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Keeping Food Off The Bin: How to reduce our food waste

 An eye-opening event with The New Leaf Co-op; 23 Argyle Place, Edinburgh

I love food – I’m much happier browsing the shelves of independent grocers than designer boutiques, and whenever and wherever I travel, my first stop is a local market or grocery store.  Because I place such a high value on food – nutritionally, culturally, socially; the thought of wasting food makes me want to cry – and yet I still do it!!  Loving food means overbuying – my eyes are bigger than my stomach and sometimes it just goes bad before I have a chance to freeze or cook it.   I guess I’m not alone because there seems to be loads of initiatives to help people waste less food – such as ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ which you can follow via their website or on Facebook for loads of advice such as correct portions and storage.  Recently in Edinburgh, the socially conscious and environmentally aware folk at The New Leaf Co-op felt the issue was important enough to run several workshops called ‘Keeping Food Off The Bin!’  They only had space for a limited amount of attendees so I was delighted to secure myself a spot!!  I’ve had my eye on this shop for a while now – and through following them on facebook I’ve already come to love what they stand for.  As it is a bit out of my way, I haven’t yet made it there; so not only do I get to attend the workshop, but I also get to hang out in a new food shop – BLISS!

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Just walking through the door I’m hit with an instant warm, friendly atmosphere. It’s obvious The New Leaf Co-op isn’t just about selling product – its about improving the health of the community and caring about the food, the suppliers, the customers and the environment.

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Leaving the 'dirt' on the veg helps protect it from light and from drying out

Leaving the ‘dirt’ on the veg helps protect it from light and from drying out

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I join the others in the back room and while waiting for the rest, we get comfy drinking our herbal tea, having a chat all while surrounded by bulk bins of grains, seeds and nuts.  You can already tell that people behind The New Leaf Co-op practise what they preach – allowing customers to buy only the quantities they need instead of over-sized packets that seem like good value until you end up binning half.

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The workshop started with introductions – presenters and attendees getting a chance to briefly say a few words.  I really liked getting to know the people that run the shop and felt more relaxed with the rest of the group who were no longer ‘strangers’.  In just a few hours we played games, had a couple quizzes, and learned so much about the problems of food waste (globally and locally) and some potential solutions.  The workshop covered 4 major issues regarding food waste:

  1. Facts and Figures
  2. Portion Size
  3. Storage
  4. Leftovers

Facts and Figures

Why reduce waste?  Reducing waste will help the environment.  Most of the wasted food ends up in a landfill, taking up space and emitting greenhouse gases.  Farmers over produce to get high numbers of sellable produce – using extra land and resources – especially water.  Clearing of trees for farm land is one possible cause of the floods in England.  And there are the personal benefits; wasting foods costs most households over £400 a year.

Instead of ‘feeding’ us loads of data; we had multiple choice quizzes to help us think about the issues and give us a chance to get to know each other by working in small groups.   What we learned – and we were all shocked by some of the data:

  • Globally, 30-50% of food produced is wasted
  • UK wastes 15 million tonnes of food per year!! (even more shameful when there are so many stories of food poverty – in the UK)
  • Grocery stores waste 0.4 million tonnes (we all guessed more!)
  • Agriculture waste is 2.9 million tonnes
  • The rest is from restaurants and households – who wastes the most????  US!!  7.2 million tonnes a year.

I was totally surprised at low level of waste from grocery stores.  I’ve heard and read so many stories about grocery stores binning usable food and pleas for this food to be donated to charities and food banks.  Although the groceries store have a relatively low amount of direct food waste, they are still indirectly responsible for food that is wasted at the agricultural level because it does not meet the set criteria for size, shape etc. And the grocery stores encourage bulk buying through special offers that may result in more food wasted in the home.   It was equally surprising and quite disappointing to find out that homes produce the most food waste – but as one attendee pointed out –that means we can also make the biggest difference!  It’s hard to change the big corporations but we have the ability to make changes ourselves –– and we need to do it!   So why do WE waste so much?

  • Bulk buying – offers, lower cost for larger quantities, 3 for 2…
  • Confusion over sell by dates, use by dates (lack of confidence to trust your own judgement)
  • Poor planning
  • Lack of cooking skills
  • Over buying, cooking too much (portion control)…..

Portion Size

There’s a lot of focus on portion size these days – mainly in regard to overeating but if you cook too much and don’t eat it – then you are adding to the food waste problems.  So we have 2 options; we can learn to cook just the right amount or we can learn how to store and use leftovers.  In the workshop, we first focused on cooking the right amount.  Dried foods can be hard to judge as they increase in mass and volume when cooked so it was really useful and clear when we were shown dried food before and after cooking.   We were all given a spaghetti measure to take home which will help us to accurately judge different portions sizes.

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Looking at the plastic guide I thought the ‘1’ portion looked really small (equates to about 74g of dry spaghetti) but when cooked it expanded to fill a dinner plate! And about the same amount of dried rice more than doubled in volume:

Single portions of COOKED spaghetti and rice

Single portions of COOKED spaghetti and rice

We were then shown a jar of soaked peas and chick peas and then had to guess how many dried peas and chick peas were soaked to give this amount.  Understanding the effect of soaking will help to stop waste by preparing too much.  We discovered that the dried pulses doubled in mass – so 100g dry gives you 200g after soaking overnight. But if you do soak too many – you can allow them to sprout for salads or use in soups that can be frozen.

How dried green split peas expand when soaked

How dried green split peas expand when soaked

Storage

One of the most interesting parts of the evening was the ‘Storage game’. Because even if you shop wisely, and manage your portions; if the food spoils before you use it – it will still end up in the bin.  By using picture cards of food and storage methods we learned the best way to store all sorts of fruit and veg and I learned that floppy celery and carrots crisp up if put in water like a vase!

Bananas, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are best stored out of the fridge.  Keep onions separate.

Bananas, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are best stored out of the fridge. Keep onions separate.

These all go in the fridge - put a paper towel in with cut salad leaves to regulate moisture

These all go in the fridge – put a paper towel in with cut salad leaves to regulate moisture

storageLeftovers

We ended the night with a group exercise to help come up with creative ways to use up typical leftovers.  Extra mash could be turned into potato cakes, gnocchi or used to top a fish or Sheppard’s pie.  Cold, leftover rice (refrigerate immediately) is actually better than warm rice for making egg fried rice.  Soups and stews can be frozen (use small containers so you only thaw what you need).   I was surprised to learn that milk (even nut milks) can be frozen or used as the base for creamy soups and sauces.  There are recipes for even more ways to use leftovers in the shop and online.

Review of tips from the evening:

  • Reduce household waste by planning – don’t buy or cook too much in the first place!!
  • Learn how to select produce
  • Store food properly to last long and stay fresh, tasty and safe
  • Learn how to deal with leftovers – how to store safely, reuse (recipes are on the notice board in shop and posted online)

All in all it was a really worthwhile event.  Not just for what we learned, but for a chance to get together with others and discuss these issues.  Now that we know a bit more, we all agreed that it would still be nice to get together to share recipes, tips and techniques which we can do via facebook. So if you have tips or questions – head over and leave a comment and start chatting, check out the New Leaf Co-op events page to find out about more workshops and to participate in discussions,  and stop by the shop for information leaflets, recipe cards and advice on how to make the most of the great produce they sell – they may even have some spare spaghetti measures!  Don’t forget, they sell many items by weight – so you buy only as much as you need.

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