Perhaps a little surprisingly, it may well be the spoiled food that ends up in your garbage bin – from last week’s half-forgotten dinner leftovers and the head of lettuce that’s wilting away in the fridge to the gammon from several seasons ago that’s hiding somewhere in the deep recesses of your chest freezer.
The statistics on food waste are frightening. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) estimates that about 9 million tonnes of food are wasted in South Africa every year. That’s more than 30% of our entire agricultural production and amounts to a cash value of over R60 billion.
In a country where millions go hungry on a daily basis and food shortages are common for many poor families, that’s a tragic situation. Add to that the large quantities of valuable resources, like water and energy, that are used to make the food which ends up in rubbish dumps, and the image of a throw-away society is complete.
Globally, the picture is even more disturbing. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, over a billion tonnes of food are wasted annually – that’s enough to end world hunger twice over.
It’s true that most of the waste happens during production, processing, transport and storage and while it may appear that ordinary folks like you and I can do little to change the situation, we should remember our power as consumers: it’s our purchases that tell producers what to supply us with. If we send the message that their carrots are a bit funny-looking or their bananas are too short, too long or too curved, it’s no wonder that so much food ends up in the bin before it ever reaches the supermarket.
Apart from that, there’s a perfectly good selfish reason why you should be concerned with food waste: the fact that it probably costs you a substantial chunk of hard earned cash every year.
Research by the CSIR suggests that we consumers are directly responsible for about 5% of all food waste in South Africa. That sounds like a small percentage, but it amounts to somewhere in the order of 450 000 tonnes of food worth around R3billion that ends up in our collective trash cans every year. And it’s money we spent on, effectively, nothing.
Making a difference while saving money isn’t particularly difficult.
Plan better, shop better. You can plan your weekly home-cooked meals a little bit more carefully, make shopping lists accordingly and stick to those when you hit the supermarket. This way you’re more likely to avoid buying things that you’re not going to use before they go off.
Don’t judge a fruit by its cover. Why ignore slightly blemished or oddly shaped fruits and vegetables at the grocery store? They taste the same as their more conventionally beautiful counterparts. If you get home and find some fruits or veggies bruised, you can blend them into healthy smoothies or add them to tasty soups and sauces. Also, frozen food products are a surprisingly good option because they tend to suffer fewer losses on their way from the farm to the store.
Support stores who support charities. Find out if your local supermarket (as well as your favourite restaurant) donates its leftovers and post sell-by date produce to charities. If they don’t, why not suggest it to the manager.
Waste not. At home, it pays to not cook more food than necessary. If there are any leftovers, they make for great additions to the following day’s lunch boxes or can be frozen for another meal.
Let technology help you. You can download smartphone apps to help you minimise food waste and save money. Try the free FoodKeeper app developed by the US Department of Agriculture. It’s available for Android and iOS devices and, among other things, reminds you which of the items in your fridge, freezer or pantry cupboard are nearing the end of their storage life.