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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.

Some waste comes from overbuying and poor planning, Gunders said, while other waste comes from improper storage. A third source of waste is people who are not sure if the food is still OK to eat and who follow the old adage, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

In her book, Gunders also includes 20 use-up recipes for dishes such as Sour Milk Pancakes and Buried Chocolate Avocado Mousse, which allows you to use up costly avocados that have gotten too ripe.

“Americans are shocked to hear the average household of four spends about $120 a month on food that’s never eaten,” she said.

Even if you’re not worried about your own budget, consider the effects food waste has on the environment. According to Gunders, about 25 percent of America’s fresh water and greenhouse gas emissions are dedicated to producing food destined for the trash heap.

And once it gets there, that rotting food creates methane gas, which traps heat and contributes significantly to global warming.

“But we don’t all have to become jam producers or kimchi makers to cut back on the food we waste,” she said. “We just have to take some simple steps.”

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The following recipes are from “Waste Free Kitchen Handbook,” by Dana Gunders.

“Fried rice is one of those meals where you can throw in a handful of this and a handful of that and everything will turn out more than delicious,” she wrote. “It’s a great way to use up leftover cooked rice as well as meat or vegetables that have seen fresher days.”

Fried Rice

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 eggs

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

31/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup coarsely chopped raw or cooked vegetables

1 cup coarsely chopped raw or cooked meat, poultry shrimp or firm tofu (optional)

3-4 green onions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 cups cold cooked rice

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon agave nectar, maple syrup or sugar

In a small bowl, beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper.

In a small skillet, heat 1/2 tablespoon of the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add the eggs and cook, stirring constantly until the eggs are scrambled but still moist, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate, set aside to cool slightly, then cut up into smaller pieces.

If using raw vegetables and/or raw meat, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet. Add the vegetables and/or meat and sauté until both are just cooked through.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in the same pan, and add the green onions and garlic. Cook, stirring all the while, until they’re both tender. Add the rice, soy sauce, agave nectar, cooked eggs and any already cooked vegetables or meat and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice is piping hot, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

___

“This iconic British dish, not only defines comfort food, it also gives you a way to stretch last night’s roast or ground meat into a second meal,” Gunders writes.

“If the leftover meat is from a roast of some type, include the pan juices or gravy, along with the stock or water.”

Shepherd’s Pie

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon butter, plus more for dotting the top

1 onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

11/2 cups stock or water

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh leafy herbs, such as parsley, dill, basil or cilantro, plus more for garnish

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups cooked ground meat or minced roasted meat, such as beer, pork, lamb, chicken or turkey

1 pound potatoes, cooked and mashed or sliced

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook until just beginning to soften, about 1 minute. Sprinkle with the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns light golden, about 2 minutes.

Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Add the thyme and leafy herbs and season with salt and pepper.

Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 4 minutes. Add the meat to the pan and cook for 1 minute, until heated through.

Scrape the mixture until a 9-inch pie plate or an 8-by-8-inch baking dish. Spoon the potatoes on top to cover. If using sliced potatoes, lay them on top of the meat so the slices overlap slightly.

Dot the pie with a few pieces of butter (use more for plain sliced potatoes) and sprinkle with salt.

Bake until the pie has a golden crust, about 45 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

___

“My husband is part Cuban and grew up with beans as a regular part of his week,” Gunders writes.

“My mother-in-law, Judy, throws a few extra dried beans in the pot and then makes these amazing brownies alongside her beans and rice ... the beans up the protein in each brownie, but their flavor is so subtle you’ll never know they’re there.”

Sneaky Black Bean Brownies

Makes 16 brownies

2 cups cooked black beans

1/2 cup quick-cooking oats

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1/2 cup agave nectar or maple syrup

1/4 cup coconut oil, light olive oil, vegetable oil or melted butter

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup shredded coconut (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8- by 8-inch baking pan.

In a food processor, combine the beans, oats, cocoa powder, brown sugar, agave nectar, coconut oil, vanilla, baking powder, salt and chocolate chips and process until almost smooth.

Stir in the coconut (if using). Scrape the mixture into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out with some moist crumbs attached.

Cool Completely before cutting into 16 squares. If you’ve got the time, chill them in the refrigerator before cutting and serving.

Note: Quick-cooking oats are simply rolled oats that have been ground up into smaller pieces to make them cook more quickly.

If you have only regular rolled oats, just pulse-grind them in the food processor before adding the other ingredients.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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