I avoid cleaning my refrigerator like other people put off doing their taxes. I wait until it’s a sea of plastic containers, cling-film-wrapped onion halves, teetering jars – until I can’t find the mayonnaise or remember where the parmesan cheese is. Only then, when I can’t fit another thing inside, do I take it all out.
I throw out the piece of salmon skin I was going to give to the dogs. I toss out something spore-covered (carrots? meatballs?) and another item I think used to be a solid but is now liquid. Judging by the amount of mould, you’d think I was starting up a penicillin laboratory.
And each time I chuck out an uneaten leftover or a floppy cucumber I feel ashamed – ashamed at the waste. As a food writer, I know better.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, about one-third of the food produced in the world – a whopping 1.3 billion tonnes – is wasted or lost. In richer countries, we waste as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces. I’ve interviewed farmers, written about food policy and yet I’m part of the problem.
I see myself standing before a food waste deity (picture Greta Thunberg with a white beard) and am forced to look at the piles of food I’ve wasted. It’s not a pretty picture. How did things get so bad in my kitchen?
I went to cooking school and worked in professional kitchens so FIFO – “first-in, first-out” – was my mantra. Food came in and we prepared and served it to ensure that waste was kept to a minimum. We labelled containers and made prep lists so nothing was missed. The walk-in fridge was kept clean, for hygiene reasons of course, but also so we knew what we had and ordered accordingly. My fridge? A disaster zone.
I wasn’t raised to waste. My maternal grandparents came from western Kentucky, got married during the depression, and would no sooner have wasted a morsel of food than they would have walked down the street naked. When things were really tight, my grandmother reused coffee grounds and gave Cucina Povera a decidedly southern twist. My mother was the same, serving a meal one night, leftovers the next, and if necessary ‘must-go’ servings on the third.
Food that’s not eaten either goes down the drain, is incinerated or ends up on a landfill where greenhouse gases are generated. That’s waste. But it’s also a waste because land, water, labour and energy were spent to create the food I binned. It’s also food that could have fed other people.
My food waste, whether it’s the mystery container wedged in the back of the fridge or the past-sell-by date beans on my cupboard shelves, must stop. That’s why I’ve committed to reducing my food waste in 2020.
That means getting a handle on what comes in my kitchen and what goes back out. It also means taking a critical look at the food choices I’m making. If I want my kitchen to be more sustainable then it’s time to ask some tough questions. Where do the foods I eat come from? What impact do they make on the earth? Can I justify eating avocados or pouring almond milk on my cereal? And the elephant – scratch that, cow – in the room, can I be an ethical omnivore?
I’m going to learn more about food labelling to find out what it tells us, and what it doesn’t. I’ll figure out how to cut down on plastic in my kitchen and waste in my cooking. I’ll embrace my leftovers and think before I buy.
I’ll make my kitchen and my cooking more sustainable in 2020, one meal at a time.