As a Californian, I face daily reminders of "The Drought," as we now universally know it, from commands on electronic freeway signs to conserve water, to notices in restaurants about only serving water by request, to my own dismal backyard, which I'm looking out across as I write this. Even though I've planted California natives, all I see in every direction is brown. The only other time I remember it being this dry was 40 years ago during our last big drought, which changed not only water policy, but also how we lived here on a day-to-day basis.
And once again, the drought is having an effect on the daily lives of nearly every resident of The Golden (or more accurately, Very Brown) State. The lack of water cost California's farming sector $2.2 billion last year alone. Over 5,000 homes in Tulare County (three hours north of Los Angeles) are completely without water. In towns all over the Central Valley, asthma rates are skyrocketing in nearly all age groups due to air-quality issues caused by dust and particulate matter related to the drought.
The news this week may be full of predictions for a stronger-than-expected El Niño this winter, but even the predicted heavy rains won't eliminate the damage from four years of drought.
Before we get to the good news (and I promise there is some), let me give you a bit more bad news: According to a 2013 report from the World Resources Institute, 1.3 billion pounds of food is wasted each year. "What does food waste have to do with drought?" you might ask. Well, as the report goes on to explain: That 1.3 billion pounds of food represents -- gulp -- 45 trillion gallons of wasted water per year worldwide.
Yep, those rotting cucumbers in the crisper drawer are not helping the water situation, in California or elsewhere. So, now the good news: We can do something about it, no matter where you are in the United States, or around the globe, and even save money doing so.
4 Easy Ways to Save Water by Cutting Food Waste
- Get Ugly! American consumers have come to expect picture-perfect produce on store shelves, which ensures that anything imperfect is tossed away. But guess what? Those lumpy and bumpy vegetables are just as delicious as their better-looking brethren. So, next time you are shopping and you see produce that is oddly shaped, or bruised, or otherwise less than perfect, ask yourself: Does this produce need to be a supermodel for the dish I'm making? At our company, we have a program called Imperfectly Delicious Produce that supplies our chefs with plain Janes for dishes where looks don't matter, like soups, stocks, casseroles, etc. We've saved more than 126 tons of food this year alone by "getting ugly." Join us!
- Use It All! Root-to-stalk cooking is economical and waste-saving, too. Turns out, there is no reason to throw away, say, the ribs in chard; they are delicious with the right recipe. The skins we are conditioned to painstakingly peel and discard from vegetables like carrots, onions, squash, and potatoes are not only delicious, but often packed with valuable nutrients. Why not use them in making stock or in a recipe like this one?
- Keep It Fresh! Did you know that produce, including bananas, avocados, and pears, can be put in the refrigerator once they've ripened and will keep for much longer there than if left on the counter or in a fruit basket? (The texture may be unexciting, but they'll be fine in a smoothie.) Or that certain vegetables and fruits will actually cause each other to prematurely ripen if stored together? All that's required to improve your produce waste rate is a simple Google search, really.
- Don't Buy Pre-Chopped! A confession: At the end of a long work day, I've been known to reach for the pre-cut and pre-mixed mire poix package or pre-cut haricot vert on display, when the idea of eating a quick, healthy meal overwhelms my commitment to sustainability. That said, I am taking my own advice and eschewing the "convenience" of pre-cut produce. Let's face it, it saves only a few minutes of time, but it wastes a whole lot of the product from ends to peels -- which I could be using to make delicious stocks or soups. (The bits are easily stored in the freezer until I have time to use them.)
And lastly, a side note specifically for any restaurant owners or corporate/institutional food buyers who might be reading this: Did you know that you can reduce waste every day by changing your purchasing specs? Via our Imperfectly Delicious Produce initiative, we widened our buying to include not only imperfect produce, but also the cuts that would normally be thrown away. For example:
- "Clipped" or "second cut" spinach, baby kale, and baby chard: These second-harvest greens represent a whopping 50 percent reduction in water usage. (Greens don't all grow at the same pace. A machine harvest may clip the top of shorter leaves that could be harvested on a second pass, so most farmers don't bother. Give them a market for those leaves and they will, though.)
- Cauliflower oddballs: Giving a home to the smaller- or larger-than-average heads or ones with weather-related blemishes can mean a 20 to 40 percent increase in harvest yield for cauliflower farmers.
- Romaine leaves: The craze for "hearts of romaine" has left the outer leaves in the dust, literally. Buying some of what would otherwise be disked under can translate into a 10 to 15 percent increase in crop yield for romaine farmers and less water used per pound of romaine harvested.
The water situation worldwide is slated to get worse rather than better: our growing population might have only three-fifths as much water in 15 years, the United Nations reported earlier this year. So, why not take these few simple steps now to reduce your food waste to help our existing and future water woes (and your wallet)? Doing so will add up to more than just a drop in the bucket!