Food waste is a climate problem. Here's how some Mainers are making better use of leftovers
Forget meatless Monday or taco Tuesday. At Janet and John Lyons' house in Yarmouth, their regular dinner theme is leftover night.
"This is chicken rice soup," Janet says, as she stirs the ingredients in a pot on the stove. "Roast vegetables, leftover. Leftover rice. Chicken, I cooked a bunch of it earlier in the week, froze it."
She says even tonight's dessert — a seven layer bar — is made from leftovers. Some condensed milk and coconut she had in the fridge, and pretzels from the pantry.
"I am not a fan of food shopping," she says. "If I can cook once and eat multiple times, that's wonderful."
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
The Lyons say they've cooked this way as long as they can remember: Shopping the fridge before going to the grocery store. Their food waste is minimal. It's mostly stuff that's inedible, and it goes into a two-gallon container stowed under the kitchen sink. Ultimately, this waste will be recycled and converted into energy through a town program with Agri-Cycle.
"I've never discussed what I keep in my garbage," John Lyons jokes as he opens the container. "But every day, we use, I used, two coffees. So I've got two filters plus the grinds. Janet's got — I think the only thing you had was the onion for today. That, banana peels, and egg shells. And that's about it for us."
The Lyons typically end up with four to seven pounds of food waste between the two of them each week. That's far less than the pound-a-person that most Americans discard every day.
"It's household food waste, that's really our biggest problem," says Susanne Lee of Food Rescue Maine at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine in Orono.
In the U.S., 30% to 40% of food is wasted. The EPA estimates that the yearly amount of carbon emissions generated by producing this wasted food is equal to that of 42 coal-fired power plants. And that doesn't even account for the methane emissions from the food as it rots in landfills. Households account for almost half of this wasted food.
Lee says reducing food waste is an essential part of the nation's response to climate change. That's why Food Rescue recently held its first "home food waste challenge," and had households such as the Lyons' track their food waste for a month. Lee says this kind of audit can be done putting a bowl in the fridge to keep food you would have thrown away.
"In two days, that act of actually just having to see what you would throw away tells you two things," she says. "Tells you, 'Hmm. I throw away a lot of stuff.' But it also might show you there's a lot of bread in that bowl. Okay, I'm probably buying too much bread. There's a lot of fruits and vegetables, you know, from every dinner, like it's all the vegetables, okay, my family's really not into these vegetables, like what can I do differently?"
That kind of exercise is also useful for institutional kitchens, says Lee. Maine's Department of Corrections has conducted audits at several of their facilities. Commissioner Randall Liberty says he was made aware of food waste when he became warden at the Maine State Prison and looked at the budget.
"I recognized that we were spending about $140,000 a year to have waste hauled away," says Liberty. "And when I analyzed that, a lot of that waste was organic waste and organic matter that is, in fact, not waste, right?"
Liberty implemented a composting program and says it reduced the prison's costs by $100,000. But, it's better for the environment — and for budgets — to prevent food from being wasted in the first place. So, the DOC partnered with Food Rescue Maine to conduct audits at four correctional facilities over the past few years. A subsequent report estimated that the department wastes up to about $480,000 dollars a year worth of food. As a result, it's changed its purchasing practices and has adopted more flexible meal planning in order to incorporate leftovers.
In the kitchen at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Colin Freeman lifts the lid on a steel vat filled with peas and carrots. He's a chef with Brigaid, an organization that's working with the DOC to help replicate its food model in other correctional settings.
"So right now, we got all these veggies waiting to be blanched," he says. "We'll turn them on right before dinner and get them cooked off. But whatever's left over is gonna get taken, put into soup for tomorrow for lunch, which we do just about every day, which is a great waste saver."
A few steps away, correctional cook supervisor, Jonathan Rockwell, opens a walk-in refrigerator where trash-sized bags store leftover homemade bread for reuse.
"Numerous times that becomes bread pudding," says Rockwell. "Last Friday for the manager special we did like a Thanksgiving in April. So it was like turkey and stuffing and we took all the leftover bread and made it in this stuffing. And it came out great."
The system is also moving forward on an effort to grow its own vegetables and use fewer processed ingredients. It's led by Mark McBrine, food service manager at Mountainview Correctional Facility, who says using whole foods and cooking from scratch has the single biggest impact on reducing waste. The meals taste better, he says, so less is thrown away. And roasted potatoes are easier to reuse than French fries, just as whole chicken meat is more versatile than a processed chicken patty.
"By doing that, that chicken when it's left, or those vegetable when it's left, we may have a pot pie the next day, we may have a stir fry," says McBrine.
Minimizing food waste takes some effort, but Susanne Lee of Food Rescue Maine says it's an effective way for individuals of any income level to take action on climate change.
"Maybe the positive side of it is, it's so easily controlled, right? Like, not everybody can afford to go out and get a new car, you know, to buy an electric vehicle or something like that," she says. "But everybody can decide, you know, everybody eats food, first of all, and then has some control over what they do."
Everyone contributes to the problem, she says, but everyone can also be part of the solution.