How food pantries use cans to fight waste — and how to copy them

Food pantries use soup to reduce waste

If you need help getting outraged about the amount of food waste in America, try talking with someone tasked with feeding the nation’s many hungry citizens.

“In America we waste 40 percent of our food,” says Ally Zeitz, manager of Drexel University’s Food Lab. “People are wondering how we’re going to feed people in 2050. Well, if we just started eating some of the food that we were going to waste, then we wouldn’t have this problem.”

At the Food Lab, Zeitz and her colleagues experiment with ways to stretch, repurpose and even repackage the ingredients food pantries receive, all in an effort to feed more people by reducing waste. “Even if you’re hungry, you may not want to eat a brown banana or a bruised apple or a burnt sweet-potato pie,” says Zeitz. “We’re making recipes to use this food.”

Saving spoilable foods with canned goods
Food pantries are often bombarded with pounds upon pounds of the same ingredients, usually food no one wants, leaving them scrambling to find a way to use it up. Take turkey, a popular donation around the holidays. When visitors have had their fill of roasted bird and sandwiches, canned goods can make it appetizing again. “You take a can of peas, a quart of chicken stock or vegetable stock, add a smoked turkey and then an onion, and you have a great soup,” says Zeitz. “[Cans] can be a great ingredient that’s already ready for you.”

Working cans into a recipe is a great way for Zeitz and her colleagues to make sure the necessary ingredients are always on-hand, and not too onerous for the food pantry staff to prepare. There’s a particular focus on low-effort recipes, for pantries strapped for time and money. “We saw people were just opening the cans and putting them out, not draining off any of the liquid or anything,” says Zeitz. She and her team create easy ways to dress up canned foods to make them more diverse and appealing without creating a burden for employees. By adding a few ingredients, food pantries can make a canned side into a meal, and use up perishable goods before they spoil.

Shelters are trying to feed hundreds or even thousands of people each day, but you can also try this in your own kitchen. If you have some celery that’s losing its snap and a jar of mayonnaise that’s in danger of going fuzzy, toss it all together with some canned tuna and you’ve got a full — and healthy — meal. Bonus points if you turn it into a sandwich with the heel from this week’s loaf of bread.

Saving spoilable food by canning it
Executive Chef Richard Pepino works in the Drexel Food Lab alongside Zeitz, but his ideas are a little more long-term. Pepino is focused on home canning as a means to help reduce food waste. “If you’re in the far east, Japan, so many things get pickled and the main reason is just preservation.” He and Zeitz are applying the notion closer to home, with local ingredients they hope to turn into what they call a recovery Chow Chow, a way to preserve whatever vegetables happen to be on hand. “If the pickling brine recipe is the same, everything inside can taste the same. It might just not be the same amount of vegetables mixed in,” he says.

Canning seasonal vegetables lets them last long past the harvest, but there’s another major benefit to canning produce. “The astonishing thing about cooking with ripe vegetables, or almost overripe vegetables … it’s the highest level of nutrition and antioxidants,” says Pepino. “So when you’re cooking and jarring with [food that’s about to go bad], you actually are maximizing your amount of flavor.”

Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, talked to Can Science earlier this year about the pros and cons of home canning, stressing the importance of closely following trusted recipes to avoid the possibility of clostridium botulinum, a botulism-causing bacteria, invading the food. “If it’s done safely and correctly [home-canned] food’s going to stay safe and not spoil for really indefinitely,” he says.

Chapman also points out that home-canning can’t cure food that’s already turned, so to reduce food waste, it’s important to make a canning plan before any spoiling happens. “If it’s starting to go, and you’ve got mold in it, and you wouldn’t eat it fresh, canning’s not going to do a lot taste-wise.”

By applying techniques that work well in the home Zeitz, Pepino and the rest of the Drexel Food Lab are able to help food pantries maximize the amount of people going home with full bellies — all while hopefully improving the nutrition and quality of the food they eat. “That was the beginning of our work,” says Zeitz. But she’s not done. “Now we’re trying to make products that would employ people and also use surplus food.”

She’s currently working out solutions for the ever-present overripe banana, a staple many food pantries end up paying to throw away. She and her team are developing a smoothie base, combining the bananas with water and freezing the results. She’s hoping to sell it back to the very same grocery stores that donate ripe bananas in the first place, and to encourage them to hire a full-time employee to sell smoothies utilizing the base.

Making an economic case to reduce food waste and create jobs – that beats banana bread for best use of a brown banana.