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Clean your does us all good

Often the latest environmental/social cause du jour comes across as some flaky idea dreamed up by a bunch of college grad students with too much time on their hands.

But one of the latest ideas, now trumpeted by various pundits, relates almost solely to your kitchen. Turns out it could save you a few bucks while it’s no more elaborate than your mother’s old exhortations to “get what you want but want what you get” when you sit down to mealtime.

A new book, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) by Jonathan Bloom, pretty clearly indicates its message in the title.

While the author puts forth research that 40 percent of the food in this country ends up uneaten in the trash, that figure is open to some debate. But looking over the ample research on the Internet, it appears that between a quarter to half of the food produced in America does indeed expire unconsumed.

At it’s most basic level, the waste results from the fact food is not valued in this country. Due to advances in agriculture, ingredients become so cheap who worries over the fate of a few donuts, a 99-cent hamburger, or a box of cereal?

Imagine explaining to someone from the Great Depression how in this Great Recession many restaurants cook extra food ahead of time and throw away whatever goes unsold as part of a standard operating plan.

Or tell your farm-born grandmother how often you forget those fresh veggies you bought until you find them all mushy in the back of the refrigerator several weeks later. The worst food wasters are the final consumers: us. We buy stuff we never cook or fix. We order larger meals than our families eat and then trash the leftovers.

This waste does have a financial cost for your household. According to a University of Arizona study, about 14 percent of the food purchased for American households goes into the trash. Nationwide, that amounts to $43 billion yearly in squandered grocery dollars, about $590 per family. We could all use that $590 back, so here are several tips to reduce what goes into the garbage uneaten.

Home economists advise planning total meals before you shop at the grocery store. That way you don’t end up with odd ingredients pushed to the back of the cupboard until they are finally trashed.

A second hint is, oddly enough, to stay away from cheap food. Impulse purchases (like packaged cookies from a gas station) form a high percent of the stuff that gets trashed. Who ever throws away a pack of T-bone steaks or fresh trout fillets? If you pay a little more at the store, presumably you become more mom-like: “Clean your plate. You’re lucky to have that!”

Nutritionists will add that the more expensive foods (meats; fresh produce) are better for you than cheaper “junk foods.” So see, this same contributor to food waste (high quantity/low quality) also relates to the obesity problem in this country.

Another simple suggestion to cut waste and stretch your cash is to take leftovers seriously. In the bigger picture, a whole spiral of inefficiency-related issues flow from wasted food scraps.

On the front end, much of the success of American agriculture depends on the liberal use of irrigation – more water goes to agriculture than anything else in America. Because of that, every wasted food ingredient represents a sizeable amount of water wasted–with water a resource running short in many areas.

On the back end, all that wasted food has to go somewhere. Most often it goes into a municipal landfill. It’s thought that 13 percent of all municipal waste is food from either restaurants or homes.

Unlike impending climate change, this is not one of those issues where the guy on the street is left to read the science with no way to take action. Who can argue that fewer wasted groceries can lighten the stress on your wallet and on landfills that serve your area?

So, as per normal, we’d do well to heed the words of our mothers: “Better clean your plate.”