By Fern Campbell
Piedmont Master Gardener
Growing your own vegetables, herbs and fruits brings many benefits, from flavor, freshness and nutrition to assurance your produce is coming from a healthy, pesticide-free source. It also can bring more fresh food than you and your family can consume. Don’t let it go to waste.
Food waste is a huge problem in our country. Approximately 40 percent of food in the U.S. supply chain is wasted, and much of that waste happens in the home kitchen. ReFED, a national non-profit working to address this issue, estimates that 43 percent of food wasted by weight, or 27 million tons annually, occurs at home. Wasted with it are all the valuable resources—such as water and cropland—used to produce that food. We can do better, both collectively and individually.
Here are some easy, practical ways home gardeners can help combat food waste.
Share What You Grow
If you’re like most gardeners, you love sharing your bounty with friends and neighbors. You can also share it with people in need. The Piedmont Master Gardeners are making this easier with a new program—“Share Your Harvest”—that connects gardeners with local food banks and food pantries that serve the food-insecure in our community. Visit www.piedmontmastergardeners.org, and find details under the tab “Share Your Harvest.”
Store It Right; Make It Last
Simple storage strategies will help prevent premature spoilage of food you grow or purchase.
Put foods to be eaten soon at the front of the refrigerator.
Don’t wash fruits and veggies until right before you eat them.
Store onions and potatoes in a dry, cool spot, and store them separately; otherwise, the onions will cause the potatoes to sprout.
Keep carrots and beets in the moist, cold refrigerator; in general, the goal with storage crops is to convince the roots to remain dormant, responding as if they are still in the ground.
Separate high ethylene-producing foods from those that aren’t. Keep bananas, avocados, peaches, pears and cantaloupes away from apples, leafy greens, berries and peppers.
Don’t Toss Food Too Soon
Revive carrots, celery, broccoli, salad greens and herbs with a quick soak in ice water or use them in cooked dishes.
Turn stale bread into toast or breadcrumbs or crisp up crackers or chips in a toaster or toaster oven.
Make a flavorful broth with carrot peels, celery leaves, parsley stems, mushroom stems and onion skins.
Add fruits beginning to spoil to smoothies or baked goods.
When you purchase food, know your labels. “Best if used by” indicates when food may not taste or perform as expected but is still safe to consume. “Use by” refers to food that is highly perishable and/or might not be safe to eat after the label’s date.
Learn to Preserve
Foods can be preserved in a variety of ways. Follow directions closely and build your skills with practice.
Most foods can be frozen and still retain their quality. Freezing prevents microorganisms from growing and slows food-degrading enzyme activity.
Blanch vegetables by exposing them briefly to boiling water or steam, then immediately transfer to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Once cooled, dry, then freeze. The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends blanching times for different vegetables at https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/blanching.html.
Freeze meal-size portions. Leftovers become time-saving future meals!
Freeze small portions of leftover sauces, stock or chopped herbs for the next tasty recipe.
Put foods in self-sealing freezer bags or airtight rigid containers. Regular storage bags are not durable enough. Leave headspace to allow liquids to expand.
Avoid freezing foods with high water content, such as lettuce or celery.
Place juice from old lemons or limes in ice cube trays, freeze overnight and pop cubes into a freezer container the next day.
One of the oldest and safest methods of preserving food, dehydration removes moisture so bacteria, yeasts and molds cannot grow. It can be used to make such snacks as meat jerky, dried nuts, fruit chips, fruit leathers, dried tomatoes and dried peppers. The optimum temperature for drying food is 140 degrees F. An electric dehydrator is a good option.
Canning preserves food by heating to destroy microorganisms and enzymes, and then removing the air to vacuum-seal the jar. Although this is the most technical and time-consuming food-preservation method, it is well worth the effort. Remember:
With high-acid foods, such as tomatoes, spores won’t germinate at pH less than 4.6. This means foods can be processed or “canned” in boiling water.
Low-acid vegetables and meats must be processed in a pressure canner at 240 degrees F. at 10 pounds pressure at sea level.
Fruits can be preserved with sugar to make jams, jellies and marmalades.
To prevent botulism and other problems, follow USDA safety guidelines. Visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website (nchfp.uga.edu) to find USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning and other helpful resources.
Ferment or pickle it
With fermenting, bacteria digest the sugars in vegetables such as cabbage or radishes, controlled somewhat by a salty brine. The resulting fermented vegetables can be stored in the refrigerator for months. Pickling involves soaking foods in an acidic liquid to produce a sour flavor.
Compost Rather Than Landfill
According to the EPA, more food reaches landfill and combustion facilities than any other type of trash, amounting to 22 percent of the nation’s waste stream. Composting food waste will keep it out of the dump. Resources on the Piedmont Master Gardeners’ website (piedmontmastergardeners.org.) will help you get started. If composting at home isn’t possible, consider using the services offered by the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority or Black Bear Composting. Their websites offer details on their composting programs.
By making small shifts in how we store and preserve food, we can toss less, eat well, save money, and keep valuable resources from going to waste.