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Diving into the food waste problem

With edible garbage at record highs, here's how home cooks can reduce

By Monica Eng, Tribune Newspapers

April 18, 2012

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As Earth Day approaches, home cooks and grocery shoppers should be feeling pretty powerful. Why? Because they wield enormous influence when it comes to controlling the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas producing garbage in our waste stream: food.

North American consumers make more food waste than anyone else on the planet. But there's an upside to that: Just about any improvement will mean progress.

Jeremy Seifert was a home cook who started turning food waste into meals by Dumpster-diving near his Southern California digs. But when he decided to make a film about his garbage gourmet adventures, he started asking bigger questions about the global food supply like, "Why do we throw out so much of our food in the first place?"

His documentary, "Dive" (which spent several months on the film festival circuit and is available now on DVD) explores the world of Dumpster-divers but also a global food system that finds 1 billion people malnourished while a third of the world's food is thrown away.

On a domestic level, the film has only grown in relevance since it was filmed in 2010, as today record numbers rely on food stamps while the country throws away a whopping 40 percent of its food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, most of it before it ever gets into consumers' hands.

"It's such a shame how much food is thrown away at a retail level," says Seifert who has lobbied big grocery store chains to donate more and throw away less. "When I had encounters with store employees, they treated me like subhuman scum. But I think the shame should be the other way around. It should be on the people throwing it away."

Food waste author Jonathan Bloom agrees that reducing waste at the production and retail levels (through gleaning and donations) can make the biggest impact, but he stresses that there is also much consumers can do — and it doesn't have to involve cooking from the Dumpster.

According to the United Nations, North Americans throw away a larger percentage — about 250 pounds per person — of their food than any other geographic group.

To Bloom who wrote "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Half of Its Food," that statistic is oddly "empowering because, as we've seen with recycling, when people wrap their mind around a simple environmental behavior change, that change can make an impact."

Food waste makes up about 20 percent of our waste stream, and when it's bagged and tossed in the landfill it leaks methane, a gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. But if the food was instead composted — as only 3 percent is — it could produce soil enriching compost rather than so much methane.

So how does this mountain of food waste square with the notion that the world is running out of food?

"I think that's an excuse that biotech use to push their genetically engineered agricultural products," Seifert says. "When you put that up to 1.3 billion tons of food being thrown away each year it becomes apparent that it's not an issue of abundance, it's an issue of distribution and democracy."

The filmmaker said that his dive into the world of food waste uncovered a lot of shocking facts but also a lot of hope for change.

"We are so overwhelmed by so many gigantic issues we can't quite grasp," says Seifert, "but we can all work on food waste because it's in our kitchens and it's so tangible."

Cutting back on waste at home

Author Jonathan Bloom and filmmaker Jeremy Seifert are often asked about their favorite waste reduction tips and we've combined them with a few from the Environmental Protection Agency and some of our own.

• Plan your weekly meals and buy only what you can cook before it spoils.

• Shop like you have a small fridge: "It would be cool if everybody was eating all that fruit and veg in there," says Seifert, "but the fact is our fridges are too big."

• Eat down your fridge: Sort through what you already have and challenge yourself to make dinner from it.

• Rediscover the art of soup: "It can be the most amazing way to reduce food waste," Seifert says, "you can take a whole bunch of misshapen wilted vegetables and make something great."

• Buy smaller amounts of the highest quality food you can; you're more likely to use them and less likely to toss them.

• Shop like a European — if you can — with frequent trips to local stores for smaller amounts of very fresh food.

• Store leftovers in single portion containers so you can easily tote them for lunch the next day.

• When something is reaching its last fridge days, store it in the freezer. Properly frozen bread, for example, toasts back to life beautifully.

• Use bulk food sections to buy as little as you need rather than as much as you dream of using.

• At restaurants, ask about portion sizes and be aware of included side dishes with entrees.

• Try composting food scraps at home or using a compost service to collect your food waste.

meng@tribune.com