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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: Eat Ugly (and Slash Food Waste)

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.

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by Susan Hellauer

When will we learn? Cucumbers seem like a good idea—a fresh and crispy addition to a homemade salad. But it’s too much trouble to peel and slice them so, alas, there they sit, forgotten at the bottom of the fridge, turning into green slime on their way to the trash bin.

But, No! you say. They’ll dodge the landfill by contributing to my compost pile, so no harm done. Right?

Wrong.

Every wasted tomato or neglected grape represents more than just a dollars from your food budget. Each leaves a trail of investments and climate impacts along the way from seed to supermarket. And the same goes for that misshapen yam that you shun at the store. It used the same share of water and energy as its more perfect companions.

Farm to fork to landfill, Americans waste a shocking 40% of all the food grown in the U.S. Besides the financial losses and hungry people not fed, the climate impacts are staggering. So, what can we, ordinary food shoppers and home cooks, do to put a dent in this massive waste of resources? For some down-home ideas, I spoke to Nyack’s own Janet Fenton, Master Gardener for the Cornell Cooperative Extension: Rockland County, where she leads workshops and demonstrates her specialties of composting and vegetable gardening.

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Eat Ugly?

We’re all guilty of picking through the bin for that platonic ideal of an apple to take home. (Just try that at a European market stand and the owner will slap your hand, by the way.) We like our carrots Bugs-Bunny perfect, not with three feet or other deformities. But Janet Fenton has found another way. “My daughters subscribe to services like Misfits Market and Imperfect Produce (Eat Ugly With Us),” said Fenton.

carrots eat ugly

Home-grown carrots for dinner. Photo: Anne-Cathrine Nyberg via flickr-creative commons

Many commercially-grown fruits and veggies don’t meet our U.S. market standard for appearance, and most of these are just thrown out. But these new companies collect them—often organic—and ship them to customers on a subscription basis. “Some perfectly good things just don’t meet our normal size standards, or a carrot may have four legs because it hit an obstruction as it grew,” Fenton explained.

Sock it away

If you grow your own fruits and vegetables, like Fenton, you don’t need a subscription service. But you can think about storing away some of the bounty. My own grandmother spent endless hours canning peaches, apples, figs, and plums from our Bronx backyard. But with new, efficient appliances, there’s a faster, better way. Fenton recently invested in an Energy Star-rated small chest freezer. “I’ve found that cooking and freezing excess fruits and vegetables works every bit as well as canning,” she said. “With the low electric demand of the new freezer, it’s quickly paying for itself. And when it’s time to replace an appliance, we look for Energy Star, and for rebates from our utilities [like Orange & Rockland].”

Kitchen pre-composting

Even the most vigilant food non-waster has plant-based kitchen scraps. And composting, instead of shipping them to a distant landfill, is the way to go.

Leafy greens ready to cook in Janet Fenton’s Nyack front-yard garden. Photo courtesy Janet Fenton

Until curbside food-scrap pickup becomes a reality around here, however, you’ll need access to a backyard bin or pile to compost vegetative food waste. But regardless of the final destination of your food scraps, that waste can be reduced. “A couple of years ago I read about a way to minimize waste by keeping scraps like onion and garlic skins, carrot and celery tops, and other trimmings,” said Janet Fenton. She collects them in a plastic gallon bag in the freezer, and when it’s full, puts the peelings into a pot with six quarts of water and simmers them for a couple of hours into a rich vegetable broth for soups and stews. “It never tastes exactly the same twice, but it’s always flavorful, cuts down on waste, and I never have to buy broth,” Fenton said. “And, besides, I paid for all of that. I might as well use it.”

Stop waste at the source

To avoid emptying your wallet at the supermarket, it’s helpful to follow the old rule: Don’t shop on an empty stomach.

But calm and mindful shopping is also a key to cutting food waste. “Take a close look at your family’s schedule before you shop, and only buy what you are sure to use,” said Fenton. She emphasized that it’s much more than a home economics issue: “Buying more than you need is not cost effective for your family, but it’s also a waste of all the resources that go into bringing that food to your table.”

gardening food waste janet fenton

Janet Fenton plucks ripe plum tomatoes from her garden. Photo courtesy Janet Fenton

Learn more:

Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique, and Strawtown Studio. Read Earth Matters every Wednesday on Nyack News And Views, or sign up for the Earth Matters mailing list.

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