Get ready to feel a little more guilty about those strawberries slowly turning on the kitchen counter. The U.S. wastes an estimated 133 billion pounds of food each year — enough to fill the Willis Tower 44 times, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tells NPR.
To tackle those literal mountains of wilted lettuce and rotten tomatoes, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued the country a challenge: Cut food waste 50 percent by 2030. Rerouting food from landfills, where it can produce harmful greenhouse gases like methane, to food pantries, where it can feed those who need it, is a massive job. The government is teaming up with corporations, charities and local governments to accomplish it, but to really hit that goal, it’s going to take every kitchen in the country.
Looking for a way to participate? Consider canned food. Buying produce and other fare in cans provides a ready supply of fresh, nutritional food that never goes bad and that comes in manageable portions, so you’re far less likely to wind up scraping half of it into the garbage can.
If you’re the type that likes to buy fresh produce, but struggles to eat it all before it starts to turn unappetizing colors, you should think about canning food at home.
Gardeners know all too well the despair of not knowing what to do with a too-bountiful crop. “You may have a fantastic crop of tomatoes with 10 tomato plants, but all of a sudden you find yourself with 75 tomatoes. They’re going to go bad, they’re going to spoil,” says Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. Instead of trying to pawn the crop off on neighbors, Chapman suggests, try canning. If it’s done safely and correctly, the food will stay fresh for one year. So you can keep your tomatoes, and enjoy a fresh bite in the dead of winter.
Canning may seem like an overwhelming DIY undertaking, especially with the risk of developing clostridium botulinum, a botulism-causing bacteria. Chapman assures Can Science, however, that it’s well within the reach of most home cooks, as long as they follow a few simple rules. “Home preservation has been around … for a couple hundred years,” Chapman says. Anyone who’s comfortable with home cooking can easily pick up home canning, especially if they start with the simpler method of using a boiling water bath.
The key is to focus on acid. “We can control the growth of clostridium botulinum through acid.” Chapman says. Canning high-acid foods, or foods to which you’ve added an acid like vinegar or lemon juice, requires nothing more than running your jars through a boiling water bath. For that, all you need is glass jars and single-use lids. Low-acid foods, at greater risk for bacteria, need the high heat only pressure canning can deliver. With both methods, Chapman says, “you end up with the exact same safety levels, reducing spoilage in the same way.”
He stresses that first-time canners should choose a scientifically sound recipe — the National Center for Home Food Preparation at the University of Georgia has about 400 or so he’d recommend — and follow it precisely. “I look at canning more like baking as opposed to cooking,” Chapman says. Don’t be whimsical with the ingredients. “The ratio of low-acid food to acid in those recipes, that’s what we need.” Even the sugar in jam binds to the water that bacteria needs to grow. “It’s really important that [canners] seek out a low-sugar jam recipe instead of just using your grandmother’s recipe and cutting the sugar in half.”
If canning still sounds like just a bit too much work, remember that you don’t need produce to have fresh food. Canned goods from the store can be just as fresh as fruits and vegetables from the farmers’ market, and they keep virtually forever. Even when cans are dated, it rarely has anything to do with the food’s safety, as this Harvard study on food waste explains. That long shelf life makes it easy to avoid waste, and the many sizes of cans make portion control easier, so you don’t open more than you need.
The U.S. currently wastes an estimated 31 percent of the food it produces. Whether you can it yourself or buy it pre-canned, canned foods are an easy way to help drop that percentage. Just make sure you have a plan for the cans you open and any produce you might bring home.
“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,” Chapman says.
You can reduce food waste, but you can’t reverse food waste.