An expired date on an egg carton. Browning avocados. The Chinese takeout from last week. They're all foods likely destined for the trash.
If you're hoping to reduce household food waste, experts say there are two key things to do: Eat what you have, and buy only what you need.
Practicing smarter shopping is not only green for its environmental impact; it saves you money.
“People need to really think through whether they need to be buying as much food as they are,” said Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author or editor of six books on food management.
We can rethink what we define as waste, Deutsch pointed out. A bruised apple or the green leaves encasing a head of cauliflower can be easily re-purposed into a sauce or side dish.
“A good cook can make a good meal out of what's already in most people's houses,” he said.
“Make sure you're buying only what you need, and then be sure to use it.”
The world's food waste problem is well-documented and multifaceted. Some estimates put global waste at 30 percent of all food. This is in spite of the 795 million people suffering from chronic hunger, according to numbers from the United Nations. Food waste that isn't composted piles up in landfills.
Fortunately, there are ways to make your grocery shopping more environmentally friendly.
Buying expired or “last chance” produce at the supermarket is one way 38-year-old Jule Eisendick reduces waste. Eisendick has been practicing a low- to zero-waste lifestyle while traveling, and writes about it on her blog, The Happy Choices.
“I only buy fresh produce when the old one is gone,” she said, adding she tries to use every part of a fruit or vegetable. She might make chips with leftover potato peels or throw remaining carrot and beet tops into a salad. “What I don't use goes into compost.”
Much of the food waste problem starts in the supply chain. Tons of misshapen, small or bruised produce is left in the field. Sometimes, markets have too much of one particular food so the rest could get tossed by the wholesaler. And it's common for grocery stores to reject foods that don't look like what the customer expects. In the last few years, however, a secondary market for these “rejects” has arisen. Now they can be donated or sold.
Two such companies are Misfits Market in Philadelphia and Imperfect Produce from San Francisco. Both have partnered with farmers to rescue rejected produce. Customers sign up online for a delivered box of funny-looking fruits or veggies. The box is then delivered to their front doorsteps.
Misfits Market, which opened last October, sells “ugly produce” boxes in the Northeast. Customer sign-ups have grown tenfold in the first five months of business, according to Abhi Ramesh, Misfits Market's chief executive officer.
“There's a tremendous interest in doing something to reduce food waste,” Ramesh said. “People know it's a huge problem.”
By comparison, the Imperfect Produce website touts some 40 million pounds of produce saved through its business model since the company was founded in 2015. The boxes of rejected produce are currently available in 15 cities, but the company plans to expand service to 12 more areas by the end of the year.
“There are some really funny-looking fruits and vegetables,” said Ben Simon, CEO and co-founder of Imperfect Produce. “Some are really anthropomorphic, a potato that looks like a teddy bear.”
Still, this food is fine to eat, Simon said.
“Maybe there's an orange that is slightly smaller than one you'd find at a grocery store,” he said.
The convenience of these home delivery services appeals to busy professionals. Customers can choose the size of the box and frequency of delivery.
Zucu Ingersoll, a 36-year-old San Francisco Bay Area resident, has subscribed to Imperfect Produce for almost a year, and said the most unusual piece of food she recalls getting was an oversized head of cabbage. Getting the deliveries has cut down on time spent going to buy food.
“I don't shop at the grocery store much now,” she said.