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.

Weekend food waste roundup – 21 April 2013

21Apr13I suppose some of you are wondering why our weekly digest of global news on food waste is getting less weekly. The answer is simple, the people writing on food waste are stuck on three basic themes:

  1. Shock: calling attention to the problem of how much food is wasted annually. Most pointing fingers at Americans and then driving the outrage home with a “but even on the local home front, we are wasting XXX tonnes of food a year.”
  2. Turning food waste into a useful resource: Methane generators, food scraps into animal feed, and composting.
  3. Food waste and Hunger: This one probably speaks for itself, but the issue of getting food that is heading to the bin rerouted is a more complex civil challenge than most of us realise.

And while all three of these are great, not one addresses the problem of our excesses at grocery store, markets, restaurants, and anywhere where food is available (think weddings, conferences, amusement parks, banquets…).

Thankfully, tomorrow is Earth Day and at least one reporter went a little deeper.

The Star, a Malaysian paper, reported on a Toyota led initiative in that nation to help turn the next generation of Malaysians into solutions-focused Eco-Citizens. These sixteen year olds are not starting with the food waste already generated. No, they are looking at ways to reduce portion sizes in cafeterias and restaurants BEFORE people even buy the food. I like how they are thinking.

Getting Wasted: L.A.'s food excess

Getting Wasted: L.A.’s food excess
photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

And this brings me to an act of shameless self-promotion. On 20 May, Jean-Francois and I have been asked to join a interactive panel discussion to think about how excess contributes to the food waste problem and steps might be possible to curb it through grass-roots initiatives, technology, and individual actions.

However, our experience is limited. If you could share your ideas, opinions and local solutions, it would help us in our brainstorming. I’d love to share your practical, non-compost, solutions with like-minded Angelenos.

We’d also love to see you there.

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.

Weekend Round Up: 7 April 2013

paint roundupWe are moving next month and now I have two new food waste related goals. First, I  want empty the current kitchen without wasting any food. Second, I want to find ways to make sure the next kitchen becomes a “Zero-Waste Kitchen”. It seems the key to success is better planning. Here is the round-up of what I learned:

Tips on wasting less in the kitchen

The Nourishing Gourmet recently published 7 waste-reducing tips on her website. These are more conceptual tips with one real exception–date your leftovers. I mean this is two ways. First, she recommends writing the date on all leftover containers. And, she recommends including a leftover day/night in your week to clean out the bits and ends of the week’s meals. Dating leftovers? Yes, rebound relationships do work, after all.

For more practical ideas, look at the Reader’s Digest slide deck. This presentation has over 13 tips for wasting less food in the kitchen, many of which are practical, easy, and clever. For example, did you know that you can regrow scallions? All you need to do is cut the ends, drop them in glass with water, and give them some sunlight. They also recommend keeping lettuce in brown paper bags, using citrus peels to ward off ants and mosquitos, and re-crisping celery with potato slices or lemon juice.

The Green Cycler also had general tips for creating a zero waste kitchen, but the one Jean-Francois likes best: Get A Chicken – a hen to eat food scraps, provide eggs, and terrorize our little cats.

And how do you set up a kitchen for zero waste?

This answer is going to be harder to find, but I fell in love with one site that I am going to lose hours on. The Kitchn website has a whole section with ideas for setting up your kitchen. True, the goal there is for ease of use, but a number of these ideas are inspiring for a girl with a container fetish.

If clutter is your challenge, you may want to check out Sue Rasmussen’s website. She provides tips for de-cluttering each activity that takes place in a kitchen.

And finally, Real Simple has approaches to organizing your kitchen based on the type of chef that you are (daily, gourmet, Sunday-only…).

But what about all those jars of spices?

This is the real issue in my chef’s (a.k.a. Jean-Francois’) kitchen. He is search challenged when it comes to looking for ingredients on the spice shelf. We’d love a solution that keeps our spices out of the light, but easy to find. If anyone can point us to good ideas, I will send Jean-Francois to your home to cook you dinner.

Weekend food waste roundup – 24 March 2013

Weekend RoundupI found a few good stories on food waste this week, but one has so completely captured my thoughts that I want to give it centre stage.

Let me set the scene. About two weeks ago at a dinner party, I adamantly argued that the Good Samaritan Law protects any business and individual in the United States that wants to donate leftover food to non-profits working to feed the hungry. By adamantly, I mean I was dogmatic and unwavering in my opinion. (Any one want to place odds on whether or not I will be invited back?)

Well, the Los Angeles Times published an article this week that makes me wish I had been less pig-headed that night. The Good Samaritan law protects donors, but it does not, it seems, protect the non-profits who distribute food from local health and safety codes.

This strikes me as odd. I mean, the caterers must abide by the same codes, so why would the non-profits refuse food? Because, they cannot afford to be shut down because of a violation or lawsuit.

I am annoyed enough about the red tape and obstacles facing food redistribution that I want to learn more. If any of you know of communities that have found ways to work around these codes, or change the laws to help donors and charities get food to people who need  it, I’d love to hear from you.

Jars of Shame: An Uglier Side to Food Waste

Food shopping is one of our greatest indulgences. Whether browsing the wares of the shops and stalls at Atwater Market in Montreal or the produce on display in groceries and markets in Japan, Jean-Francois and I enjoy the hunt for new tastes and flavours.

To be honest, we used to horde ingredients. Jean-Francois would chant “In-Greeed-i-ants!” like a possessed madman in a bad horror movie as we shopped. Along the way we  amassed large numbers of jars, bottles, plastic bags of spices, sauces, and other flavours that delighted our tastebuds and encouraged our multicultural gluttony.

But, unlike hoards of books and magazines and trinkets, our collection required regular purging before the refrigerator burst. And we poor hoarders agonized over the forgotten meals, lost experiences as each jar was held up and we asked “What have we used this for recently?” and then poured the insides down the drain.

True, we are better now. We make most of our sauces from scratch, but we occasionally lapse back into bad habits. I took these photos today to show you what I mean.

JarsofSin

37 colourful jars of tasty, wasteful flavours

Just the top two shelves of our refrigerator have 37 jars of our most essential ingredients. They include: maple syrup (used weekly), birch syrup (used three times), rice vinegar (daily), ponzu (weekly), cider vinegar (weekly), two types of soy  sauce (often), 3 tomato based ketchups (often), 3 mustards, two jars of horseradish (??), two salad dressings that we loved in Japan, soup base for emergencies, and a host of chili sauces and chutneys.

The top two shelves, laden with ingredients.

The top two shelves, laden with ingredients.

A chutney, one horseradish, and a few of the smaller jars have exceeded their best before dates, but the remaining bottles are still youngish. Still this is food waste, and it is a part of the food waste problem that we rarely think about. And considering the distance travelled by these jars to please our pallets–I am ashamed of us.

This week, it is time for us to rethink our need for ingredients. Just because we miss eating Okonomiyaki with its special sauce, doesn’t mean we need to run to Little Tokyo and buy a plastic bottle of it (as we did a few weeks ago). I googled. I learnt. We can make some with soy sauce, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. We can even get fancy with sugar, dashi, and cornstarch. All of which we have in the pantry.

Starting today we are going to renew our efforts to reduce our refrigerator’s burden. We will not buy another sauce, mustard, ketchup or jarred treat until we have:

  1. Googled to make sure we cannot make it ourselves.
  2. Found enough creative food ideas to use the sauce up in less than two months.
  3. Asked each other if we really need to feed the nostalgia itch.

And, because temptation can be tricky, we will never shop for new ingredients alone.

Blogging and deterministic non-linear systems. And butterflies.

Once upon a time, I made my living doing mathematics – and one of my favourite mathematical truths is this: deterministic nonlinear systems are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. You may know that truth as the butterfly effect.

It’s an amazing thing, when you think about it: if you take two identical planet Earths, and change one little thing in one of them – one little puff of air – you nudge it down a whole new path.

You can change the world right now if you want to: all you have to do is put your lips together and blow.

Go on, you know you want to.

Butterfly

The world you just created looks very similar to the one that would have existed had you not blown – but eventually, the differences between them will become bigger and bigger. Storms will happen on different days; people’s life paths will be altered; different people will be born; different people will die.

Anyone who’s ever told you that you couldn’t make a difference was wrong.

When people ask me why I bother to reduce food waste in my life, and why I blog, I tell them about non-linear systems and butterflies, and about the power we all have to nudge ideas and culture and behaviour in any direction we want. I tell them that those small nudges make a huge difference … eventually. And, if I’m feeling particularly lyrical that day, I tell them that that’s what a soul is: the consequences of our actions, rippling through time, forever magnifying, and forever reshaping the world — no matter how small we were in life.

Given that, you may not be surprised to learn that I’ve been disappointed that I haven’t been able to attend to this blog much in the past couple of months – but work has taken over most of my evenings and weekends, and it promises to keep doing that for at least a few more months.

The good news is that Bonnie Lee has agreed to step in to help pick up the slack, and keep those little puffs of 222 million tons wind flowing out into the world. I’ll add in my two hundred and twenty-two cents when time allows, including some overdue comments on the blogs I follow.

Butterflies

When you’re trying to change the world, two butterflies are better than one.

And now, back to work…

Weekend food waste roundup – 12 January 2013

paint roundupYou may have noticed that I don’t post a weekend roundup every week. When I don’t post, it’s usually because I haven’t found enough articles or videos that have something new to say about food-waste-related issues. Most of this week’s articles are ones that I wouldn’t usually post, but what I found interesting this week was the sheer number of articles that have been published on the topic. In my recent post on citrus rinds, I linked to a few articles that suggested that concern over food waste was becoming mainstream. This week’s glut of articles seems to suggest they were right.

Andrew Gunther: Big Ag Profits From Food Waste | Huff Post Food

How to cut food waste | Oliver Thring | guardian.co.uk

Living in the United States of Food Waste | Businessweek

How fresh thinking can save on food waste | Mirror Online

Food Waste: Half Of All Food Ends Up Thrown Away | Huffington Post

Time to stand up to food waste (and walk more) | Michael White | guardian.co.uk

Staggering Global Food Waste Creates Green Tech Opportunities | Forbes

INCPEN and LINPAC respond to food waste report | Food Production Daily

Nick Curtis: Put men in charge of shopping and cooking and you’ll see waste just waste away | London Evening Standard

Food Prices Drop, But Food Waste Increases, Reports Say | International Business Times

Honourable husks (a.k.a. Okara)

If you’ve studied Japanese, one thing you may have puzzled over is why some things earn the honorific prefix “o-” or “go-”, while other equally (or even more) noble things don’t. Why are beer and telephones (o-biru and o-denwa) worthy of honour, while wine and computers are not? It is a mystery.

Traditional foods often earn honorifics in Japanese, even humble ones like “o-kara” – a byproduct of the tofu making process. “Kara” literally means husk or shell, and okara is the pulp that you filter out of the soybean slurry to get soy milk. Anyone could be forgiven for not seeing what’s so honourable about it; it’s bland, and not known to make anyone’s mouth water (though one of our cats seems to like the smell).

That being said, okara does have some redeeming properties. It’s high in fiber, as you’d expect, and contains protein, calcium, iron, and riboflavin. It’s flexible. And, although it goes bad very quickly, it freezes nicely, so you can store it until you need it.

The Japanese have long understood that okara is a valuable food, not to be thrown away. There, it’s often served as a side dish, unohana, made with okara, vegetables, sugar, soy and sake. Unohana is served cold – and I ate it for years thinking it was made with tofu. It’s only when I moved to the United States and started making tofu that I realized what okara was, and had to start figuring out ways to use it (as every litre of soy milk generates about a cup of okara, and we weren’t about to throw it out).

So, for those of you who might be struggling to use up all the okara you generate, and who regularly throw some away, here are a few of the experiments we’ve tried, with varying levels of success:

Okara falafel: We found this recipe online last week and tried it out with a few changes. We added a bit more flour to give the mixture the consistency of drop biscuit batter, threw in some cayenne pepper, and used cilantro rather than parsley. The result was so good that we served it to guests recently (with some tahini, lemon and garlic sauce). Everyone enjoyed it, and was surprised to find out what they were eating. The “falafel” was dense, flavourful, and moist with a crispy crust. Simply amazing.

Okara falafel cooking

Okara falafel

Baking: Many people use okara in baking, and it gives breads body and moisture. Bonnie Lee used okara in the pumpkin bread I blogged about a few weeks ago. This was another huge success.

Pumpkin bread

Stealth okara: This isn’t one dish, but rather a class of dishes. Okara has the texture of porridge, and, being bland, can be mixed into a number of foods without significantly changing their flavour or texture. This includes things like mashed potatoes, actual porridge and polenta. Okara is almost undetectable in mashed potatoes and porridge (when it makes up about 25% of the volume). Okara made the polenta I tried creamier (I used ¼ cup corn meal, 2 cups water, and ¾ cups okara) – though I found that it set less well, and wasn’t suitable for slicing and frying the next day. These stealth applications are a great way to use up okara.

Vegan shepherd's pie

Okara polenta

Vegan pancakes: I haven’t experimented with this much, but did make one batch of my usual recipe substituting buttermilk with soy milk, and the eggs with okara. These ended up being heavy, but tasty enough. I use a mix of baking powder and baking soda, so a little dash of vinegar will help lighten them up next time.

Okara pancakes

Soups & eggs: We’ve added okara to a few soups and to omlettes. It can add a little grittiness to those if you overdo to okara, but we’ve had a few moderate successes there. More experimenting needed here.

Okara & eggs

Things we have yet to try: If you make tofu at home, I strongly suggest that you get The Book of Tofu, which has many ideas to springboard off of, including: okara soufflés, croquettes, chapaties, granola and a variety of baked goods.