A little frugality please

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, April 2011

The whispers of the elders grow louder: food is a valuable commodity.

Over the past two months I’ve been outlining our specific quandary with food waste here on the island. To recap: A family of four, in this land of both abundance and recession, wastes an average of 732 kilograms of food per year, according to Statistics Canada. CRD findings tell the same story, but from a different angle: Almost a third of the garbage we put out is food waste. Because it’s more than the Hartland Landfill can continue to swallow, organics will be banned from garbage by the end of 2013. 

We expect the CRD to come up with a fix for this dilemma. But what if we chose to be part of the solution? What if we chose to waste less food by buying only what we will eat? It’s worth reminding that less food brought home means more dollars saved. Significantly more, according to Jonathon Bloom, author of American Wasteland, who estimates that the average family annually spends $2000—that’s after-tax income—on food that is never eaten. 

For those of us fortunate enough to have the means to eat well, it’s hard not to load up the grocery cart, even when we know we’re buying more than we can consume. Food is the epitome of security, sociability and comfort. In one way or another, it is anchored to almost everything we do and entwined in many of our most cherished memories. Food is cultural: For many, the upcoming Easter celebration would not be complete without a long list of traditional foods plus the requisite cache of chocolate. 

Food is also cheap enough to waste, and the industry, of course, wants us to buy more. In fact, pricing often promotes waste, with the promise of a cheaper cost per item if we buy more than one. A few years ago, my guy, who mostly handles the grocery list well, came home with three large tins of baking powder because they were significantly cheaper per tin as a trio. This would have been wonderful if we owned a bakery, but never mind: We’re slowly working through them, and yes, the product is still fine. 

Presentation also sells, and thousands of alluring products on grocery store shelves compete for attention as the carts go by. As a result, there are specialty sauces we’ll try once and then relegate to the back of the fridge. We buy fruits and vegetables with the intent to eat healthy and then put that off until they’re reduced to mush. We bring home fresh ingredients for homemade meals, then turn to frozen entrées because time is scarce. Over time we throw away much more food than we realize, and, to make it worse, our children grow up comfortable with the sight of it sticking out of the garbage cans.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and some small changes in our attitude towards food would go a long way to alleviating both our immediate dilemma here at home and the larger ethical question of wasting so much when almost half of the world is hungry. Awareness alone would temper a new diligence. And all the lessons our predecessors taught us about frugality in the years before the age of largesse could serve us well again: Don’t shop for food on an empty stomach. Plan meals. Make grocery lists and stick to them.

The whispers of the elders grow louder: Treat the food you already own as a valuable commodity. If it’s too much to use at once, repackage into manageable portions and freeze for later. (The freezer is not limbo so don’t lose them there.) Buy only what the family will eat, and encourage the culture of eating leftovers. Limit take-out to what you can eat in one sitting since leftover fast food is particularly unappealing. Make soup—famously called Scavenger Soup in our family—to rescue wilting vegetables and leftover pasta or rice. 

Watch best-before and expiry dates but don’t worry too much about them. Products don’t go bad the minute they’ve “expired,” and almost anything that’s bottled, tinned or dried has weeks if not months of shelf life left. For a little hand-holding on this topic, go to Still Tasty: Your Ultimate Shelf Life Guide at www.stilltasty.com. Many websites offer hundreds of practical tips. For starters, check out the British Love Food Hate Waste campaign at www.lovefoodhatewaste.com.

Our hard-earned money shouldn’t end up at the curb. Reducing food waste would help our budget and the planet, and go a long way to alleviating our dilemma here at home.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a Master Gardener and writer. She has spent the last four months hunkered down over a rewrite of one of her earlier books, Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada. It will be released by Nimbus Publishing later this year.