Something from Nothing

There have been a lot of stories in the news these past few weeks about the amount of food going to waste as we buy less perishable food, choosing instead items that will last until our next shopping trip in the strange new COVID-19 world. People have been rightfully upset at the sight of crops of lettuce and other vegetables being plowed back into the ground instead of eaten, and milk dumped instead of pasteurized. When food crops are plowed back into the soil, they will decay, enriching the next set of crops and saving money and resources on fertilizer. (HaShem’s world is perfectly circular, with each thing enriching something else.) When we waste food at home, we have a huge impact on the planet. It’s estimated that 21 percent of our freshwater, 19 percent of our fertilizer, 18 percent of our cropland, and 21 percent of our landfill volume is used up by food that goes in the trash.

Since I’m not a farmer or a lawmaker, I can’t do much about food waste across the country. Still, I keep working on ways to cut the amount of food my family tosses out. Study after study shows that the average American family throws away about 30 percent of the food it buys each year. (The most careful families throw out just around 9 percent of their food.) And unlike those crops on farms, which can enrich crops or be used to feed cows, sheep, and chickens, most of our food waste is headed straight to the landfill. Cut off from oxygen, food waste doesn’t decompose into soil-enriching nutrients while releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead, it decays and mixes into the toxic landfill sludge while releasing methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas

I saved 10 potatoes and 10 onions this week that, before I started focusing on using food before it goes bad, would have gone to waste. Here’s what I did:

  1. Give it away—I had more onions than I could reasonably use, and I didn’t have the time to chop and sauté in oil, then freeze in small batches to add to recipes as needed. A quick WhatsApp message to a group of nearby friends, and I found someone to take them off my hands. (I left them in a bag by my door for contactless pickup.) 
  2. Make something from nothing—With the remaining onions, I’ll make soup this evening for Shabbos. 
  3. Make something else from nothing—In addition to onions, I had too many potatoes from Pesach. Since potatoes take a lot of work to freeze, I made potato muffins instead. If you have leftover mashed potatoes, these take just minutes to prep. My family ate them for breakfast, which was a double savings since it means they didn’t have cereal, one of the most expensive breakfast items you can buy.

Savory Potato Muffins

  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup milk or nondairy milk
  • 1 and 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Savory flavoring. For a basic batch, add one-third an onion, sauteéed, and two frozen garlic cubes. You could use rosemary, basil, crushed red pepper, or whatever you’ve got on hand, to taste.  
  • 1-1/2 cups mashed potatoes (with added milk, nondairy milk, margarine, or butter to desired consistency). 

Step 1: In a bowl, beat egg and milk. 

Step 2: Add in flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt; stir into egg mixture until moistened. 

Step 3: Fold in potatoes and savory flavorings. 

Step 4: Fill greased muffin cups two-thirds full and bake at 400° for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm.

What if you left your potatoes too long, and they are wrinkly or already sprouting at the eyes? It’s fun to sprout potatoes on the windowsill so you (and your kids) can watch them grow. In soil, the potatoes will grow pretty vines and (eventually) more potatoes, although not enough to feed a family! 

Photo courtesy of Sanjay Acharya, Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t remember how many times I told my kids not to take more food than they could eat because it’s bal tashchit to throw it out before I heard my own mussar. Now I’m working to stop moving things from the grocery store to the trash can, with stops in my car and kitchen! It’s a work in progress, but I’m definitely seeing the results. Cutting food waste is absolutely a commitment of both time and brainpower, but it prevents not only the effects of putting organic matter in landfills where it can’t decompose properly to enrich the earth, but also saves the energy, water, and natural resources used to bring food to the table. My goal is to cut my monthly food budget by 15 percent simply by using the things I buy and changing my shopping habits to avoid waste.

Click to see the ongoing impact of my low-waste changes (updated each week).

Until next week, 

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