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How food waste costs us all

File photo dated 20/05/12 of out of date and unopened food from a domestic household thrown away in a dustbin as Tesco, the UK's biggest supermarket, is launching a campaign to tackle breathtaking amounts of food waste which it says costs households £700 a year.

For Vancouver couple Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin, wasting food this holiday season when their family gathers for their annual potluck meal just isn't an option.

Rustemeyer, 35, and Baldwin, 37, spent six months eating food from grocery stores and farmers’ markets that couldn’t be sold, and salvaging discarded edibles from dumpsters - also known as freeganism -- and they're dedicated to carrying on their cost-saving, food-wise ways.

The environmental activists' mission that began in July 2012 and ended about a year ago is chronicled in their new Peg Leg Films documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, which is scheduled for release this spring and will air on B.C.’s Knowledge Network in fall 2014. The 75-minute film examines how waste happens, through the food chain and to the “back of the fridge.”

“We would actually go to garbage bins and look for food,” Rustemeyer, who is expecting the couple’s first child in March, recalls in a phone interview. Among their “shocking” finds was thousands of dollars worth of organic chocolate that simply didn’t have proper labels, she says, adding: “We gave it out to everyone we knew and no one had a problem with it.”

Rustemeyer says that when she and Baldwin began their six-month project, it wasn’t for financial reasons, “but we did save a lot of money. You don’t really know how much food waste costs you until you measure it.”

In fact, according to a Conference Board of Canada report released in August, as much as 40 per cent of all food, equivalent to $27.7 billion annually, is wasted in Canada, at the expense of consumers, businesses and the environment.

Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge about what dates on food labels really mean, and whether they’re valid.

For instance, a report by the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School concludes best-before and other dates on foods usually don’t indicate their safety, and can often mislead consumers to believe they must be discarded.

Here’s what the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has to say about two of the most common food date labels:

Best-before date: Must appear on prepackaged foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less. You can buy and eat foods after the best-before date has passed, but it may have lost some of its freshness and flavour, and nutritional value.

Expiration date: Must be put on formulated liquid diets, foods represented for use in a very low-energy diet (sold by a pharmacist and with a written order from a doctor), meal replacements, nutritional supplements and infant formula. After the expiry date, the food may not have the same nutrient content and should not be eaten.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian based at the Medisys Clinic in Toronto, says she commonly gets asked how long leftovers can safely be kept in the fridge.

“It depends on the food, but the general guideline is two to three days, provided it’s cooked to the proper temperature and stored properly,” she says. As well, says Beck, while label best-before dates relate to food quality, optimal nutritional value and shelf life, once a food is opened, that date is no longer valid.

Another roadblock to stretching food dollars, she says, is time constraints that can lead to grabbing food on the run, not carefully planning meals, and not sharing family time at the table, which can foster relationships as well as extend the amount of eating time.

Beck and Rustemeyer also offer these tips to cut food waste:

Set a food plan
Beck recommends jotting down a menu for the week, then building a grocery list and only buying the items you need, cutting trips to the store that may lead to buying more than you need. Rustemeyer, on the other hand, says because she and Baldwin rarely know when they’ll be home, they tend to shop every two to three days for the items they will use within that time, helping cut the chance the food will go bad.

Don’t put bulk in buying bulk
Beck doesn’t believe in “buying the biggest bottle of olive oil and package of cereal” thinking you’ll get a better value. “Oil tends to go rancid if you don’t use it up in time, so it’s usually better to buy a smaller bottle.” So ensure whatever you buy in bulk won’t expire within the time you’ll use it.

Be prepared
Common foods that end up getting spoiled include vegetables, says Beck. She suggests washing hearty veggies such as lettuce, celery, carrots and red peppers after getting them home, and storing them in the fridge for quick use. Certain produce, such as berries, last longer when washed right before eating.

Organize leftovers
Rustemeyer says she and Baldwin put all their leftovers in one bin in the fridge, and ensure those foods are used first whenever possible. They even will try to incorporate whatever is in the bin into a unique meal.

Don’t fear the doggy bag
“I’m big on leftovers and don’t have a problem taking home leftovers from a restaurant,” says Rustemeyer, who carries her own containers to take home any food that can’t be finished.