Tuesday, 13 January 2009

An Organic Resolution

The recent economic events worldwide have caused us all to take a step back and wonder what went wrong. Whatever the cause or the solution, it has made a lot of us look at exactly how we live, what we consume and how much we waste.
For example, did you know that most families in the western world actually throw away a huge amount of food? A British government study last year revealed that the average British family throws away almost a third of the food they buy every week – and a similar US study revealed that the average family there discards almost twenty-seven percent. I was shocked by this, and sure that the figures were inaccurate, until I began to keep track of exactly how much food my own household threw away in an average week.

I decided to keep note over a period of two weeks of both what I disposed of and how much I had paid for it. By the end of that eye-opening fortnight, I was shocked, and more than a little bit ashamed. What I was discarding was just about the national average here in Britain, and frankly I could have fed at least one other person on it. In a world where so many are going without, this seems almost criminal. Not only that, but think of all the greenhouse gases being released from the food I was throwing away as it slowly decomposes on landfill sites. Multiply that by a few billion people and suddenly you have a problem that we really should not be ignoring. And that is before you get to the issue of the money I was wasting – nearly £20 or about $30 – each week. That works out roughly to the equivalent of $1,560 each year. That realisation was the last straw. I was throwing away over $1000 a year – and so are most other households. Something had to give, so I set about finding ways to ensure that the 21st Century Housewife wasted less food starting right that very minute.

This was a daunting prospect. I have to admit, I find it difficult to keep to a plan when it comes to family meals. Our schedule changes from one moment to the next, and I feel that I need to have at least a few possibilities available for most meals. For example, will we really have time for brunch on the weekend? But if we do, and I don’t have the necessary ingredients for it, won’t that be disappointing? What if someone drops in unexpectedly? Added to this is the fact that I am never sure from one day to the next what sort of time my husband will arrive home from his demanding job in the evening and my own schedule as a housewife and writer is pretty erratic as well. As the 21st Century Housewife, I have the opportunity, and the excuse, to ask people what their home lives are like – and I’ve found out that I am not alone in this situation. Most of us have very busy, unpredictable lives, and we shop accordingly. We buy lots of food “just in case”.

I know no one deliberately sets out to be wasteful. I have always kept a close eye on “use by” and “best before” dates, and used my freezer to ensure that things that could be frozen safely instead of being discarded were duly moved to the deep freeze. Of course this helps, but in some cases the freezer can simply become an icy graveyard, full of food you will never eat – mainly because if you are like me, you won’t actually remember everything you put in there and even frozen food doesn’t last forever.

Supermarkets do have to share some of the blame. For years they have tempted us with multi-buys, buy two get one free and buy one get one free offers. “Larger pack, bigger value” signs urge us to buy bigger, better, more. It’s very hard indeed not to be tempted.

So what to do? The obvious solution of buying less is not as simple as it sounds. After years of catering for every possible eventuality, I found it very hard to change my ways. Shopping became an anxiety provoking exercise, something I dreaded. A bit of introspection and some follow up research amongst readers, colleagues and friends revealed a shocking truth. In the western world, full cupboards equal prosperity, comfort and abundance. In short, we are comforted by the thought of having lots available to eat. In a world where nothing is sure, full cupboards equal security.

But this attitude has to change, both in my home and in yours. Research suggests that we are running out of the resources we require for production of the food that the world will need in years to come. In addition, all food production – animal or vegetable - has an effect on the environment. We are only just beginning to understand what that will mean in future years. Wasting food is counterproductive in so many ways. Please understand, I am about as far from being a green goddess as you can get. My carbon footprint is, in the words of my son, “more like a carbon body print” because I travel extensively. I do know however that even the smallest effort to help the environment can be extremely effective, and if it helps my pocketbook as well, it seems downright silly not to start straight away – whether I consider myself an eco-warrior or not.

So a few months ago, I began to change the way I shop and the way my family eats. It was not easy at first, but eventually I found that a shift in attitude made a huge difference not only to our diets, but also to our household economy. I came to understand that that instead of filling our cupboards and fridges, we have to start thinking about quality over quantity. We need to consider our food purchases carefully and think about where the food we eat comes from.

For example, I was shocked to find that many people still buy eggs that are battery farmed. In fact, the US Humane Society reports that most eggs in the US are from industrialised factory farms, where hens are confined in battery cages. Most of these cages are so restrictive the birds cannot even spread their wings. Over here in Europe, the EU is phasing out battery cages by 2012, but that is still a long time away – especially if you are a chicken. Eggs were also one of the things I often purchased too many of, thinking nothing of throwing them away if they were past their “use by” date. I have made it a habit to buy free-range eggs for a number of years out of pity for the chickens, but I now buy my eggs in smaller quantities.

This raises another important point. Most of us live fairly near to grocery stores, or even have a small shop within walking distance. It is not a tragedy to run out of something when help is so close at hand. So why overbuy?

From here, let’s consider fruit and vegetables. Many of us do not buy enough of these nutrient rich powerhouses, but the rest of us buy too much. Personally, most of what I was throwing away was produce. I felt compelled to throw away things that had passed their “best before date”. On consideration this is ridiculous. Fruit and vegetables do not “go off”. They get soft, or squishy, or perhaps a bit mouldy, but they do not deteriorate dangerously in the same way that meat, dairy products, eggs and fish do. If an apple is past its best, it will be soft – but unless the fruit is mouldy or actually perishing, you can usually cook with it. With regard to vegetables, I have found two ways of helping myself not to buy too many of these. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious, if not more so, than their fresh counterparts. So I now have a stock frozen vegetables in the deep freeze. They are always to hand and I use exactly what I need. I still buy fresh vegetables, and when I do, I try to buy organic. Not only are organic vegetables grown without harmful pesticides, their production is less harmful to the environment on the whole. Also research has shown that food grown without pesticides may contain more beneficial nutrients. I find they even taste a bit better – more like vegetables used to taste when I was a kid. Organic vegetables do tend to be slightly more expensive than their traditionally farmed cousins, but when you have paid a bit more, you think twice about throwing something away. Most vegetables can be trimmed if they are getting a bit woody or wilted– and if worse comes to worse you can use some slightly less than ideal leftover vegetables in a “bottom of the fridge” stir fry. Quick cooking and a bit or soy sauce or sweet chilli sauce refresh the most fatigued of vegetables. (Obviously anything beyond a bit wilted or woody should not be used. If you can see mould, don’t use it.)

As for meat, I have always chosen free range, organic or humanely raised meats anyway. I have, however, started to use my local butcher. Not only does it stimulate the local economy, but a good local butcher is a great source of excellent quality, traceable meat. At a butcher’s shop you buy exactly what you need when you need it – so you don’t end up with three packages of multi-buy ground beef you won’t use up in time – or that will end up lost forever in the back of the freezer.

I appreciate not everyone can shop every day. I certainly don’t. But with a little planning you can make an organic resolution to shop smarter from this moment on. By buying the best, in reasonable quantities, you can make your household healthier, more economical and more environmentally friendly all in one go. The alternative, if you are like the average family as my family was, is to keep throwing away over $1000 a year. Bit of a no brainer really.

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