Upcycled food: it is a concept that may sound unfamiliar but has actually been around for hundreds of years. Upcycling food is the process of rerouting food that would otherwise not be eaten by people back to our plates, and it is something you may already be doing. Have you ever used mushy brown bananas that were destined for the garbage to make banana bread? That is upcycling food. The goal of upcycling is to reduce waste, an issue that is prevalent throughout the food supply chain. Let’s take a bite out of the issue of food waste, chow down on solutions, and gobble up ways to get involved and make a difference.
The food waste problem starts far before food reaches our plates. According to the USDA report “Economic Drivers of Food Loss at the Farm and Pre-Retail Sectors: A Look at the Produce Supply Chain in the United States,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that 30% of fruit and vegetable food loss in North America happens during production and harvest before food even leaves the farm. If market prices are low, farmers may decide they can’t justify the cost of harvesting and processing their crops and choose to leave them in the field. Additionally, crops may be left in the field if there is not enough labor to harvest them, there are not enough wholesale buyers to purchase them, they are too close to peak ripeness, or they don’t meet size and appearance guidelines set by wholesale buyers.
Even if crops are harvested, that doesn’t mean they will be used. According to the FAO, as cited in the USDA report, about 6% of fruit and vegetable food loss in North America happens on the farm after food is harvested. This can be due to a variety of factors, such as produce spending too much time in the sun after being picked. These crops may be sold as cattle feed, but much is thrown away or allowed to spoil.
If food makes it past the farm, it still has to survive transport. Food that is jostled and bruised runs the risk of being rejected by grocery stores and restaurants. Additionally, the trucks that carry food from farms to restaurants and distribution centers are temperature-controlled but often have multiple stops along their routes. The opening and closing of doors can result in temperature changes that impact food quality.
Chicken is an example of food especially susceptible to damage during transport. Almost all chicken in the U.S. is raised in a handful of states, which means it travels long journeys for distribution to the rest of the country. The longer the journey, the greater the chance that something goes wrong and the food has to be thrown away. In the article “From Field to Fork: The Six Stages of Wasting Food,” Suzanne Goldenberg shares the story of Lewis, an independent truck operator who had to throw away an entire truck full of food — including “43,000lbs of chicken alfredo, lasagna, and other ready-made meals — because a few pallets of ice cream had softened.” Even a few items being damaged during transport can create an entire truckload of food waste.
Once the food reaches the distribution center, it can be rejected by supermarkets. If food is rejected or if there is a larger harvest than expected and extra food is brought to the distribution center, distributors will try to find alternative buyers. But most grocery stores make their purchases ahead of time and are not open to purchasing additional items at the last minute. Therefore, the unwanted food is often thrown away.
If food does make it to the grocery store, is bought before its shelf life is up, and goes to a home, it may be eaten or become part of the 240 billion dollars’ worth of food thrown out by U.S. households annually, as reported by Yang Yu and Edward C. Jaenicke’s study “Estimating Food Waste as Household Production Inefficiency.” The study also found that the average household throws out about 31.9% of its food each year, and this waste has an impact. World Food Program USA reports that food waste and loss generated in a single year is enough to feed two billion people, which is “more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe.”
As reported by the EPA, in 2018, just over 24% of municipal solid waste (MSW) in U.S. landfills was food, making food the largest component of MSW in landfills. Additionally, the carbon footprint of global food waste is roughly 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, as reported by the FAO. The report goes on to state that if food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest carbon dioxide emitter after the U.S. and China.
Upcycled food works to fix the food waste problem at many levels. Some farms take part in upcycling by donating their extra crops to food banks and other organizations, but to do this, they have to be willing to put in the time and resources to harvest the crops. In 2020 the USDA began providing state agencies funding for “Farm to Foodbank Projects.” The USDA’s goals include reducing waste at the farm level, and funds have been used to pay farmers for the cost of harvesting and packaging their donated crops, making upcycling easier. Additionally, some stores have become more open to produce that does not meet their cosmetic regulations, offering cosmetically damaged fruit and veggies at discounted prices.
As consumers, we can also upcycle our food. To begin, reframe how you look at your food. If an orange has a brown spot, don’t throw it away. Cut off the damaged part and use the rest. Just because food looks less than perfect does not mean it cannot be used. Here are a few other ways to upcycle your food at home:
- Fruit past its peak can be baked into desserts. People who enjoy your apple pie won’t mind if it is made with soft apples.
- When preparing veggies, save the peels, stems, and other parts you would usually throw away. Onion peels, pea pods, corn cobs, carrot tops, and other commonly tossed scraps can be boiled to create a homemade vegetable stock or gravy base.
- Seeds, such as those from zucchini, squash, and pumpkins, don’t need to be thrown away. Instead, you can roast them for a yummy, nutrient-dense snack.
- Bread is one of the most wasted items. If you don’t think it can be finished before it spoils or if it is going stale, consider turning it into croutons, bread crumbs, french toast casserole, or bread pudding.
- Use Google! It can be challenging to think of ways to use leftover potatoes or wilted spinach before they mold, but chances are that someone on the internet has an idea.
Even while grocery shopping, there are ways to support upcycled food. Search for brands that make their products out of food that would otherwise go to waste, such as chips made out of potato peels. Volunteering at food banks and other organizations that reroute excess food to people in need is another way to support upcycling. Farms, restaurants, and grocery stores may have food to donate but lack the resources to get it to an organization that can distribute it. Volunteering with organizations dedicated to upcycling food and reducing food waste is a great way to fill this gap.
Reducing food waste is not only a matter of protecting the environment and helping those without access to food: it is also a matter of faith. The Quran states, “He is the One Who produces gardens—both cultivated and wild—and palm trees, crops of different flavours, olives, and pomegranates—similar [in shape], but dissimilar [in taste]. Eat of the fruit they bear and pay the dues at harvest, but do not waste. Surely He does not like the wasteful” (Quran 6:14).
It could not be any clearer: food waste is discouraged in Islam. By doing our part, we can not only provide food to those in need but also help reduce the environmental impact of our waste and uphold the recommendations of our faith.
Taskeen Khan has a bachelor's degree in integrative biology and a minor in sustainability, energy, and the environment from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is passionate about science education and communication, as well as research.