worry about your children — especially if you’re a new parent. Are they getting the right food? Are they too hot, or too cold? Is there excessive stress in their lives? Are they getting too much exposure to the sun? There’s just so much to get right.

Picture of a worm on newspaper

Man's best friend

But here’s something that never occurred to me: it seems that it’s normal to worry about your worms too — especially if you’re new to worm husbandry.

Until last Sunday, I barely gave worms any thought. Before then, they were just little creatures I avoided stepping on after a good rain. I didn’t have the responsibility of having worms under my care … nor did I face the prospect of nurturing a colony of red wrigglers through its next few generations.

That all changed when Bonnie Lee and I attended Dig into Dirt, the first of five Sustainable Sundays events at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. We were there to learn about soil, and in the process we learned a whole bunch about worms and composting, something we’ve been meaning to look into for a while.

The session started with us handling a few worms, and starting to appreciate what interesting little creatures they are. Mine was feisty, a lovely shade of red, surprisingly strong, and fascinating to watch move. I’m not ashamed to say that I felt a kind of affection for the little fellow-gal (she-he is both, as are all his-her brethren), and a sudden desire to bring a few red wrigglers into my home.

Of course, this wasn’t just about discovering an appreciation for worms; keeping worms and composting simply make sense. When you think about it, an ecosystem is an amazing thing. Fed by energy from the sun (usually), it cycles stuff (minerals, carbon, and such) through various forms — forms as fascinating and varied as red wrigglers, Rafflesia arnoldii, naked mole rats, Tiny Tim, and orchid mantises. Whenever we throw things away, we take stuff out of the ecosystem we belong to, and give it to whatever ecosystems thrive in toxic (to us) landfills and sludge. Given how much we throw away, it stands to reason that, eventually, the ecosystem we belong to will run out of stuff; the first thing on that list looks like it will be phosphorus.

Worms can be our partners in helping keep the stuff we need to live available for us to reuse. They produce castings and worm tea which you can use in your garden, not only saving you money, but also quite literally turning the things you throw away into food… and they’re kind of cute in their own way.

Some fun facts about worms and worm composting:

  • Worms eat one half of their weight every day.
  • You can compost indoors — and no, compost doesn’t stink; it smells sweet.
  • Composting can be cheap; all you need to start are some red wrigglers, two Rubbermaid containers, and a drill. (If you don’t mind spending the money, and you’d like something more attractive, there are a few options out there.)
  • A study of 16 households that compost in Vancouver found that the average household avoided putting 915 pounds of waste in the trash each year.

Do you compost? If so, feel free to share tips here — we’ll need them. If not, what’s stopping you?

Half for you, half for those in need

If you live or have travelled in the US, here’s something you may have noticed: restaurant portions are big.

Really, really big.

Bigger-than-your-head big.

Most, in fact, are 2 to 4 times bigger than recommended portion sizes — and, any way you slice it, that’s a heck of a lot of food.

The good news is that most restaurants make it easy to take home what you don’t eat so you can finish it off later. If that’s what you do, then more power to you. But that’s not always convenient. If you’re traveling or have plans after dinner, it may not even be possible. So you have two choices: overeat or waste food — two very unsatisfying choices in a country where both obesity and food insecurity are issues.

Halfsies is an initiative that aims to tackle this issue in a creative way. The idea is simple: restaurants participating in the program will give patrons the option to order half-size meals at the usual price, and donate a portion of the proceeds to support the fight against hunger. It’s a win-win-win scenario, which can help you avoid waste, avoid waist, and help out those in need — all without spending more than you were going to spend on your gargantuan portion.

Right now, Halfsies is trying to raise funding to launch the program in New York City and Austin. If you’d like to follow their journey or find out how to contribute, you can connect with them on Facebook.

You may also want to take a second to check out their video, and learn a bit more about the initiative and the issues it is addressing:

Halfsies: Connecting the Dots from Go Halfsies on Vimeo.