That lettuce that got stuck in the back of the fridge and went bad. The peaches that needed to ripen, but now are soft and mushy. The milk that just doesn’t smell right.
These products that can no longer be used add up. The average St. Paul family wastes $96 worth of food per month.
Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit zero waste organization, is doing its best to provide Twin Cities residents with ideas to prevent food waste.
“We received a grant through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to study preventing waste of food,” explained Lynn Hoffman, director of community development for Eureka. “We did a pilot program in St. Paul centered on collecting compost. When people started participating and all their food waste was in a separate container, they saw how much that food waste could be prevented.”
Hoffman said that from farm fields to grocery to consumer, there has been a lot more attention paid to this nationally as well as locally. “The focus of our work has really been on the consumer,” she said.
Hoffman said the food waste is accidental. “Nobody buys food with the intention of throwing it away,” she said. “People tend to waste produce, meat and dairy. But meat not so much; it is primarily fruits, vegetables and dairy.”
The solutions to food waste are not very complicated, according to Hoffman, who has been with Eureka for 11 years. “We have been talking to lots and lots of people over the years, gathering information.”
She said that as well as experts in the field, everyone else has tips, also. “You may have learned from Grandma the best way to store celery,” she noted.
She said some of the tools for food waste prevention revolve around storage. “Often the containers the food comes from in the store are not the best things to store the food in,” Hoffman said.
She also claimed that menu planning is a positive tool that can save on food waste. “Think before you go to the store. Check your fridge—you may already have a jar of mustard in there.” She suggested considering who will be home during the week to eat the meals.
“That’s always my problem,” Hoffman admitted. “I find a recipe that looks great, I get the ingredients, and then I realize I am not going to be home for four nights.”
Another way of eliminating food waste is to do an inventory of the cupboards and pantry. “People are always shocked at how many condiments they have, or how many things get hidden.”
She said there is A to Z tips on food storage on Eureka’s website, makedirtnotwaste.org.
“Everybody can find something useful in this,” she said. “I think as Minneapolis rolls outs its organic composting program, it will become apparent to people as they separate out the food waste from the rest of the trash what’s in there.”
Hoffman said composting is much more environmentally beneficial than tossing food or burning it in the incinerator. She emphasized that composting is good for things like banana peels or apple cores. But preventing food waste is the best solution of all.
“When you look at the impact of our food system, what people call the environmental footprint is huge,” Hoffman said. “Think of all the resources it takes to grow a carrot, water it, harvest it, package it and take it to the store, and then you have to drive to the store to purchase it—all of that just to get it into your fridge. So if you waste that carrot, you’re not just wasting the few dollars spent on a package of carrots, you’re wasting all of those inputs.”
Hoffman added that as a zero waste organization, Eureka is trying to find alternatives to using plastics for storage. “Disposing of plastics in the incinerator causes carcinogens,” she noted. “It doesn’t make sense to create one kind of waste to prevent another kind of waste.” She said Eureka suggests alternatives such as waxed paper or glass jars for storage, which are useful because you can see the ingredients inside.
“Another useful tip is making a box or shelf in your fridge called the use-it-up box or shelf,” she said. “Put in items that are moving toward an expiration date, and everyone can use these items first for a snack or in preparing dinner.”
Regarding expiration dates, Hoffman said there are various dates listed on products: best if used by a certain date, or sold by a certain date.
“A lot of food is wasted just because an item reaches a particular date, and consumers think its fate is inevitable. We certainly want people to be safe, but you’ve kind of got to use your nose and trust your common sense. Often those dates don’t mean anything about safety; they’re just guide plans for the stores,” Hoffman explained.
She said Eureka offers workshops on helping people with buying the food they think they can use.
“Buying from bulk bins can actually be a good idea and save you money, but are you really going to prepare the food or use it or store it? It’s all about having a plan before you come home with 20 pounds of strawberries.”
If someone has questions about recycling, compost or preventing food waste, extensive information is available on the website or at a hotline number, 612-669-2783
She said that when Eureka started its food waste program, it followed some tips from a huge campaign in Ireland and England called Love Food, Hate Waste.
Hoffman stressed the importance of the zero waste approach to compost and preventing as much food waste as possible.
“There is a difference between food waste and wasted food,” she emphasized.