Cost of wasting food hits home and beyond, county campaign to stress

Food is a terrible thing to waste, but we sure waste a lot of it in South Sound, and across the country.

The average U.S. family throws away about 25 percent of the food it buys. Imagine coming home from the grocery store with four bags of groceries, then tossing one in the garbage instead of putting the food in the cupboard or refrigerator. Sounds outlandish, but that’s what we do in an indirect way.

The roughly 250 pounds of edible food wasted per household each year comes with a hefty price tag — about $1,600 per family. That’s money most families can ill afford to squander. It’s enough cash to pay several household bills or take the family on a nice vacation.

And there’s much more to food waste than just financial loss. The environmental consequences of food waste are significant. Think about this: In many parts of the nation, water supplies are stretched thin by population growth and droughts. It takes a lot of water to produce food. For example, it takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce a gallon of milk, 10 gallons to make a slice a bread, and 2,500 gallons of water and 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Food waste is a waste of water, too.

Food waste is also a societal issue. In communities around the nation, children and adults go to bed hungry for lack of food while at the same time, other members of the community are throwing away food. If consumers in the United States redirected 15 percent of the food they waste, it would be enough to feed 25 million Americans, or about 50 percent of the nation’s hungry.

What a huge and avoidable disconnect it is to have food waste and hunger exist in isolation from each other. Solve the one problem and you start to solve the other.

Fresh off a successful campaign to ban plastic grocery bags in much of Thurston County, the Thurston County Solid Waste team Monday will launch a two-year, multi-pronged campaign to reduce food waste. Fueled by a $162,000 grant from the state Department of Ecology, the county waste reduction folks have set a goal of reaching 100,000 households with a public education and action program to reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in the landfill by 60 tons.

The media campaign will include Facebook, advertisements on Intercity Transit buses and television ads. I particularly like the TV spot that shows a mother and daughter in the kitchen putting away groceries. The mother directs her child to throw one of the four bags of food straight into the garbage. The 25 percent food waste statistic comes alive.

Households will be asked to take the waste less food challenge. In week one, the family collects and measures all the edible food it throws out. In weeks two, three and four, the same family practices using the tools and tips about food waste reduction listed at WasteLessFood.com. Record your results at the website and qualify for a free Food-Saver kit and have your name entered in a drawing for free groceries.

The website tools and tips for reducing food waste range from creative to common sense. They fall into one of four categories: smart shopping, smart storage, smart preparation and smart eating.

Smart shopping includes checking your fridge, freezer and cupboards before going to the grocery store to avoid doubling up on perishable items. That’s one way to avoid three containers of sour cream occupying the refrigerator at once.

Smart storage means using clear containers so you can see what’s in them. This is common sense, but often ignored in favor of the recycled margarine container that ends up filled with a mysterious, moldy glob of leftovers forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

The website lists dozens of tips that, if used, can only help to reduce food waste.

Members of the Thurston County Solid Waste team are also available to speak to neighborhood groups, church groups and businesses about food waste reduction strategies. They’ll tailor the length of their talk to fit the group’s needs.

Workshops and presentations are also available to elementary school classes. Some of the work teaching kids how to be smart recyclers helped change behavior in the home. The same theory applies to reducing food waste.

Waste Less Food campaign is a nice complement to the Restaurant Rescue program, which encourages restaurants and caterers to donate their extra food to the Thurston County Food Bank. The food bank folks pick up the extra food, repackage it and distribute it to the hungry in the community.

In 2013 — the first year of the program — the Food Bank collected 30,000 pounds of food from the kitchens of six restaurants and two institutions in South Sound, according to food bank executive director Robert Coit.

Here’s hoping the new program strikes a chord with families large and small, families willing to make small but meaningful changes in how they buy, store and prepare their food.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444