Surprising Place to find Food Waste

I spent this morning volunteering at a food pantry. While I did a few different things – sort out toiletries and organize food for different purposes, carefully layering canned goods on the bottom and dry goods on the top to keep the boxes from being overburdened – the biggest thing I did was… throw away food.

Let me back up for a moment: recently, there was a large, city-wide food drive that brought in thousands and thousands of pounds of food. It’s been an incredibly successful initiative, and everyone is psyched that, at a lean time of the year, a ton of food is coming in. I personally am also psyched, and was more than thrilled to come in and help sort the food at the warehouse where it’s being held and then distributed to the individual pantries where it will get to the people who need it.

However.

Some people, probably including me, didn’t go to the grocery store and buy up whatever was on sale in the canned goods aisle. Instead, they looked at their pantry or some shelves in their basement and grabbed things they’d had for a while that no one seemed to be eating. This seems like the opposite of waste at first: you take things that you already paid good money for and give them a new life.

The problem with this became apparent to me when I was instructed to sort food with far-off expiration dates, food with dates in the next 4 months, and food that had already expired. The far-off dates will be given to the local pantries; the next-4-months food will be specifically allocated to places that can move it immediately; but the rest? I was instructed to chuck it in a bin, along with anything that came open in transit or was dented.

A well-reputed food bank has to deal with a lot of pressures, and while I’m sure that individual people who are hungry may make the decision to eat expired can food (after all, the date does just say “best by” not “will hurt you by”), they cannot afford to have someone furious at them over a bad meal out of an expired can. I realized as I heaved can after can of food into the trash that what I normally do (donate food I have gathering dust in my pantry) is a terrible idea for two reasons: firstly, anything expired will go from “maybe eaten in my household, when I feel like risking it” to “definitely in the trash”, and secondly, I make the job of sorting that volunteers and hardworking non-profit coordinators do that much longer, more tedious, and frankly a bit saddening.

This is not to talk bad about people who donate to food banks – honestly, that group of people are already pretty wonderful just to be taking time out of their day to help. Still, I thought that food waste was an important thing to consider, and it made me want to check my own cupboard as I work on my “cupboard cleanout” to make sure I use up the near-to-expiring goods. I’m aware of that with veggies and meats, but rarely with canned goods.

So here’s my question, food friends: what do you do to prevent waste in your kitchen? I’m a novice and fresh from an experience of throwing lots of food away, and I’m ready to be a part of the solution, even though I bet there’s more food waste in my life than I ever thought. Together, maybe, we can start habits that help us overall waste less, which benefits our community as much as any of our recipe-sharing and storytelling does.