Wage a War on Food Waste!

By: Justin Chan

As thousands in developing countries face an impending famine, Americans at home have trouble finishing their food. The issue is nothing new. For years, food agencies and nonprofit organizations have voiced their criticism of families that buy food in excess. In many cases, much of the food is left untouched or becomes wasted leftovers. In other instances, some families conserve as much as possible and use food products long past their expiration dates. The issue, it seems, is that many of us have trouble gauging our food needs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the average American family of four spends anywhere between $500 and $2,000 annually on food they never eat. As such, food has come behind paper as the second-largest portion of the U.S. solid waste stream. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that at least 33 millions tons of food went to waste in 2010. At least 25% of the avoidable food waste, furthermore, consists of vegetables. Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, explained that consumers create such unnecessary food waste because they rarely have a thorough shopping list. Approximately 93% of Americans, in fact, have something in their kitchen three years or older.

Food dates are normally labeled on products in order to help buyers manage their food needs efficiently. There are several kinds of labels. The "sell by" date, for instance, tells retailers how long they should keep a particular product on their shelf. The date does not indicate that the product will spoil by then; rather, it tells the retailer that the product will have a consistent taste before that specific day. The "Best if used by (before)" label, similarly, refers to the quality of the product. The "Use by" date on a product is the last date determined by the product's manufacturer to be at its highest quality.

More often than not, we tend to confuse these dates as strict expiration dates. In truth, many of the products we needlessly throw away can last for quite some time. Proper refrigeration can help maintain the quality of certain bottled and meat products. According to WebMD, food that need refrigeration should be kept under 41 degrees. Milk, for example, should be kept at 38 degrees while fish should stay at 32 degrees. Temperatures between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit are considered to be in the "temperature danger zone."

Any food that is not finished, experts advise, should be kept as leftovers. Oftentimes, families discard them as scraps because they hate the feeling of having the same food on consecutive days. Still, many chefs and authors say that leftovers can be used creatively to create another dish. Eggs, for one, can help transform leftover meals, and many vegetable stems we consider scraps can be used as ingredients for other dishes.

For more information on how long certain foods should be kept in the fridge, check out this article on Food Republic.

Photo: Yunchung Lee

For more on food news, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)