Overall, 30-40% of food in American households ends up in landfills or sewers. Which many of us know for a fact is definitely no biggie because it’s all just going to decompose and return to the earth from which it came. The beautiful, natural cycle of life has got us covered, right?

Sorry, nope. And even if that were the case, it’s not ideal that the Hunger Task Force and other organizations exist to help 20.1% of Milwaukee County children who experience food insecurity.

It’s a problem that’s getting worse and harder to ignore with home food prices rising 10% over the past year. On top of all the other goods getting more expensive with record inflation, labor shortages, and wars. So even if we don’t think or care about kids living in poverty, now it affects all of us.

Oh and also? Food waste also hurts the economy and accelerates climate change. Because of course it does.

The good news is, though, that we have more information and options than ever to make things less hopeless. While Milwaukee Record researchers study the viability and cascade effects of extending the five-second rule for food to eight seconds (or even 10!), we looked around for tips and area resources to help each of us reduce food waste.

Where does pizza come from?

Cutting back on how much food we toss starts before we even buy it. Milwaukee Farmers United is an online market that has partnered with local farmers since 2019 “to connect eaters with local growers.” This cuts down on carbon emissions, eases pricing that has to cover transportation, and puts the freshest food in your fridge.

MFU co-founder Patrick Darrough shared context for the service, and how Milwaukeeans can take advantage.

Milwaukee Record: Do you find that people appreciate locally grown produce and locally made goods more in light of the empty shelves they might never have experienced before?

Patrick Darrough: Without question. The pandemic showed everyone the relevance and indispensability of local food systems. The ability to easily access locally grown and produced foods not only alleviated people’s fears over food security but also addressed concerns over the safety and quality of their food as well.

MR: Numbers vary, but several studies say that American households throw away roughly 30% of the food we buy. Does a concerted effort to eat more locally produced food help reduce waste? How so?

PD: It absolutely does! That 30% stat is shocking, but even more staggering to me is that another 40% of food waste occurs within the supply chain, before the household ever sees it for purchase! The longer food spends in storage and in transit, the higher the chance it will spoil and become waste. Local food systems use much shorter distribution chains, and this alone dramatically reduces this supply chain waste before it gets to store shelves. Because of this, buying food locally also means you’re getting fresher food since it traveled far fewer miles to get to you.

MR: Attitudes have also changed dramatically over the past couple decades about antibiotics for livestock, frankenfoods, pesticides/herbicides, factory farming and other issues related to what we eat. How do Wisconsin-based small farms keep food fresh, safe and affordable?

PD: Local food systems offer the freshest and safest food options to consumers. When you know where your food is coming from and who produced it, you can know more about its freshness and safety, too. You can ask your farmers how they grew their produce or raised their livestock, and when and how they were harvested.

MR: How much of their weekly grocery shopping can the average household expect to complete with a customizable service like MFU? What gaps might they expect to have in what they’re used to buying?

PD: You’d be surprised at how much of what you currently consume is being produced locally. Of course, there are many foods that are not or cannot be produced locally. If I could buy Wisconsin-grown avocados, I would!

Control what you can control

Patrick also recommends Kettle Range Meat Company on West State Street and in Elm Grove, and Kujichagulia Producers Cooperative in the Sherman Phoenix. Knowing that dietary staples like avocados and Doritos aren’t grown locally, we do acknowledge that you’ll likely need to hit traditional grocery stores on occasion. We looked at several online resources to compile this list of tips.

• Make a shopping list. While most of us write down what to shop for so we don’t forget it, the simple act also keeps you reigned in for whatever looks good in the moment.

• Think before you BOGO. Two packages of berries for just a couple bucks more than one? Super cool. Unless most of that second one will go bad before you can eat it.

• Load up on staples. Stock cupboards with dry goods and simple ingredients instead of buying prepared meals that have a much shorter shelf life.

• Eat/hydrate before you shop. Everyone knows that shopping hangry rarely turns out well. And challenge yourself to finish what’s in the kitchen before you buy more.

And once it’s at home, we can take simple steps to keep food out of the waste stream. For his part, Patrick sums up his own philosophy with, “Freeze anything on its way out and turn it into a stock, broth, or soup—that’s how I prevent the majority of waste in my kitchen!”

• Know the nuance. Turns out that sell-by, best-by and use-by dates all mean something different. We tend to toss it if the date has passed. But maybe that kefir won’t kill you!

• Store wisely. In addition to the good ol’ freezer, reuse those plastic to-go containers that seal nicely. Then opt for a cool, dry place for non-perishables instead of on the counter.

• Make leftovers last. Reheat for a quick meal, combine small portions into one feast, reinvigorate with some added protein or spice, and keep a Sharpie handy to date lids.

• Control portions. Consult your calendar to figure out if you’ll be around to eat leftovers later in the week. If not, dial back amounts of ingredients in recipes for one meal.

They’ll take it from here

The FDA says diverting food from landfills relies heavily on personal responsibility, and shares tips. We’ve got it easy here, though—Southeastern Wisconsin has an admirable if not slightly disconcerting number of organizations and businesses very interested in the food you don’t want anymore.

Compost Crusader and Brew City Compost supplement the City of Milwaukee’s composting initiatives to divert of our post-consumer food scraps. Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful has webinars on this and other subjects if you want to go the DIY route.

InSinkErator is headquartered in Racine, but you shouldn’t let their terrific garbage disposals handle everything. Milwaukee Handyman also tells us why we shouldn’t just drop celery and other food down the drain.

• The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District has blessed us with guidance for what to flush (“The 3 Ps”) and what not to (fats, oils and grease). Oh, and did you know? MMSD manufactures the fertilizer that made Milwaukee famous, Milorganite. It’s a natural byproduct of water treatment. To be clear, though, it is not “poop in a bag.”

Help feed others

Having more food than you can eat is a luxury that many around the world can’t imagine. Our neighbors at home need food, too, though. The Hunger Task Force is one of several organizations doing work on the ground. We’ll single HTF out to draw attention to their MyPlate model, which shows what food donations are best to keep recipients healthy.

If you can’t donate, you can volunteer. And we can all do our part to divert our food waste from landfills and sewers.

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Sustainable Milwaukee: Do good with your household goods

About The Author

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Brent Gohde is a retired co-founder of Milwaukee Day and the originator of artist collective Cedar Block. By day he works at his actual dream job in HR at a manufacturer. Nights and weekends, he plugs away at the fifth draft of his debut novel. The only trophy he's ever won was for building a time machine.