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Cutting Down on Thanksgiving Food Waste - November 23, 2014

    This upcoming Thursday, November 27th, is Thanksgiving, a holiday for families and friends to gather together and give thanks for what they have. Thanksgiving is known for football games on TV and in the backyard, the beginning of the winter holiday season, and lots and lots of food. Almost every family has some kind of take on the traditional turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and other side dishes piled high on the family table on thanksgiving. But what happens to the extra food after the gut-busting, pants-splitting meal that is thanksgiving dinner? Most families take their extras and make leftovers, but whatever does not get eaten or stored tends to get thrown away. All this extra food thrown into the trash ends up causing big problems not just locally, but globally as well. 

    Everyday, millions of Americans throw away tons of food, whether it be unused leftovers, to spoiled produce. While some food items, like rotten fruits and vegetables, can be thrown into compost bins, most food items end up in landfills and dumps. In 2012, we sent more than 35 million tons of food waste to our landfills, dumps and waste-sites at an estimated total cost of around $165 billion dollars annually. As these tons of excess food decay and break down in our landfills, they produce large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major contributor to global climate change. This huge amount of excess food entering our landfills, and the subsequent greenhouse gas produced, is a serious problem and by taking a few simple actions we can avoid wasting so much valuable food.

     The first way to avoid wasting food, and money on food, is to shop smart. Before going to the grocery store, check to see what you already have and do not have. Also, make a meal plan a week or two in advance. This way you can make a list of what ingredients you need, and in what quantities, so that you do not buy excess items that you might never end up using. Buying items in bulk can be useful , however it can ultimately waste money if the food spoils before being eaten so plan ahead. If you do end up with leftovers, make sure to store them in eco-friendly containers, made from recycled materials if possible, and always eat them before they spoil!

     Be creative and out going when cooking and try to use every piece of the food if possible to reduce food waste being thrown away. You can create a huge variety of soups, stocks and broths from unused bones, fish heads or extra veggies. Make a stir fry of leftover vegetables or proteins. In general, cooking is a great activity for the whole family and this can be a great teaching or learning opportunity for parents and children alike and provide some meaningful family time.

     Another way to send less food to our landfills, save money and help the environment is to create or use community and backyard gardens. Community and back yard gardens give us the ability to make our own produce, which in turn decreases the amount of time we have to spend shopping and saves money on having to buy fruits and vegetables.

     Of course most produce is seasonal; however learning to pickle, preserve, freeze and can fresh fruits and vegetables from your garden insures a year round supply of jams,, fruits, and veggies and is a lot cheaper than buying these items. If you have simply too much food from your garden to preserve it, then give it away! Family members, friends and neighbors will all appreciate free, fresh produce if offered, and if not, then local food banks, soup kitchens, or other such organizations will gladly accept donations. By doing this not only are you reducing the amount of food waste in our landfills, and therefore the amount of greenhouse gasses produced, but your also helping our community and giving food to those who might truly need it.

     If you already have a backyard or community garden, then consider the addition of a personal or community compost heap or bin. Composting is an easy practice to adopt and ultimately provides excellent soil for gardens, lawns or potted plants and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, which when over or misused can have a negative effect on water quality. Estimates are that currently 20 to 30% of what we send to landfills as waste is actually compostable, such as food scraps and yard clippings. By composting items such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and other produce waste you can keep them out of the landfills and reduce the subsequent methane emissions. You can also compost yard waste like grass clippings and dead leaves instead of bagging them and throwing them out, saving some considerable time and effort.

     The production, distribution, use and disposal of food and food products is an extremely complex and multifaceted issue that is not going to go away anytime soon. By taking a few simple actions now, we can save money and reduce the amount of food waste entering landfills, therefore reducing the amount of methane produced and creating a healthier local and global community.

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 


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