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Food Waste and Climate Change: How to Tackle Both from the Kitchen

A field full of broken watermelons. | Still from "Broken Bread"

So, you’re a foodie. But you’re also worried about climate change, global warming, and the increasingly apocalyptic predictions for our environmental future. It’s hard to eat, drink, and be merry when you think about just how much our food system contributes to climate change around the world.

According to Food Forward, a third of the food we grow never makes it off the farm. A study from UCLA says that 20.4% of global greenhouse emissions come from agriculture. 5.4 million square miles of land, or 10% of habitable land on earth is devoted to producing food that’s never eaten.

That sounds daunting, but it also means there’s plenty you can do to help mitigate the effects of climate change right from your kitchen counter. Here are some tips for reducing food waste and easing the impact of our food systems on a delicate climate.

Plan ahead

Be thoughtful about what and how much you’re buying. Make a list of what you have and what you need before heading to the grocery store.

Buy in bulk

Buying in bulk reduces food waste — you’re able to buy only as much as you’ll need, and most bulk foods are dry goods and largely non-perishable. It also reduces packaging waste, if you bring your own bags and containers.

An L.A. Kitchen employee unloads pallets of produce rejected by the grocery store. | Still from "Broken Bread"
An L.A. Kitchen employee unloads pallets of produce rejected by the grocery store. | Still from "Broken Bread"

No Judgment

Keep an open mind about what you’re looking for in the store, literally. Stores reject food for reasons that often have nothing to do with whether it’s good or not. Ugly produce doesn’t make it to the shelf. Neither does perfectly good food that doesn’t meet buyers’ specifications. Surplus, rebranded packaging, and short coding (expiration dates less than a few months away) all keep food from hitting the shelves. Imperfect Produce is one company working to connect suppliers with all this kind of inventory directly with you, the consumer.

Food Storage

Make the most of your grocery haul by properly storing produce to ensure it stays fresh longer. Fruits and vegetables all call for specific light, temperature, and moisture for ideal freshness. 

Keep stone fruit on the counter, loose and away from sunlight. Store root vegetables, onions, and garlic in a dark, cool space. Keep onions and potatoes separate. Onions emit a gas that makes potatoes sprout more quickly.

Keep the rest of your produce haul in the fridge at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Store fruits and vegetables separately. Apples, bananas, and pears emit ethylene gas, which makes other produce go bad faster. Greens stay fresh longer in the fridge with damp paper towels.

Store soft herbs with tender stems like basil, parsley, and cilantro upright in cool water. Basil turns black in the fridge, but everything else is OK in there covered with a plastic bag to limit oxygen exposure. Hard herbs with woody stems like rosemary and thyme like a damp paper towel inside an airtight container in the crisper.

Roy holds an apple rejected by the grocery store. | Still from "Broken Bread"
Roy holds an apple rejected by the grocery store. | Still from "Broken Bread"

Sell-by dates

Misinformation about sell-by dates means almost 60 million tons of food ($160 billion) goes to waste annually in the U.S. There are actually no federal guidelines around expiration dates. And it’s confusing to parse the difference between sell-by, use-by, and best-by dates, none of which have anything to do with food safety. (They’re dictated by state or city regulations, industry leaders, manufacturers, and trade organizations.) For reliable information on how long your food stays good on the shelf, check out guidelines at foodsafety.gov.

Compost

There’s always something left over. You can compost your food scraps, along with just about anything grown or raised from the ground like cotton, meat, and bamboo. Composting breaks down food waste into a nutrient-rich soil additive that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and the need for chemical fertilizers, and enhances soil’s water retention and overall health. 

Set up a compost pile at home or at a community garden, school, church, or business. LA Compost offers a simple guide on how to get started. 

These tips can help push our food systems towards something more sustainable and create real, tangible change. A 50% reduction in food waste by 2050 would avoid the emission of 26.2 gigatons of CO2. That same 50% reduction would also avoid deforestation for new farmland, preventing 44.4 gigatons of additional emissions. Combined, that equals 70.53 gigatons of reduced CO2 by the year 2050! 

"Broken Bread" episode E5: Waste explores food waste and the people looking to minimize it.

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