From farm to fork to landfill, Americans throw away nearly half their food. More surprising, consumers are collectively responsible for more wasted food than farmers, grocery stores or any other part of the food supply chain.
“About 40 percent of all food in the U.S. does not get eaten,” said Dana Gunders, a scientist working with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Today, we waste 50 percent more food in the United States than we did even in the 1970s.”
Gunders, now author of “Waste Free Kitchen Handbook” (Chronicle Books, 2015), first came across this shocking data while researching ways farmers could use less water and fertilizer. During a book talk last month at the Healdsburg Shed, she said, “I thought these numbers could not be true, or people would be talking more about it. “I became obsessed with the topic.”
After getting a small grant in 2012, she wrote a food waste report for the council and posted it online. That day, CNN showcased the report and she was invited to appear on three national TV shows. Three years later, she is still getting calls at least twice a week.
“Nobody knew about it, but it clearly resonated with the public,” she said.
Gunders decided to go on a crusade to talk about the issue, since it seemed to be invisible. Since then, she has pulled together information on food management and packaged it into a small book aimed at helping consumers save money and eat better by wasting less food. It’s a win-win proposition that also resonates with many Sonoma County folks.
“I used to shop once a week and have too much waste,” said Sheila Hodes of Santa Rosa, whose family includes two busy working parents.
“I know food waste is a massive crisis,” said Nick Papadopolous, co-founder of CropMobster, a sharing website for farmers and grocers with excess products. “It’s rare to find a crisis that’s also a great opportunity to solve the problem.”
Added Melita Love, “It’s great to start with our own refrigerator.” She works with Healdsburg’s Farm to Pantry program to glean produce from back yards in order to share it with local food pantries, senior centers and school programs.
In the “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook,” Gunders helps home cooks change their habits through a series of checklists, simple recipes and practical strategies, including tips for savvy shopping, correct portioning, proper refrigerator storage and, when all else fails, making the most of their scraps.
At the back, there’s also a directory of the 85 most common foods we eat, with information about how long food is at its peak, if it can be frozen and ideas for using it up when it is past its prime.
“I don’t have culinary training,” she said. “It’s more of a scientific endeavor about how do you know if you can still eat it? I pulled together Old World knowledge, from before we got distanced from our food.”
For Gunders, the no-waste issue started back when she was a young girl growing up with a Filipino father and a thrifty mother from Queens, N.Y.
“That translated into pure embarrassment,” she said. “Dad was always slurping a chicken bone, and Mom was pouring water into a spaghetti sauce jar, trying to get the last drop.”
Of course, cutting food waste is not uncommon among immigrants and Americans who weathered the Great Depression and World War II. But the need to economize has waned as the population has grown healthier, and as their lives — as well as their refrigerators — have become fuller and less easy to manage.