Post-Thanksgiving: a winter wasteland

So it’s the day after Thanksgiving, and it’s my favorite time of the holidays…Leftover Day. I go to the fridge and open the doors to ponder the vast array of gourmet goodies. I personally enjoy the standard leftover turkey sandwich with as many accoutrements as is feasible to cram between two slices of wheat bread. Apparently this concoction’s name is a “Gobbler” sandwich, but I’d always simply known it as a leftover Thanksgiving. If I can get turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce all wedged in there it will suffice, but the trick is to still be able to eat it all without the need of a drop cloth.

But as the next few days progress, every instance of opening that fridge seems less likely to inspire foodie fervor as it is to instill diner’s disgust. Those deviled eggs just don’t do it for me anymore, and the green bean casserole seems to have moved on to a whole new color spectrum. So what do we do? We toss it all out. After being so “thankful” for our abundance the best we can do is discard perfectly good food.

Roughly 133 billion pounds of food go uneaten each year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of that  food loss starts at the top of the supply chain.

Blemished berries get tossed at the farm, and warehouses dump food that’s no longer perfectly fresh. Then about half of wasted food gets thrown out by consumers buying, cooking and serving more food than we can eat. That includes in restaurants, grocery stores and food outlets that prepare more than needed for their customer demand.

For six months, filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin vowed to eat only food entering the waste stream. They document their experiment in “Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story,” a documentary that is now available on Amazon Prime and iTunes. In six months, they spent only $200 on groceries and acquired nearly $20,000 of usable, safe, nutritional and sometimes gourmet food.

So why the enormous waste? Who’s to blame? We are. All of us — the consumers. We expect the best looking tomato at the store, so we dig through the bin to find those few perfect tomatoes. And the others? Well they eventually get tossed by the market.  Peach farmers in California have between 30 and 70 percent of their peaches wasted because of only cosmetic issues.

The waste is all because we, as consumers, go to the deli and expect the fried chicken to have been cooked within the last few minutes or we think it’s not “acceptable.” But we expect those displays to be full and stocked all day long, because you never know when we might want to buy a half gallon of mac & cheese at 7 a.m. or a fresh glazed doughnut at midnight.

And the saddest part is our blind faith in date labels. Those date labels, especially the “best before” are only about peak freshness — it has absolutely nothing to do with safety.

Most food that is wasted in America today has nothing to do with its safeness or edibility, but rather that it is not at its prime freshness or visual appeal. Many consumers think that’s the absolute last moment that they can possibly consume that item, and it’s leading to a lot of waste.

And I’m sure you ask, “What about food banks and donation centers?” Laws in most cases don’t allow those foods prepared by hand at a grocer to be donated to food banks. Also, foods that have been heated and then cooled in most cases are off limits. That means your local grocery store is likely throwing away 15 to 30 whole roasted chickens a day. That scratch bakery likely has perfectly good, but maybe slightly staled, day-old bread going in the trash bin.

If we want to waste less, we have to start thinking more about personal use and surplus. Only buy what food we can eat within the next few days. For those who may live further from the stores or are unable to buy in such small quantities, using local resources to disperse their surplus is the best route. Local churches and community groups in most cases will provide you a list of those in need. Oregon Food Bank works closely with local grocers and retailers to pick up donations of nutritious, perishable food including milk, meat, produce and other dairy products.

These donations are given to five local food banks here in La Grande itself as well as in Elgin, Cove, Union and North Powder.

And if you want to keep it simple, try using your Facebook posts next time you have leftovers. Simply take a photo and offer your goodies either for free to friends or trade for their leftover lunch. Because during this holiday season we all know how much we hate to see good food end up at our waist or as waste.


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