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Sustainable Idaho: Food Waste

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This week, before we all start to plan our holiday meals lets take a few minutes to talk about food waste. According to the USDA, almost 40% of food in the United States ends up in the trash.

To explain how and why so much food goes to waste, we have Dr. Leif Tapanila, the director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History and Geoscience professor at Idaho State University.

Tapanila explains that we have to consider food insecurity along with food waste. In Idaho 202,000 people are food insecure. That's about 11% of the population. In Bannock county it's closer to 12%. Additionally, 57,000 kids in Idaho are food insecure. We've got plenty of food to go around. Just, it's not getting to everybody equally.

When we think about food waste in general, it's really about losing food, and this happens in a lot of different ways. Whether it's happening at production level, when we're farming in the agricultural side, when we transport it and store it, it gets to the store. We buy it as consumers. It lives in our house for a little while, and then we might eat some of it or we throw it away. That ends up being a waste of resources, because it costs a lot to make every potato and every carrot and every chicken that we going to eat comes from resources off the land, whether it's soil to grow that potato, a lot of water goes into making our crops incredible amount of fuel goes into transporting food. When we think about where that food is lost in that supply chain, about 14% is lost at the supermarket level, 27% is from restaurants and food service industries. Household waste accounts for 40% of the last food in this, in the food supply system. The reason I say that's good news is because you and I can do something about, and so we can take some ownership and control about how food enters or doesn't enter the food cycle for nutrition.

To address food waste, the Idaho foodbank has a food rescue program which works with grocers to capture food that might go to waste and distribute it to people who need it.

With Thanksgiving coming up, Tapanila has some suggestions for how to reduce food waste. Plan your meals out and check to see what supplies you already have. One of the biggest challenges in food waste at the household level is we buy too much then throw out shat spoils before we can eat it. And so if you do a little bit of a foreplanning about what meal you're going to have, how many people you're planning to feed, then you can do a little better job of making sure that you're not oversupplying yourself with food that is going to perish. Leftovers are a wonderful way to repurpose and reuse the food that we've already made and invested in greatly. Of course, we're still going to end up with some food waste at the very end of our feeding, develop a compost or yourself in your backyard. There are little behaviors I think that people can do in their household that can make a real impact and put a dent in that 40% waste that the households are responsible for.

That leaves 60% of food waste outside of the household. Some of that is happening at grocers. And so if we have programs like food rescue, that's helping take grocery store foods and supplying them to somebody who's going to eat that food. One of the other big areas is how restaurants deal with their food as it comes in, making sure that they've got a process on the front end to know.

But unlike most waste that ends up in landfills, organic waste does decompose. Why then is it important to climate solutions to separate organic waste from everything else? When we throw away food and put organic waste into the landfill and bury it deep, bacteria will decay that material. And when they do it in deeply buried settings, they do it anaerobically and produce methane as a by-product. Methane, which is just carbon and four hydrogens, is a gas that is 20 times more warming as a gas than carbon dioxide is generating. And so limiting that limits the amount of terrible gases that enter our atmosphere and blanket our atmosphere and keep our planet over warmed. So doing our part, reducing that 40% waste that we have in the food system at the household level can really make an impact on reducing overall methane as a result of putting food waste into the garbage

Dr Tapanilia and a group of community organizations are currently in the early stages of a project to address food waste on the ISU campus. Expect updates from this show as the project progresses.

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Katie Kelshaw is a graduate of Boise State University with a Masters of Arts in Political Science where she has since taught as an adjunct professor. She is born and raised in Pocatello, where her family are farmers and business owners. Katie is an active member in an advocacy organization called Action Corps Idaho, where she helps run campaigns around Climate Justice and a Global COVID Response.