Reprinted from the Summer 2020 Sustainable Hanover newsletter, this article addresses how to reduce food waste and its considerable climate impact. Author Nancy Serrell is a graduate of Vital Communities’ 2019-20 Climate Change Leadership Academy (2CLA).

By Nancy Serrell

Food is always on my mind. And now that we’re in throes of the coronavirus pandemic, I have plenty of company. Most of us these days are thinking about food – how to get it, how to prepare it, and how to avoid becoming ill with COVID-19 while we’re trying to feed ourselves. 

The virus also has changed our behaviors around food. We’re at home more, cooking most of our meals at home, trying to space out trips to the grocery store, and too many of us are struggling to accommodate household budgets decimated by furloughs and layoffs. While those inclined toward culinary pursuits are baking sourdough bread and re-growing scallions, the rest of us just wish it were easier, faster, and less expensive to put all those meals on the table.

The good news: by making small changes in the way we plan, shop, store and prepare food we can stretch our food budget, save time, and extend the life of the food we buy. A step-by-step strategy for making those changes, along with tips and tools, has been developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through a campaign designed to cut down on the amount of food we bring home from the market but never eat. When food scraps go to the landfill, they create methane, a potent greenhouse gas. That wasted food is a vastly overlooked driver of climate change, contributing an estimated 8 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. We throw out more edible food than you think: each year, one third of the food purchased by U.S consumers is tossed out. But food waste is about more than what goes into the trash. Getting food from farm to fork takes an enormous amount of resources—energy, land, and water — and conserving those resources for future generations will require collective action. But right now, during lockdown, there are things each of us can do.

The EPA’s Food Too Good to Waste campaign presents a “wasted food challenge” along with steps we can take to better manage the food in our kitchens. The program has been implemented in dozens of states, and people who have participated have been able to cut the amount of food they toss as much as 50 percent. They also reported saving both money and time, and most found the steps rather easy.

The strategies for the challenge lend themselves well to managing food during COVID, and you may already be doing some of them (or know you should). First: to cut down on how often you shop, make a shopping list with weekly meals in mind. Even more important: do a household inventory before you head to the store. Research has shown that you can save money and reduce food waste by taking stock of what is in your fridge, freezer, and pantry, then planning meals around what you have on hand. This is the way our grandmothers cooked, and the food cultures of the world have always featured well-loved dishes use repurposed foods — leftover rice became fried rice; hard, stale bread became pappa al pomodoro

As we try to shop less often, we are bringing home more food than we’re used to. To make our food will last until the next shopping trip, it helps to pick up a few tips about food storage, and the EPA campaign has plenty to offer. For example, the fridge door is warmer than interior shelves, so milk shouldn’t go there. Apples and bananas naturally emit the fruit-ripening hormone ethylene, so don’t store them together unless you want them to ripen rapidly. Nor should apples or bananas be stored near ethylene-sensitive veggies or fruits like avocados, grapes, lemons, or limes. Another storage tip: Befriend your freezer. Parsley stems, the ends of the onion you’re slicing, peels and trimmings from carrots can be tossed into a freezer container to be used for soup stock. There are cooking tips too: Chopping half an onion for a recipe? Chop the whole thing, and store the prepped remainder in the fridge or freezer, ready for a stir fry or sauce. 

More tips, tools, and strategies to help you toss less, eat well, and save money are available in a simple online toolkit, the 10-Minute Fridge Reality Check, produced by StopFoodWaste.org.  It includes a downloadable Shopping List with Meals in Mind, a Fruit and Veggie Storage Guide, and an Eat This First sign to designate an area in your fridge for food that is likely to spoil first. 

When it comes to food, the pandemic has in many ways created this generation’s Depression moment. A recent survey found that 56 percent of consumers say they are avoiding food waste and saving leftovers for future use. One of the drivers of this food planning strategy is COVID-19 unemployment. But the specter of dairy farmers dumping milk and plowing crops back into the soil, eggs being destroyed, and chickens being euthanized as the loss of retail markets forced producers to discard tons of food worldwide has made us reassess the value of food. Like our grandparents, we may well come out of COVID with a new culture of responsibility around food. It’s some comfort to know there’s a lot we can do from our own kitchens.