Greenpoint: ’Tis the season of major food waste

The City Mission of Schenectady held their annual Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday afternoon. Dinner plate servers Dena Barber and Frank Popolizio set up plates in the kitchen pick up area.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER The City Mission of Schenectady held their annual Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday afternoon. Dinner plate servers Dena Barber and Frank Popolizio set up plates in the kitchen pick up area.

My husband planned to pick something up at the local grocery store last week but kept driving when he saw the parking lot.

“Too many people,” he said. “I couldn’t go in.”
Twenty months into the pandemic and we’re still wary of crowds, plus we’re trying to be extra careful right now so we might be able to visit family for Thanksgiving.

Of course, it’s the Thanksgiving planning that brings the crowds to the markets. It’s that time of year when people who cook have more people to cook for, and people who don’t cook get lost for days wandering the aisles, searching for mysteries like shallots and sage and mini marshmallows.

We’re lucky that we can avoid the stores if we want to. My husband will bring home a turkey from the farm where he’s helping a friend prep turkeys for everyone else’s Thanksgivings. And we’ve got baskets of potatoes and onions and winter squashes in the foyer, more of our harvest in the freezer and some greens still growing in the garden.

The homegrown stock allows us to avoid all the lost souls haunting the markets, and all the extra packaging that comes from shopping in grocery stores where every single item is wrapped in plastic. I feel like there’s a quarter bag of garbage in every bag of groceries — and that’s not even counting the excess food that gets wasted.

We are entering the big holiday season, which has become synonymous with big waste season. Here’s your yearly reminder that the EPA estimates household waste increases by 25% from about now through the end of the year, and that 40% of all food grown ends up as waste.

There are ways to diminish our contribution, if we can keep them in mind. Packaging, of course, is a large part of the problem — plastic bags, shrink wrap, clamshell containers, foam packing noodles, boxes. You can reduce some of that by shopping in bulk, bringing your own containers, trying to avoid overly-packaged items, making fewer shopping trips and having multiple items shipped together.

Food waste is another major holiday problem, and one that has repercussions most people don’t think about. Pete Pearson, the World Wildlife Federation’s senior director of food loss and waste, says we should think of everything that went into growing, shipping and making that food we toss. “When we throw away food, we’re also throwing away the land, water and energy used to produce that food,” he writes. Avoiding waste, he says, can help slow the encroachment of big agriculture into our natural wild lands, even slowing Amazon deforestation and preserving our own Great Plains.

Waste food also tends to end up in landfills, contributing to methane production, a major greenhouse gas. And it means wasted shipping costs and emissions as the food travels from farm to store to home.

A new law in New York going into effect Jan. 1 will tackle food waste from our largest contributors. The law requires institutions and companies that average two tons of food waste a week to donate edible food and meals, and to compost food scraps — if there is a composting or anerobic digester facility within 25 miles.

It’s a good way to grab the biggest food waste producers — restaurants, grocery stores, universities, event venues. Hospitals and nursing homes are excluded, as are K-12 schools. The law also is designed to help with food insecurity by having edible food separated and donated to food banks or other “food rescue organizations.”

The DEC estimates the law will keep 250,000 tons of food a year from ending up in landfills.

We can follow similar practices in our own homes. The first step in reducing food waste is on the front end: “rightsizing” meal prep by not overbuying, overpreparing, overcooking.

If you do end up with too much, ask your guests to take home leftovers. Or package up meals for a friend or a homebound neighbor. Or freeze any leftovers you won’t be able to finish before they go bad. Or turn what’s left over into new meals — soup, salads, pot pies. And compost your scraps and whatever waste food you can’t recover, like what’s left on Uncle Bill’s plate at the end of dinner.

If everyone stays healthy, I’ll be visiting my big sister for Thanksgiving, along with multiple siblings, kids, nieces and nephews, the West Coast baby and Massachusetts cousins. We’ll probably have more food than we can eat, and my sister will send us all home with leftovers.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Dec. 5. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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