Sunday, March 6, 2011

$100 a Week and Wasted Food

I found this cool blog on Twitter called 7 Items a Week. It's just one post a week that features pictures of seven items to be donated or discarded. It's an odd assortment of random items, and lately 7 Items a Week has been one of my favorite blogs.

Things people discard have always fascinated me; I love checking out "new" stuff at Goodwill and Value Village and the garage sales in the summer. I'm fascinated by estate auctions, always trying to picture the person who owned the items. I think it's amazing that a collection of junk always survives after everyone is gone or has passed on these items.

The blog made me think about how many things get tossed out in my own kitchen. Then my thoughts turned to food waste in general in America. I've seen waste in dumpsters behind restaurants, once I saw a bin behind a restaurant filled with oranges, but I never really gave that much thought to the food we all waste in America.

An online search turned up this article from 2008 that says the United States Department of Ag estimated that 26 percent of 356 billion tons of edible food is wasted each year. In this article on Culinate, a former University of Arizona anthropologist estimates that 40 percent of the food in America is wasted, and another researcher at Stanford said 25 percent of the food that enters our homes is wasted.

In keeping with the idea of 7 things, I chose seven items from pantry and refrigerator to toss. Here's my list:

1. Canned organic pineapple--I think I purchased this can when I taught cooking classes or maybe it was for some recipe in a magazine article I wrote. I don't like canned pineapple, and I haven't taught cooking classes for 3 years now, but the can is so old that the ends bulge dangerously. Maybe this can could be tossed but it could also be destined for hazderous waste since the bulging ends indicated botulism-tainted food lurks inside. A phone call is necessary before I make the call for this item.

2. Salted Hazelnuts--This package was fresh last summer when I did a cooking demo at this farmers' market and used these nuts in a dish I made. It wasn't much to take home and I should have planned better and used them at the time. Toasted nuts have a shorter shelf life and after awhile, they become rancid. These few tablespoons of nuts are probably stale and rancid, so now they're destined for the compost heap.

3. Unopened jar of pickled garlic--I bought this jar of pickled garlic at the Lake Forest Park farmers' market, two or maybe even three years ago. I like pickled garlic, but the thing is after I bought this jar, I found another pickled garlic that I liked more, and this one got shoved to the back of the shelf. It's been years since I've seen The Seattle Salad company (the company that produced the garlic) at the farmers' market, so long that the garlic in the jar looks slightly grey. When it's that old it's got to go.

4. Unopened jar of plum jam--A friend gave me this homemade jam over five years ago, and I remember when she made it, she'd said, "Take your jar of jam on the way out." Not wanting to be rude, I took it, but I don't like most jams and preserves, and Tom doesn't like plum jam. Now this jar of stuff looks so old it is a good thing I saw the word "plum" on top to identify it.

5. Sundried Tomato Vinaigrette--I bought this salad dressing when I visited this farm store in 2008. I was interviewing the Merritts for my book and their store sold lots of farm made products. I bought lots of items at the store and this salad dressing was among them. I knew it was too sweet when I tasted it and Tom wasn't excited about it either, but it was too expensive to throw away. So I used it until I couldn't take anymore. Only a few tablespoons to go, but it's old and I'm done with it. Though I enjoyed most everything I bought at the store, a food budget makes me less likely to make random high-end food gambles for processed foods that may die and early death in the refrigerator.

6. Spectrum organic balsamic vinegar--It's not Western Family but the flavor of this organic brand is the equivalent to me. The quality of balsamic vinegar used definitely influences any recipes outcome, so get good balsamic vinegar. Taste it first if you can, good quality costs more, but you don't have to use as much. The flavor should be sublimely smooth and sweet with complex tones that sing. I can't remember how I ended up with this jar of vinegar and the jar says I ate all I could stomach. I found this bottle without a lid in my pantry.

7. Toasted sesame oil--Oil is tricky because if you keep it too long it goes rancid, so if you don't use toasted sesame oil a lot, it's bound to go rancid. You'd think I'd write a date on the bottle, but even then, I'd waste a ton of toasted sesame oil. There just aren't enough recipes. Oh sure, one or two recipes can't do without it, then it's shoved to the back of the shelf. How long has it been this time? I think this oil should slip off my list for good because I throw a partial bottle away every few years. Maybe borrowing among friends is the answer for some ingredients because how much is the real cost of this oil if so much of it is wasted?

I have to say that lower quality isn't always lower price. If you toss out an item because you can't eat it, how much did it really cost? Having a budget should be more about buying quality foods that enhance your life. It's about being mindful about what you consume.

The list was only supposed to include 7 items, but after I choose the "winners", I spotted two more items destined to the same fate. These products may be well appreciated some people, they just didn't do it for me.

Before my imposed food budget, I tried all kinds of different foods at the market. One day I spotted intriguing legumes called field peas. I asked someone buying them what he was going to do with them and it sounded like he was going basic and pairing the beans with rice and onions. How bad could they be? I'd never met a bean I didn't like, I thought. Until I tasted field peas. With a garbanzo-like texture and a pinto bean flavor and color maybe they have big fans somewhere, but not in my house. I suspect these beans might be best cooked with loads of garlic, maybe tossed in a soup, but now I've let them become very old and they're just about too old to tenderize. Is it worth it? The truth is they take up space and don't have a future beyond my pantry now. If anybody knows what to do with these peas, let me know.
Rye berries was the other poor choice I made at the market. I bought a two pound bag and I'm not sure why I did. I don't like wheat berries, and rye berries cook up a lot like wheat berries. I think at the time I figured I could use rye berries in salads and it would be fine, but when I got them home, I realized who am I kidding? How many salads and how long will it take me to use this many rye berries? I could always freeze the rye berries but they're never my first choice when I cook a whole grain. Eventually the bag will be swallowed by the freezer jumble where all grains go before they die.

When you have a food budget the waste must be scrutinized in the kitchen. It's a job to calculate how much to buy, but seeing foods get wasted can only improve my purchasing strategies.

But wait, here's one thing I took a chance on and won big time. I don't usually like red wine but I bought two and I gave one bottle away and I kept one for myself. It was exactly the perfect red wine for me and now it's on my list for more the next time I stop by that farm in southern Oregon.
What's the first thing you'd toss out of the frig?


Trista said...

I'm so pleased that you enjoy my blog! It's funny, too, because I was wondering recently what sort of impression people must be getting about me based on the things I'm getting rid of.

I didn't realize how much food went to waste in America! That's pretty sad to think about. You hear people saying how much more food we'll need to produce to feed the growing population, but if this much goes to waste, maybe the focus should be on making the most of the amount we already produce.

Mallory said...

I have a jar of Thai red curry paste that has been in the fridge for a year. I had a recipe that called for just a tablespoon, and the only option was to buy the jar. I can't even find the recipe anymore and don't remember what it was--but it obviously wasn't good enough to make again and I didn't know how else to use the curry paste!

I too find that being on a tight budget makes me very hesitant to buy something I can't try beforehand because it is not fun to force-feed yourself the rest until it doesn't hurt so bad to throw it out! Life is too short to eat food that doesn't bring joy!

ddzeller said...

I love your blog Trista, and I look forward to seeing what is going each week. Some of your items make me realize that some my purchases seem like a momentary good things, like the pear-lavender preserves I impulsively bought last December for a stir-fry. Now this item is destined for an early death. I see a second installment of food waste.

Trista said...

Thanks, Debra! I love your blog as well. The pictures of Finn with your creations are just too cute!

I came across another interesting item about food waste here, in case you want to give it a look:

I still just can't believe that so much food gets wasted at the same time as so many people go hungry. There's got to be a solution.