Hey, Ozarks: It's time to take a good, hard look at our food waste
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Photo by Nancy Hughes on Unsplash
Americans waste more than 130 billion pounds of food each year. Counting for every step of the production and supply chain, plus stringent cosmetic standards, spoilage and leaving leftovers on the plate at a restaurant, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates food waste at a staggering 30-40 percent of the food supply.
Food waste is a big problem in Missouri, too, not just nationwide. Food waste makes up around 15% of all Missouri solid waste streams, all while more than half a million people in the state are facing hunger.
A 2016 landfill composition study found that organic waste makes up the biggest portion of landfill composition in all of Missouri’s 17 landfills. The City of Springfield’s Noble Hill Sanitary Landfill is slightly below the state average: Food waste makes up 12.1% of Springfield’s landfill.
Springfield Community Gardens, an Ozarks nonprofit and District O grantee, has been fighting food waste since its inception in 2010. SCG community development coordinators Shanna Borthick and Stephanie Handy, plus SCG farm team coordinator Anneliese Kerr shared some of their favorite tips for minimizing food waste at home.
Why should Missourians care about food waste?
Shanna Borthick: Food waste is a big problem because decomposition in the landfill takes much longer compared to composting. A head of lettuce turns to compost in a matter of days under the right conditions but can take more than 20 years to degrade in a landfill. Composting also generates fewer toxic gasses compared to landfilling.
Stephanie Handy: And the value of compost can’t be overstated. A high-quality compost with vital nutrients for soils, like calcium from eggshells or potassium from banana peels, is worth its weight in gold. A good compost can make all the difference because healthy plants make more produce.
Anneliese Kerr: Cost is a huge factor, too. We spend a lot of money on produce, whether commercial, organic or local. And whatever we don’t eat, we throw away, which means we’re throwing our money away.
We also need to consider how we grow food in the first place. Our agriculture systems are largely focused on monocultures (the cultivation of a single crop in a given area), and farmers aim for the greatest yield possible. Growing more than we can eat isn’t a great relationship to have with food, nor is it the best use of our resources, labor, energy or planet.
SCG’s focus on organic and natural farming is different. With our Community Supported Agriculture program at Amanda Belle’s farm in south Springfield, we determine how many crops to plant based on customer quantity. This tailored strategy allows us more avenues for excess produce compared to a model where we just try to grow as much of a single crop as possible.
Tips for keeping food fresh longer
SH: Learning how to store your produce properly goes a long way. For instance, some veggies don’t last as long when they’re out on countertops or in the fridge. With potatoes and onions especially, store them in a cool, dry, dark place.
A dehydrator is a great resource for shelf-stable solutions, too. I love dehydrated bananas; they’re like candy.
SB: One common mistake is storing the wrong produce products with each other. Lots of veggies emit ethylene gas, which can make them ripen faster or become overripe. As a general rule for increasing the longevity of produce, avoid storing potatoes and onions together. Don’t store apples, peppers and tomatoes together for the same reasons.
I may be the odd one out for this, but I like to put my tomatoes in the fridge because my house is ant-prone. I find tomatoes are easier to slice when they’re chilled, too.
SH: If you’re worried about chilled tomatoes losing flavor, I’ve found that taking them out of the fridge a day before you intend to use them can help. They generally get their full flavor back when you use this strategy.
SB: Storing carrots and celery in water can help them last longer, too. You can either cut these veggies to size or leave them whole. I store mine upright in an inch or two of water, changing out the water every two days.
SH: The same goes for basil and other herbs.
SB: Yes, but if you’re storing basil in water, make sure the leaves aren’t submerged. They’ll get slimy!
AK: I’m often guilty of buying or growing too much of something and then getting tired of eating it all the time. When I find myself getting burnt out on a food, I chop it up and save it for later in my freezer.
SH: Another tip is to wait to wash produce until you’re ready to eat it. Lots of people are in the habit of washing everything as soon as they get home from the store. But there’s beneficial bacteria in lots of produce that can keep them fresher, longer. This is especially true of produce that tends to go bad quickly, like mushrooms or lettuce.
SB: Speaking of lettuce, you can keep it fresher longer by avoiding condensation. I found storing lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens with a paper towel helps.
SH: Try fermenting foods to keep them longer. I know some people are a little squeamish about brines, but the lactic acid in fermented foods keeps it safe to eat.
SB: Fermented foods are great for you, but it’s also a good idea in general to prioritize fruits and veggies in your diet, especially ones that are in season.
Tips for getting more out of your produce
SB: When I can tell something will go bad before I’ll get a chance to use it up, I rely on my freezer. I especially love adding frozen spinach to smoothies because it blends easily without getting stringy.
I also save my vegetable scraps—like skins, stems and anything else you wouldn’t otherwise think to use—for stock. I usually have two or three gallon-size zip-top bags full of scraps in my freezer at a time. Once I’ve gathered enough, I toss it in a big stock pot filled with water, and I’ll add leftover meat or poultry bones for homemade stocks (vegetarians can skip this step and still make delicious veggie broths). Garlic and green onion are great aromatic additions, and I always salt my broths for extra flavor.
AK: I always recommend preserving foods to save for later. Canning tomatoes, corn, or carrots when they’re in peak season is a great way to reduce food waste. I don’t always love what’s on store shelves come December, so I rely on what I canned earlier in the year.
SB: Produce is cheaper when it’s in season, too.
AK: Meal plans and grocery lists go a long way for waste reduction. My family builds our grocery list using a shared document on our phones. This way, we can collaboratively create dinner menus each week without accidentally buying too much. Always keep in mind how many people are in your house, and be realistic about the quantities of food you should buy.
SB: You can get more out of whole carrots by using the tops, too. Some people don’t know that carrot greens are edible—in fact, they’re delicious. Carrot tops are similar to fennel, so they’re great for salads and soups.
SH: And pestos!
SB: You can use more of a veggie than you might think. For instance, most people use just the floret of the broccoli, but the stem is also delicious and nutritious. The outer layer of the stem can be a little tougher, though, so I shave it with a veggie peeler before cooking.
The same goes for potatoes. Lots of folks peel potatoes without giving it much thought, but the skins are the most nutritious part.
SH: Recently, I experimented with making a fruit stew to reduce food waste. I took a bunch of fruits that were a little overripe and tossed them in my Crockpot with some honey and let it cook overnight. The end result was a sweet, jammy reduction that was delicious spooned over a yogurt and granola breakfast.
Expert tip: Buy “ugly” produce
SB: A lot of produce goes to waste because retailers and consumers have very strict standards for how a food “should” look. But in reality “ugly,” misshapen or otherwise imperfect foods don’t have anything wrong with them. As a plant grows, it sometimes flowers differently, resulting in a funky-shaped fruit. But it doesn’t affect the nutritional value of the produce in any way.
AK: We are accustomed to perfect produce: We are used to getting everything we want, right when we want it, but this isn’t sustainable. Getting over our fears of ugly produce is a huge factor in minimizing food waste. I want to encourage everyone to use imperfect produce—and if you use it blended up in a soup, you won’t even be able to tell it was ugly in the first place. And it’ll taste delicious.
SCG's test kitchen at Cox North on Aug. 16, 2022. Photos by Diana Dudenhoeffer.
SB: I know some people might be turned off by ugly produce, but I want to challenge people to get out of their comfort zones. There are lots of subscription boxes out there for ugly produce, and some grocery stores will discount imperfect produce. It might not look perfect, but it’s still good! We use lots of ugly produce at our test kitchen at Cox North Hospital. They’re great for dehydrating, powdering and freezing.
Tips for growing your own food
SH: Even if you don’t have a green thumb, growing your own food is a great way to cut down on food waste. Basil is a great example: You can take clippings of the store-bought herb, place it in water and roots will grow.
SB: The same goes for veggies with basal plates, like celery and onions. You can grow lots of stuff just on your kitchen windowsill. And as someone with kids, I’ve found a lot of value in teaching my children about growing their own food. I found they’re more likely to eat something from our garden because they had a hand in growing it themselves.
AK: If past failed gardening endeavors are leaving you disheartened, my advice is to be patient: Some gardens are successful and some aren’t. Also, be realistic about how much you’ll be able to eat. For example, 20 tomato plants for two people might be too ambitious. Ask yourself what you’ll actually eat and adjust your garden accordingly from year to year. That way, you’ll save your own time and labor while cutting down on food waste.
Spoiled or used-up foods may still have a second life
SB: Don’t throw used coffee grounds or tea leaves into the trash. These can make a great fertilizer as they are still full of nutrients even after you’ve brewed your drink. Unsalted pasta water can also be used to water your plants, and it cuts down on waste water at the same time.
AK: It’s easy to give celery a second life. When I can tell the celery in my fridge is about to go bad, I toss it in my pressure cooker with water and other ingredients like onions, carrots, bay leaves and salt and pepper to make a stock. I found that you can get a lot of flavor from celery even when it’s about to go bad. The longer you leave your pressure cooker going, the more concentrated your final stock will be.
SB: Pouring spoiled milk on your garden is a great way to add calcium to your plants, especially for tomatoes, which are liable to suffer from calcium deficiencies. Spoiled milk doesn’t smell great, so I’d recommend spraying your plants down with water after trying this tip. Don’t do this for milk that’s already curdled.
SH: Milk can also be used as an anti-fungal remedy. I use milk in a spray bottle to combat powdery mildew on squash.
SB: In general, don’t be spooked by “best by” or expiration dates. Those dates are suggestions. Use expiration dates in combination with your senses of sight and smell to decide when something’s gone bad. Otherwise you run the risk of throwing perfectly good food away.
SH: Just because you don’t want to eat something bruised, mushy or wilted doesn’t mean something else won’t enjoy it. If you or a neighbor have chickens or pigs, try giving your food scraps to them.
SB: Another tip for using up produce past its prime is to make bread. Banana and zucchini breads are popular, but you can use lots of other fruits in bread, too.
AK: Tender herbs that have gone brown can still have a second life. I like to toss browned basil in a food processor, pour it into ice cube trays and store it in the freezer. You can also blanch and freeze spinach that’s on its last leg for use in pasta later.
SB: Anything you can do to keep food out of the landfill is going to be a win. When food ends up in a landfill, we never get those nutrients back. Not to mention food takes a hundred times longer to decompose in a landfill compared to compost.
When things DO go bad—always, always compost!
SB: Composting is the best solution for food waste. It’s easier than a lot of people imagine; just about anyone can do it. Be wary of small barrel composters, though. In my experience, they aren’t always easy to manage. There’s a learning curve for this composting strategy as they are more liable to suffer from moisture problems. I’d always recommend doing your research—or give SCG a call!
SH: Small-scale composting is a great idea, too. It’s not an option for everyone, but if it’s in your budget, there are plenty of countertop composters on the market now. I especially like the Lomi Composter.
Another low-effort, beginner method is called a Keyhole Compost. This strategy has origins in Africa, and it uses a basket full of compost in the middle of a small, round garden bed. Fill the area surrounding the basket with soil, and the nutrients from the basket will leach into your garden.
SB: And even if you don’t have the space to compost yourself, there are other ways to keep your food waste from going to the landfill. We like promoting the Springfield Compost Collective, which has a food scrap pickup service in the area.
What’s important to remember is that you aren’t expected to do everything all at once. It’s a series of small changes that amount to a big difference.
Got your own food waste reduction tips? Got questions for Springfield Community Gardens? Shoot Recycle417 an email at email@example.com and mention this blogpost.
About the Author
Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.