Each year, millions of tons of food are simply thrown away by consumers. More often than not, this food goes into landfill sites, producing no benefit for human, plant, animal or soil, and damaging the environment by producing methane. And not only is it the food that goes in the bin (and into the landfill) that is being wasted, it also means that the water, energy and other resources that went into the growing, harvesting, transportation, packaging, selling and marketing the food has been wasted as well.
While one of the aims of any permaculture plot is to provide as much edible produce as possible, all but the most extensive and various sites are unlikely to supply all the food a family needs. As consumers we need to take responsibility for our food purchases and do all we can to prevent food waste. And as permaculturists we also need to make sure that none of the produce we grow goes to waste as well. Here are some tips to reduce the food waste from your home and garden.
One of the simplest ways to reduce food waste is to plan your meals. Work out what you need to purchase for each meal, make a shopping list and stick to it when you visit the store. Without a plan it is easy to get tempted by special offers and impulse buys. When you are food shopping it is important just to buy what you need, and avoid cooking more than you need (unless you are planning on freezing portions). Buying in bulk can save you money in the first instance, but only purchase large quantities of an ingredient if you have plans to use all of it, or it will store for a long time. Saving money on bulk buying is not economical if your end up throwing some of the food out. Also plan dishes around what is in season in your garden, so you can use the fruits and vegetables when they are at the best, and make a regular inventory of your pantry, so that you can plan meals around the foodstuffs that need to be eaten soonest.
Sometimes you will have a lot of an ingredient all come into season at one point. You might not be able to incorporate all of the produce into your meal plans, so freeze them rather than letting them rot. Most fruits and vegetables will freeze well, and has the added advantage of giving you access to a range of produce even when it is not in season. You could also try pickling and canning as ways to preserve surplus fruits and vegetables.
Storing foods correctly means that they remain edible for as long as possible, giving you time to incorporate them into your menu before they spoil. Virtually all vegetables and herbs should be stored in the refrigerator for maximum longevity. Potatoes and onions, however, should be stored in a cool, dark place like the garage, while winter squashes prefer room temperature so can be kept in the pantry. Apples, berries, cherries, grapes and citrus fruits should stay in the fridge, while nectarines, peaches, plums and pears should be allowed to ripen at room temperature before transferring to the refrigerator. Bananas and pineapples are best stored in a cool place outside the fridge. Salad greens like lettuce and celery can retain their crispness for longer if cut ends are placed in a jar of water in the fridge door.
Even the parts of food that you don’t eat will still become waste if you throw it in the rubbish bin, so make use of your scraps. One of the best uses for food scraps on a permaculture property is to add them to the compost pile (or worm farm, if you have one). Most scraps from the kitchen can be composted. The only things to really avoid composting are meat and fish, as they will attract vermin to your compost pile, and lime, because the high pH can inhibit the microorganisms in the compost from performing their composting function. The food waste will eventually be added to the garden to help plants produce more edible produce, making for a beautiful cycle of food.
If you keep chickens on your property, giving your kitchen scraps to them is another way of turning food waste into ‘new’ food. Chickens are omnivorous, so will eat meat scraps as well as fruit, vegetables, bread and grains. Of course, don’t feed them their own kind, and avoid citrus peels and onions, as these can taint the taste of the eggs, but otherwise you chickens will benefit from a variety of foodstuffs and will reward you with eggs and meat.
If you do cook more than you can eat in a single sitting (perhaps because you were cooking for a large group), get creative with the leftovers and make a new dish the next day rather than throwing them out. For example, leftover fruit can be made into juices and smoothies, while vegetables, meat and rice can be used to make a delicious stir-fry. If you cook a chicken, use the carcass to make stock (you can then freeze the stock in ice-cube trays for ease of use.
If you have a lot of produce, you could share it with your neighbors. Other gardeners may wish to swap if they have an abundance of certain crops you don’t grow and vice versa. Elderly members of the community who are no longer able to garden may appreciate fresh produce, while food banks will always welcome donations, be they of fresh goods or store-bought items that you know you will not use. If your workplace often has catered events, you could organize for the uneaten food to be donated to a food bank or a homeless charity. When you go away for an extended period of time, such as on vacation, go through your kitchen and give away any produce that would spoil while you are away.