Wasting Less Food Is the Key to Reducing Hunger

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Close-up of a woman sweeping the leftovers from a meal into a domestic garbage bin. The background is pure white.
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By Hal M. Bundrick

Americans have super-sized food portions to the point of expanding waists and increasing waste. While producing food from farm to fork uses half of our land and 80 percent of our freshwater, 40 percent of that nourishment is wasted. The Natural Resources Defense Council in 2012 concluded we throw out more than 20 pounds of food per person per month, with a value of $165 billion each year.

Meanwhile, 21 percent of Americans know someone who doesn't have enough to eat, according to a Harris Poll released this month. The council says that by reducing food waste by just 15 percent, we could feed more than 25 million Americans every year.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%"With so many people wanting for food in the U.S., it would be easy to think that there simply isn't enough to go around," says Mike de Vere, president of the Harris Poll, "but the sad fact is that if we could cut down on waste and get our surplus food to the right tables, we could feed as many as 25 million Americans. With more than one in five children at risk of hunger in our country, these are challenges we need to take seriously."

Of the 2,300 American adults polled, most see the problem of hunger in the United States as either serious (53 percent) or very serious (22 percent). In the survey, 86 percent feel that feeding hungry families in the United States should be solved before America tackles the problem on a global level (although 85 percent want that addressed, too. And 78 percent say that wasting food is immoral.

The council says the average American consumer wastes 50 percent more food than in the 1970s –- and ten times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia. Reducing waste to combat hunger is an issue that will be of growing concern in the years to come. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that food production must increase by 70 percent by 2050 to feed an expected global population of some 9.1 billion.

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Wasting Less Food Is the Key to Reducing Hunger
This may seem distasteful, as many Americans believe it unsafe to eat marked-down meat close to its sell-by date. The truth is, supermarket chains mark down meat up to 75 percent several days before the sell-by date. If you're prepared to cook (or freeze) the meat as soon as you get it home, there should be no problem. Naturally, look at it and smell it when you get home. If you have any doubt, toss it. And don't buy meat after the sell-by date. I have been buying meat this way for several years with nary a problem. Two good websites can help quell your unease about this: stilltasty.com (which also has an iPhone app) and eatbydate.com.
 Before Thanksgiving is the best time to pick up frozen turkeys. I always buy two, one for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas. Just before St. Patrick's Day is often the best time to buy corned beef, and hams are rarely cheaper than before Easter.
As well you know, after a holiday, stores mark down the Easter candy, the Christmas gifts and the Passover and Hanukkah fixings. These are great opportunities to pick up foodstuffs that usually only grace holiday tables, to enjoy at other times.
Often, stores anticipate greater demand for ethnic foodstuffs than their patrons deliver. Take advantage of your neighbors unadventurous palates by exploring the world of flavors available at the local grocery store. Alternatively, if you are lucky enough to have an ethnic grocery store near you, many unusual foods will be substantially cheaper than at chain supermarkets. I love to go to ethnic grocers; not only do they offer samples of unfamiliar foods, but people are generally willing to explain what to do with these new (to me and you) items. Also, seafood can be considerably cheaper. Last weekend, live Maryland blue crabs were $3.99 a pound -- that's cheap even in Maryland. And you can buy fish heads and other cuts of fish to flavor stocks and chowders.
Most stores with bakeries bake more than customers will buy. One store near me always has a section of not-as-fresh breads and sweet items 50 percent off. At these prices, those are often more cost-effective than homemade.
At the back of the store, groceries hide shelves of dented or unlabeled cans and smushed boxes -- but there's nothing wrong with the contents. A few months ago, I bought a case of pasta at 11 cents a box. In some towns, small stores buy the dented and older inventory of the chains. The main caveat for dented cans is never buy a can that is bulging or that is punctured or pierced; both can signal dangers such as botulism.

Free, of course, is the ultimate savings option. Some rare stores will give you an item for free if it rings up on the register at a different price that that listed on the shelf. Just a few weeks ago, I found frozen stuffed cabbage, originally $18 for $3.99. However, it still rang up at the higher price. The clerk checked, found I was right, and it was taken off my bill for the inconvenience. This doesn't happen often, but it pays to keep a rough idea of what prices items are marked at so you can dispute the register if a price comes up wrong.

Store usually just want to get rid of these unpopular items, and they may never been seen again. Sometimes, they are products discontinued by the manufacturer. They seem to be more frequent in the frozen food aisle, in my experience.
Milk or butter are rarely marked down, but sometimes stores have gourmet cheeses at half-price. With good cheeses often going for more per pound than high-end cuts of beef, this is a fine thing for cheese lovers.
With prices for some produce also running as high per pound as meat, it's good to know that some stores mark down their uglier, older fruits and vegetables. While those may not be pretty enough for a star turn at the table when you're entertaining guests, they're more than good enough for supporting roles in stews, sauces, soups, compotes and cobblers. You can also be bold and ask -- in a nice way -- what happens with this unlovely produce and see what that gets you.
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