by Learning Lead – Rachel Krueger
It’s dinner time and you’re hungry. You survey the fridge: the food situation is worse than you thought. On the shelf sits a shrivelled zucchini, a forlorn, browning half of an avocado, and some suspiciously old salsa. If you throw out this food, you’ll need to make a trip to the grocery store, which is out of the question—your stomach can’t wait. On the other hand, your budget won’t allow for another night of takeout. Fear not, hungry chef, there’s a meal here…
Read on to learn about how you can make the most of your groceries—sustainably and frugally!
Welcome to the “Giving Food Waste a New Life” skill-building journey! My name is Rachel, and while I am no skilled cook, I pride myself on my low-food waste policy. I get a strange satisfaction from tossing a bunch of wilted spinach into a pasta sauce, whipping up desserts with overripe fruit, or using a near-empty jar of peanut butter for a batch of overnight oats. Mmm.
My interest in extending the life of my food has long been piqued, but I’ve never dedicated the time and energy to improving the ways I approach food waste in my everyday life. Luckily, the Cautious Optimist project provides us Learning Leads with the opportunity to make meaningful commitments to our passions for the environment. For me, that means committing to incorporate food reuse habits into my day-to-day routine to reduce my personal “waste footprint”. Perhaps I’ll inspire you to do the same along the way.
Why Food Waste?
When we think of food waste, our minds might go to the stuff we produce at home. While household food waste is a huge concern (it’s the level of food waste I’ll be focussing on), we have to zoom out to really understand the scope of the global food waste problem.
Food waste is a large-scale, institutional issue. Consider the amount of food waste generated by grocery stores, international food chains, and even entire nations. It adds up!
Preventable food loss is an issue for institutions’ and individuals’ bottom line. Beyond economic losses, food that is not redirected to food insecure communities is a missed opportunity to support people who need it.
The environmental impacts of food waste are especially significant.
Producing food is a resource intensive process that demands dwindling amounts of arable land, as well as energy inputs, often in the form of fossil fuels. When we waste food, we effectively waste the valuable resources involved in getting it to our tables.
Wasting food also promotes a cycle of unsustainable consumer practices, such as buying large quantities of food, purchasing them more frequently than necessary, and generating excess plastic waste from pesky food packaging. The cycle of gratuitous buying and throwing away puts pressure on already strained food production systems.
Most often, the fate of food we throw away is a landfill. Food that ends up in landfills is a source of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. This is because the microscopic microbes that break down organic matter emit methane as a by-product of decomposition (note: these microbes can only survive in the absence of oxygen, which is why composting, an aerobic process, does NOT release methane. Composting is cool!!)
The reasons to work on reducing food waste were quickly multiplying. As I reflected on its wide-ranging consequences, I realized that reducing my food waste footprint could become one of the most impactful actions I take to attempt to mitigate climate change (alongside riding my bike, conserving water at home, etc.). Food is an integral part of life, after all.
Food brings us joy, comfort, companionship, and healthy bodies and minds. We make many choices related to food in a single day: when we eat, what we eat, who we eat with… The food choices we make matter.
I’ll be exploring techniques to reduce and reinvent the use of both unavoidable (pits and peels of produce, bones, skins) and avoidable (completely edible food that could have been consumed) types of food waste in the coming months. I’m going to try my hand at making food waste reduction-oriented recipes, regrowing fruits and vegetables from pits, seeds, and roots, and best of all, making paper with food scraps.
Throughout my “Giving Food Waste a New Life” project, I want to encourage others to be more intentional and creative with food; from buying it, to making meals, and ultimately deciding whether or not to toss it away. These resourceful and regenerative skills will no doubt serve me well in surviving a climate apocalypse!
Self-Identification and Context
As a settler Canadian becoming more aware of Indigenous peoples’ histories and my own settler history, I acknowledge that the practice of reducing food waste is not a novel one.
Environmental stewardship cannot be separated from Indigenous peoples’ traditional foodways. In traditional foodways around the world, foods are intimately tied to the land and water such that the practices for producing and preparing foods are inherently sustainable.
Food waste simply isn’t a thing in traditional food systems; it’s a relatively recent phenomenon borne out of colonialism and capitalism, and it’s one of the privileged.
I honour the cultures and communities who made my skill-building journey, and more broadly, today’s environmental movement possible, and I realize they probably didn’t look like me.
Rethinking Food Waste: Recipes
Full disclosure: I don’t eat meat, so my food waste is composed of vegetable and fruit pits, stems, roots, skins, peels, as well as egg shells. I recognize that this limits the scope of my food reuse tips. I also acknowledge that fresh, whole foods are not available to everyone. Much more, the ability to make food and lifestyle choices is not available to everyone, and I am fortunate to be able to do so.
With that said, I began my food reuse journey in a fairly approachable way. In a spark of sweet tooth-fuelled inspiration, I made:
- a loaf of banana bread using ripe bananas
- banana muffins using ripe bananas
- chocolate banana popsicles using ripe bananas
- banana ice cream using ripe bananas
- okay, I love bananas. Who doesn’t?*
*a composting tip: remember to remove the stickers from your produce before you compost. I grew up thinking that produce stickers were biodegradable (and er, edible), but they are most definitely not.
As much as I love banana treats (did I mention that already?) I’m not one to make desserts every week. I needed recipe ideas that would be more sustainable for my lifestyle. Not to mention, even though I extended the life of my spotty bananas, I still threw out the peels. I wanted to make a dish that was practically waste-free.
When I went looking for food reuse tips online, I discovered that I have TONS of kindred spirits out there. The, “Oh it’s only a bit of mould!” type of people. Yep, I have the utmost respect for anyone who cuts a bit of fur off cheese and keeps going about their day. I turned to famous green foodies, like the Zero-Waste Chef and Ashley Renne, for resources.
I decided to make a recipe that took advantage of every last food scrap: vegetable broth. If you look at any sustainable food blogger’s website, it’ll quickly become apparent that this is the most classic food waste reuse hack of them all. Hey, it’s classic for a reason!
Not only is homemade veggie broth more flavourful and nutritious than salt-ridden, preservative-filled, plastic-encased store-bought broth, but it also requires no money and very little effort. Besides, vegetable broth is a staple in many dishes, from stews, pasta sauces, curries, soups and even as the liquid for making rice and other grains.
Now, for the vegetable broth recipe.
First, you have to save your scraps. Over the course of several weeks, instead of tossing your onion ends, garlic skins, green bean ends, carrot peels, bell pepper cores, broccoli stems, celery tops, mushroom stems, and so on, in the compost, collect these scraps into containers and freeze them. Even if you’re not a huge veggie eater, many cuisines use onions and garlic as the base (or “mirepoix”) of their meals, it shouldn’t take too long to fill your containers. Once I filled two containers’ worth, I started on the broth.
- Fill a large pot with water, making sure that the veggie scraps are not completely covered with water (leave about 1” uncovered). Season with your choice of spices. I used sea salt, dried rosemary, parsley, black peppercorns, bay leaves, coriander seeds, paprika, and some oregano (oregano was an odd choice, but we had some fresh sprigs so I thought, why not?!)
- Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Then, let it simmer on low heat for an hour. Alternatively, if you have time, leave it on medium-low heat for 3-6 hours.
- Strain the broth into bowl or another pot using a large colander. Then, strain it back into the original pot using a smaller sieve to catch any finer particles of scraps and spices. Compost the spent scraps.
- Let the broth cool, and then pour it into containers. I used glass jars and reusable ziplock bags. I stored the glass jars in the refrigerator, and tucked the plastic bags in the freezer for later use.
Note that I made two revisions in my next batch of broth which mightily improved its flavour. I avoided cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage, and I toned down the amount/number of spices. This blog offers a great guide for the flavour profiles of certain vegetables in broth, and it advises against a number of certain vegetables for DIY broth.
Ultimately, the result was so tasty and versatile, and so easy. Tetra Paks of vegetable broth have become a thing of the past for me already!
In the upcoming months, I plan to embark on more recipes, as well as make my foray into papermaking. I’ll also discuss some tips and tricks I’ve been learning about how to be proactive about food waste.
Stay hungry, and save your food scraps! 🙂