Should schools help reduce food waste by teaching cooking skills to kids?

Image by Murdo Macleod via The Guardian

There’s no mistaking it: our generation of young people lack many of the the basic cooking skills that our parents and grandparents were taught growing up. Add to that the fact that millennials have not seen anything close to the economic difficulties of the post-war generation, and you have a cohort of young adults who have only ever known the fast-food driven, affluent society we live in today. As a part of this generation, I can vouch for our disconnected attitudes towards food. Many of us in the western world have been raised going to grocery stores instead of markets or fast food chains instead of family-owned restaurants. In a sense, this evolution has helped us become independent and freed up time to focus on education or careers. However, we now have less of a connection with our food than ever, which makes throwing it in the trash so much easier.

Recently, former UK government advisor on food waste Liz Goodwin said that about £12 billion of food waste can be traced back to a lack of cooking skills being taught in UK schools. She explained that millennials are so detached from food that they are sometimes frightened by it, especially when it comes to food safety and best before dates. This leads to an over-reliance on best before dates to determine freshness, instead of sensory clues like smell and appearance.

“We’ve probably got a couple of generations who went through school without really getting taught how to do things [cooking skills and home economics lessons] and then they’re terrified by use-by dates: one minute to midnight it’s OK, a minute after midnight it’s not OK,” Goodwin told The Guardian.

Another theory of why millennials waste so much is that they are not aware or just don’t care about the consequences of food waste, as they have never felt the effects of rations and shortages. With modern-day, global shipping there is almost always going to be an alternative during a food shortage. Older generations, like my parents and grandparents, who either lived through war or were raised by those who did, are less likely to waste food as they are more aware of its value.

In Canada, students are not taught cooking skills until high school, where a home education course is provided as an optional elective. As a majority of Canadian food waste occurs in the home, maybe it is time to start teaching kids how to cook from a young age. Programs such as Jamie Oliver’s Home Cooking Skills have proven successful in providing American kids and youth with cooking knowledge and could be well-received in other countries. Hopefully, the next generation will then have a more meaningful relationship with food and waste it less.

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Do older generations understand food safety more than millennials?

Mustard best before date

Image: Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press via CTV news

A recent poll by the Huffington Post and YouGov has reinforced what many of us already know: best before dates are confusing. The poll, which involved 1000 participants and controlled for age and education (as well as other factors), found that one third of all participants believed food was unsafe to eat after its best before date.When the participants were divided by age group, the responses showed that almost half of people under 30 said they understood food freshness labelling, while only 34% of over-65s stated that they had the same confidence. Despite this, under-30s or “millennials” were much more likely to throw out food that has passed its best before date. In fact, 71% of those polled stated they would throw out food past its date, while only 17% of 65+ participants said the same.

This poll indicates that while there is confusion in all age groups, general misunderstanding is more common in younger generations, even though they claim to comprehend food labels.  One possible explanation for this knowledge gap is that younger generations have been raised in a society that is more and more aware, and more wary, of foodborne illness. Government food agencies may be contributing to the fear. Health Canada has reinforced that you should never use your nose, eyes or taste to judge the freshness of food, leading suspicious young cooks to toss perfectly edible food. On the other hand, some experts say that schools have failed to teach basic cooking skills and an understanding of food safety. The younger generation’s grandparents likely had these skills instilled at a young age and along with an understanding of wartime food shortages, are less likely to throw away food.

Millennials tend to waste more food than older generations. Image: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images via The Huffington Post

Whatever the case may be, polls like these are important as they reiterate just how confusing date labels can be. More obvious labelling should be adopted along with educating consumers, of all age groups, on food safety and literacy so we can stop throwing away perfectly delicious food!

Learn more about why the best before date should be scrapped here.

 

“Best Before” Debate Continues

A 2013 study by Emily Broad Leib has received recent media coverage in the US on the podcast 99% Invisible.  Best before dates are confusing, contribute a great deal to food waste, and tend to be regulated sector-by-sector, rather than in a cohesive, comprehensive, federal way.

The episode gives a brief history of best before dates in the United States, and urges listeners to use more “common sense” when deciding when to throw out food such as milk or other refrigerated  products. It attempts to demystify a common fear of consumers: hearing a news story of a listeria outbreak, or a friend who contracted salmonella, and then looking to the date as the definitive “throw out” date.

The episode builds off growing interest in Best Before Dates in the US following a survey by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the National Consumer League and Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future. The survey reported that over 1/3 of adults regularly throw out food due to mistaken interpretations of what the Best Before Date means. Additionally, many respondents believed that Best Before Dates were federally mandated, even though a majority of date labeling is at the producer/distributor’s discretion.

Parts of Europe, especially in the UK, have made strides in banning all dates except for expiry dates in hopes that it will lead to less food waste at both the retailer and consumer levels. With the US EPA recently pledging to reduce food waste in half by 2030, a reform on inconsistent date labeling may be a good place to start.

For a list of media coverage relating to Leib’s study in particular, and food waste in general, check out Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation here.

You can listen to the podcast here:

 

 

64% of food waste is preventable: Learn how you can prolong your food’s life!

This weekend, we shared food waste tips / tricks with visitors to Toronto’s Green Living Show. The number of stimulating conversations we had with folks floored us! We received countless requests to share the information more widely and accessibly by posting it online. So, in our devotion to you and in our mission to help you prevent food waste in your own kitchen, here are some tips our visitors found particularly useful!

We don’t know it all, so let’s continue this conversation: use the comments box for questions or to share your own tips. Tweet us ideas, and check out the links we include to other great resources.

@guelphfoodwaste @kjhodgins @KateParizeau @Mikevonmassow @RalphmartinOAC

 

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Vegetables

Herbs:

  • Pop in the freezer in bunches. They will last for months, and it’s just as easy to chop and use them from there as from the fridge where they will spoil very quickly.
  • If you do store herbs in the fridge, wrap them in a clean towel inside a bag to prevent them from wilting in their own moisture.

Cilantro: (most-frequently discussed topic at our GLS booth!)

  • This is one of the most challenging herbs to store, and especially troublesome because we generally want to eat it fresh, not frozen and then thawed! It will last longest if you stand it in a jar of water with a plastic bag placed loosely over the top.

Green Onions:

  • The greens rot quickly, so wrap a paper towel or clean cloth around them to absorb any moisture. This will extend their life for days or even weeks.
  • Instead of tossing the root end, pop it in a jar of water on the windowsill. It will drink and re-grow new greens for you!

Salad Greens (and prone-to-wilting kale)

  • Wash, then store inside thick shopping bags, tied up but keeping an air balloon inside. This gives them their own airy microclimate but keeps the plastic from resting against the leaves and creating too much moisture.
  • Crispers are generally a bit warmer than the other parts of the fridge, which is good. This will prevent delicate leaves from freezing
  • Segregate from fruits (especially apples) to keep greens fresher longer
  • I always wash my lettuce when I get it home, use one clean dishtowel to pat it mostly-dry, then wrap it loosely in another clean dishtowel, and slip that into a bag. They last for weeks this way, and I’ve done it for years!

Broccoli:

  • Keep away from gas-releasing fruits like apples, avocados, peaches, and tomatoes.
  • Keep it in the HIGH HUMIDITY drawer (lever closed, preventing air from coming in).
  • If you store it in plastic, make sure it’s breathable, or poke holes in the bag.
  • To freeze: 1. Wash thoroughly 2. Cut into pieces 3. Plunge into boiling water for three minutes and chill quickly in ice cold water 4. Drain off excess moisture and freeze in airtight containers or bags (this process is called blanching. Carrots, beans, cauliflower, kale, etc. can all be blanched and stored in the freezer)

Avocados:

  • Did you know you can freeze avocado puree?
  • Have you ever cut into an avocado to find it’s still not ripe? Just sprinkle some lemon juice on the flesh, put the halves back together, and it’ll continue to ripen.
  • More terrific tips on all-things-avocado!

Fruits

Apples:

  • One of the worst ethylene gas emitters! This gas speeds up the ripening process of other fruits, so store them separately from others.
  • Ethylene gas is worst when fruits are at room temperature, so to slow down ripening, refrigerate apples. On the other hand, if too firm or sour, let them ripen at room temperature. This is also why apples make poor neighbours in a fruit bowl on the counter. They are off-gassing ethylene to their fruit-bowl mates, making them all ripen quickly.
  • If you’d like to freeze apples: wash and core them, chop them up, and store them in bags or containers (indefinitely!).
  • If an apple gets a bad spot, the rest of the apple is not affected! You can cut around the bad spot and eat the rest, or cook it with your oatmeal, or make applesauce, or millions of other recipes.
  • Is it necessary to peel your apples? Peeling wastes the most nutritious part of the apple, your time, and your food!

FoodWaste Infographic_A (2)

Bananas:

  • To speed ripening, put them in a brown paper bag. This will trap their ethylene gas and encourage them to ripen.
  • To stop them ripening, put them in the fridge—the skins will turn dark but the fruit is not harmed. You can also wrap the stem with a little plastic to prevent the release of ethylene gas.
  • Avoid putting unripe bananas in the fridge, as this will impede the early stages of ripening and spoil the fruit.
  • To freeze, mash with a tsp of lemon juice per cup of bananas to prevent browning.
  • What do you do with brown bananas? They are delightfully still edible! Just mash them, freeze them, and they are ready for use in smoothies, muffins, or fritters.
    • I told “Joe” at the show that I’d share a no-fail recipe for banana pancakes that even he could make: try this one, Joe, and let us know how it goes!

Dairy / Meat / Eggs

Cottage Cheese / Yogurt / Sour Cream:

  • Leave them in their container, and use only a clean spoon for scooping. Any bacteria on the spoon will make dairy go off quickly.
  • If you serve it in a separate dish but don’t use it all, don’t return it to the container, but cover the dish tightly with plastic wrap.
  • *Trick* Store the container upside-down to create an air-lock that will prevent bacteria from growing.

Cheese:

  • Does your hard cheese get mouldy before you reach the end of the block?
    • If so, once you open it, you should wrap it in wax paper to allow for breathing. Hard cheeses don’t actually love the store packaging they come in.
    • You can also freeze half the block if you won’t eat it quickly enough. It gets a bit crumbly after thawing, but its flavour remains! One lady told me she always stores her mozzarella in the freezer because it’s faster to crumble it onto pizza than to grate it!
  • Mould! If the cheese develops a blue-green mold on the exterior, make a cut about a ½ inch below the mold to ensure that it has been entirely removed; the remaining cheese will be fine. WHO KNEW!?

Milk:

  • If you don’t drink milk quickly, don’t store it in the doors where the fridge is warmest.
  • To save money, buy milk in bags and store them in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge when you are ready to use a bag.
  • Milk can be frozen for weeks. If it doesn’t thaw to perfect consistency, just stick it in the blender and it will be good as new!
  • If your milk is starting to get old, bake it in cakes and pancakes instead of tossing it.

FoodWaste Infographic_A (1)

Meat:

  • Keep meat where it is coldest (back of the fridge, and typically the bottom shelf—though your fridge may be different).
  • Avoid any accidental dripping onto foods by keeping a tray underneath it.
  • If you have a deep-freeze, meat will last and resist freezer burn a lot longer there than in your fridge freezer.

Eggs:

  • To test for freshness, pop an egg in a tall glass of water. If it floats, it is getting stale. Fresh eggs stay near the bottom. Even if stale, eggs are likely still safe – especially for baking. Eggs are only worth chucking when they start to exhibit an off odor.
  • If you are going on holiday and can’t eat all your eggs, freeze them before you leave! Beat and freeze in small containers (one or two eggs’ worth) for easy use later in cakes, quiches, and muffins. They’ll last 10 months!

Other tips

“Duh” reminders:

Seriously, we all forget about food, hiding shoved in the back of our fridges. These visual reminders work really well for my friends:

  • Leftovers / Eat First Bin
    • Keep a container at eye-level and place the items that need to be eaten promptly there. This is especially useful if sharing the fridge with a busy household where it’s easy to lose track of things, or if you have kids who are old enough to help themselves to snacks, but not yet old enough to be creative and make their own food and need some guidance.
  • Reminders on the Fridge Door:
    • To avoid forgetting about highly perishable items, use your grocery receipt to highlight perishable items that need to be used in a timely fashion. Stick it on the door to remind yourself about that punnet of blackberries shoved to the back, or that broccoli hiding under the lettuce.
    • Use a whiteboard to keep track of perishables, leftovers, or things you don’t want to forget before they spoil.
    • Keep labels and a marker beside the fridge to date leftovers, or to write “eat me!” notes on tupperwares for kids grabbing snacks.
  • Check the temperature of your fridge:
    • Keep fridge at 1-5ºC for optimum life of your products.
    • To test your fridge’s temperature, take a few measurements because it can fluctuate as it cycles through the day.
    • A cooler fridge uses slightly more energy; however, by increasing the lifespan of food products, the economic and environmental savings are statistically proven to be greater overall.

Finicky Creatures

Fridge-finicky:

Avocados, bananas, nectarines and peaches, pears, plums and tomatoes say:

“Only refrigerate me once I’m totally ripe! Too early, and I will lose moisture and flavour, and won’t ripen properly, even once brought back to room temperature.”

Ethylene Gas Emitters

Most fruits release ethylene gas which ripens produce. By keeping them in the fridge, you s l o w    t h i s    p r o c e s s   and extend their life.

Unless you want them to ripen faster, do not store fruits and veggies in airtight bags. That will hold in their gas, speeding up decay.

  • Particularly Bad Ethylene Emitters: apples, apricots, cantaloupes, figs, and honeydew. Keep separate from things you don’t want to ripen!

Those Confusing Best-Before Dates

Contrary to many assumptions, “Best Before” does not mean “Poisonous After.” In fact, these dates are only guidelines! See this handy infographic to help you understand their confusing formats.


Fall in love with your Freezer

Not a fan of leftovers for three days straight? Freeze in individual servings to grab for lunches on the run later in the week or month!

Going on holiday? Pop things in the freezer to save them from spoiling in your absence.

Grocery stores encourage us to “buy big” to benefit from lower cost-per-unit or 2-for-1 deals. Unfortunately, when we can’t eat it all in time and the food gets tossed, this is the opposite of a cost-saving!

  • If you buy your milk in bags, freeze them until you are ready to drink them;
  • If you buy a large cut of meat, freeze portions for later;
  • If you can’t make it through the whole loaf of bread, store it in the freezer and only take out a slice or two at a time as needed;
  • If you buy a whole squash but only need half for your recipe, cook and store the puree for later use in soup or baking

…Do you have a friendship with your freezer? Share other ideas with us!

What constitutes “inedible” in your house? Carrot / apple / potato peels? Beet or carrot greens? Cheese rinds? “Odd” cuts of meat or organs? Bones? These examples are all nutritious and delicious! Share with us your creative recipes or uses for the food that others might toss out!

Apologize to your food

Minute Earth has created a video documenting a love letter (that is actually more of an apology letter) to our food.  The message is simple: love your food, don’t waste it. Check out the video and think about what kind of letter you might write to your own food:

Support for this video was provided by the University of Minnesota’s Food Policy Research Center, who have also created an issue brief entitled “Food Loss and Waste in the US: The Science Behind the Supply Chain“:

http://www.foodpolicy.umn.edu/policy-summaries-and-analyses/food-loss-and-waste-us-science-behind-supply-chain

Dumping your Date

Image Our study results have revealed that one of the major reasons people throw away food is due to date labels, but how much do these dates actually mean? We’ve all opened milk several days before the printed date only to find it smelly and curdled, but it also happens that food looks, smells and tastes fine days after its best before date has passed.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) explains that the “best before” date does not guarantee food safety, so why are we throwing food out based on this date, and what does it actually tell us?  The best before date provides guidelines to the freshness and possible shelf-life of unopened foods.  The best before date is also known as a “durable life date”. The durable life refers to the expected time period that a correctly stored, unopened product will maintain its freshness, taste, nutritional content, or other characteristics claimed by the manufacturer.  Foods that store longer than 90 days are not required to have “best before” dates, although manufacturers may choose to apply one.

“Expiration dates” are required on foods that are used for specific nutritional values like meal replacements, nutritional supplements, and infant formula. After the expiry date, the nutritional content may have changed from what is printed on the label. The CFIA recommends discarding food that has passed the expiration date. Eating expired food is not recommended, but unless you are on a prescribed liquid diet you probably don’t have much food labelled with expiration dates.

So what about those “best before” dates? The CFIA says you can eat and buy foods past the “best before” date, although the food is not guaranteed to have exactly the same taste and texture or may have lost some nutritional value. As the CFIA says, “Remember that ‘best before’ dates are not indicators of food safety, neither before nor after the date.” Best before dates are not hard-and-fast guidelines, especially in the case of  longer shelf-life items (like pasta). In short, best before dates tell you something about freshness, but not necessarily about safety. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the U.S. voices fears that an over-reliance on date labeling could actually increase risks because they may lead consumers to pay less attention to storage or other food safety factors. In this case, date labels are not in the interest of either public health nor sustainable resource use.

Not all consumers are confused about labels. Many people recognize that food past its best before date may not pose a risk, but still have no desire to eat food that may have decreased in quality. Are best before dates really helpful to the consumer? Maybe without them we would waste even more, as we would be even more cautious. Some consumers feel that best before dates are a ploy to encourage people to replace old product. In any case, date labels do play a role in food waste, but how exactly they affect consumer choices is highly variable (as shown by WRAP research). This report and our own findings show that different people use different indicators of food quality and weigh them differently according to their own views and to the products in question.

Food waste activists and organizations like WRAP are put in a tricky place: on one hand, they value waste prevention, yet they cannot comfortably condone or promote eating “old” food. Date labels become frustrating due to the many myths and attitudes surrounding them, but also because of genuine health concerns about food safety. There are ways to prepare foods that can reduce and prevent food borne illness, and so perhaps the effort should be in re-educating consumers about freezing and cooking techniques. In the meantime, while the CFIA may not feel comfortable about it, I’m going to keep eating smoothies made with a friend’s rejected hemp powder that’s mare than a year past “due.” Image

Comics from http://melikesyou.blogspot.ca and http://www.cartoonstock.com