Don’t Throw Away That “Expired” Food Just Yet

Imagine that you go to the grocery store and buy three bags of groceries – and then drop one of them in the garbage in the parking lot! This comparison illustrates consumer food waste in America because we throw away a third of our food based on an arbitrary dating. Manufacturers mark calendar dates on food products that are perishable like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and on shelf-stable products like canned goods and other nonperishables. The only food product that is required by the FDA to have an accurate use-by date is baby formula, because the formula loses nutritional value that babies depend on. For foods like eggs the requirements are on a state by state basis, with some states requiring a sell-by/use-by date and other states not allowing a date to be printed at all.

We have all seen the dates and think, “okay, this food is bad – now I shall throw it away,” without a second thought. As it turns out, these dates are not set in stone. Even though they are defined by the United States Department of Agriculture division of Food Safety and Inspection Service, they are created by the manufacturing company to make you buy more of their product.

A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale and is typically found on perishable item like meat, eggs and dairy products. It is recommended to buy the product before the date expires. A “Best if Used By (or before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality and is typically seen on shelf stable products like mustard and peanut butter. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

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Collage created by Sher. Image credits here, here, and here.

Besides an arbitrary date telling you that your food has gone rancid and should be tossed in the garbage, there are other reasons you should think twice about not throwing out that expired food. Food waste is a compostable and renewable resource, but 97% of food waste is thrown away, which alone accounts for 36.5 million tons of material put into our landfills in single year. According to the Green Restaurant Association, a single average restaurant in the U.S can produce 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food waste annually – and that is just one! There are 48 million food insecure people who could have utilized those resources if they were allocated properly.

Where food waste hits close to home is that it is a waste of your money. According to the National Resource Defense Council, the average family throws out $2,225 of food they bought and didn’t eat. This adds up to $165 billion of wasted food in America in a single year, due to premature tossing of food based on arbitrary food dates, overpurchasing, letting food go bad, and improper storage. It also costs that American people an additional $1.3 billion a year just to dispose of this garbage. Last, but certainly not least, throwing away perfectly good food is a complete waste of water and soil resources. I place much personal responsibility on the consumer because it is we who vote with our dollars and can shift the system in a more sustainable direction. We can encourage – if not demand – companies to make the same changes we are making by not producing so much food, or by composting food waste in restaurants.

All in all it comes down to being aware that these dates were put there by the manufacturer to ensure that more product be made and shipped to further their bottom line. Trust your gut and be aware of signs of decay like a stench, mold or discoloration. Also know that we the consumers are not the sole nor the largest contributors to the waste of food. It should be our duty as a community to encourage the distributors of this food to follow in the footsteps of our local Albertson’s grocery store which donates a lot of its “expired” food to The Store House where it is given out to people in need.

-Posted by Sher

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Sustainable Agriculture: Greywater Crops 101

You may have heard something about greywater in the past, but what exactly is it?  Greywater, also spelled graywater, is reused “dirty” water that may contain residues from soap, food, hair, skin, grease, etc., but does not contain any fecal matter.  It can be used to water plants, irrigate lawns, and flush toilets, while conserving valuable water, which is especially important here in the desert.  In this blog post, you will learn some basic information to be able to start your very own greywater garden to grow sustainable and delicious crops at home.

Benefits to using greywater:
There are several advantages to using greywater to grow your own crops.  According to the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture, planting your own crops and watching them grow is scientifically proven to boost moods, help with memory, reduce stress, in addition to a variety of other benefits.  Home grown crops also tend to be healthier than commercial, pesticide filled varieties.  So what better way to save money on food and water than by recycling some used water to grow your own food?

Simple tricks for cleaning/collecting greywater:
Greywater can come from numerous places ranging from washing machines and showers to sinks and coolers.  Each type of greywater contains different substances, which is useful to keep in mind when collecting and at times cleaning the water.

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Safe use of household greywater. Credit: NMSU ACES

Greywater can be collected effectively and inexpensively by using buckets to catch excess water from, for example, showers.  Special pipes and storage tanks are also easily and fairly inexpensively available to collect water.

While greywater doesn’t have to be cleaned to be used to grow crops, sometimes it is nice to filter the water or add chlorine and iodine to disinfect it.  A list of other methods for cleaning the water to address specific concerns or entities found within the water can be viewed here.

Regardless of how you choose to collect your water and whether you decide to clean it or not, it is important to keep in mind that greywater should not be stored for excess periods of time, because bacteria can develop and multiply, turning the water into a potential health risk.

Techniques to use greywater for crops:
No matter which of the following methods you use to supply greywater to your crops, it is important to watch that the water does not come into contact with the actual fruits/vegetables, but rather, the water just touches the roots and parts that won’t be consumed.

Dripper systems are an easy and effective way to water plants while ensuring that the water only touches the soil and not the edible portions.  Oftentimes, these systems can be hooked up directly to storage tanks, meaning that little to no manual labor is needed to make sure the greywater actually makes its way to the plants.

Though slightly more labor intensive, buckets offer low cost alternatives to drip systems, and allow the gardener to manually make sure the water does not come into contact with the edible portion of the plants.

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Water this, not that:
Because greywater has the potential to carry bacteria, some crops are better suited for being grown in greywater than others.

Do water foods you are going to cook, because any possible bacteria will be killed off
Do water plants whose crops are farther from the ground
examples of what to water:
citrus trees, nuts, apples, bananas, chilies, etc.

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Don’t water plants that are eaten raw and have edible parts above ground that may contact the greywater
Don’t water plants that are grown under the ground unless they will be cooked, because the plants will come in direct contact with the water
examples of what not to water:
– radishes, onions, lettuce, arugula, carrots, celery, potatoes, etc.

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Now that you know how to grow your own crops using greywater; happy gardening!

-Posted by Dana

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Farming: An Elderly Profession?

Do you want to be a farmer? Do you want to work long hours consisting of mostly manual labor, under the hot sun, surrounded by dirt and manure? You may be thinking, why I would want to do that when I can get a profession that pays much better in the city, right? Wrong! While, to the youth of the world, agricultural work and farming may seem like a lesser profession, it is an essential supporting facet of life around the world that is becoming increasingly overlooked.

Currently, there are 7.4 billion people living on Earth who all have to eat. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, an average of 12.9% of the population of underdeveloped countries in the world is malnourished. The importance of farmers and agricultural workers is often understated, and is becoming an even greater problem as time passes. Many of the problems faced with feeding this ever-growing population arise from the shortage of agricultural workers entering the workforce globally.

Nationally, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) estimates that, “57,900 jobs will open every year from 2015 to 2020,” yet it is expected that “39% of these jobs will go unfilled.” This shocking statistic shows that people are less interested in this industry, but also solidifies the point that there is a consistent flow of job opportunities available for agricultural workers. Moreover, the average age of principle farm workers has been rising throughout recent years. The 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture shows the average age has increased by 7.8 Years since 1982 from the average age of 50.5 to 58.3 years old.

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The primary question that arises from this is what is deterring the younger generations from entering this field. The USDA acknowledges the need for hundreds if not thousands of new and beginning farmers, but current policies are simply not enough to provide support to this essential demographic. Another diagram shows how the number of new farmers has been decreasing over the years.

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According to the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) the major obstacles for beginning farmers consist of “capital, land, and healthcare.” Many young farmers do not have access to sufficient capital to start up and get going. Additionally, it is even more troublesome to find affordable land for purchase or to find a landowner willing to make a long-term lease agreement. Lastly, it is essential for a farmer whose livelihood depends on physical labor to have the necessary access to healthcare to ensure he can continue working.

I wanted to get into touch with local farmers around New Mexico and gather their thoughts on the barriers young farmers face and what they feel would make the biggest difference to help the local youth cross these barriers. I planned phone interviews with a couple local farmers from around New Mexico and gathered their thoughts on this topic.

The first farmer I interviewed was one of my long time friends, Keegan Fisher-Ives. He is a student at the University of New Mexico, 21 years old, and has a major interest within the field of farming. While he doesn’t have a large farming practice, he mentioned that he could see himself trying to attain this goal at some point in his life. He currently has a fairly large coop of eight backyard chickens. He also has a small planter where he grows a variety of produce for him and his roommates. I was interested in the biggest barriers that he faced when starting up his backyard farming project, and what he thinks the biggest barriers for other beginning farmers would be. He mentioned that “the hardest part about starting any farming practice is acquiring the knowledge, capital and space to do so. For me, just starting out was hard, I had to do a lot of research to see what kind of effort went into owning chickens, how much space they need and what needs to be done to keep them healthy and safe from predators.”

As of now it seems that the major barriers that new farmers face are meeting the start up costs and gaining adequate land area to operate on. It also seems that there needs to be some sort of reform within society to change the way we view farming as a profession. Farming is such an integrated part of everyone’s life, it is a tragedy that it is often overlooked as a viable career choice. However, there are many opportunities and organizations out there to help young farmers get off the ground and take their first steps. So what are you waiting for. Get out there and grow something!

-Posted by Brandon

 

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Pesticides, Produce and Children

There is no denying that organic food has made a name for itself in the past decade. It has gained a lot of support for many good reasons and is changing the way that people eat for the better. Not all organic food is healthier than conventional food but for the most part organic is better, and for many reasons. One of the main reasons is due to its lack of chemical pesticides. Contrary to common belief, organic farmers do use pesticides. These pesticides are naturally-derived, unlike synthetic pesticides found in conventional produce – and typically pose very little threat. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a pesticide as  “any substance or mixture of substances used to destroy, suppress or alter the life cycle of any pest.” I don’t know about you but words like destroy, suppress and alter make me feel nervous about my food.

A Consumer Reports Special Report on Pesticides in Produce indicates that their recent “survey of 1,050 people found that pesticides are a concern for 85 percent of Americans.” People are skeptical about the quality of what they eat and for good reason. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released a list of 12 conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables they call “The Dirty Dozen” all of which have been tested to have high levels of pesticide residue on them. Some of these products include apples, cucumbers, potatoes, celery, and spinach, all of which many people eat on a daily basis. The Dirty Dozen report indicates that 99% of apples, 98% of peaches, and 97% of nectarines all have at least one pesticide on them. Potatoes have more pesticides by weight than any other crop and some crop samples contained as many as 13 individual pesticides. With that knowledge at hand, an apple a day may not keep the doctor away.

Diseases that can be caused by pesticide ingestion include brain/central nervous system, lung, colon, and breast cancer, and Hodgkin’ and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and many more. Organic food is a great alternative to conventional, and if you have children it may be the safest choice for them. The nutritional content of conventional vs. organic produce is nearly identical according to many recent studies, but that is not the issue. The issue at hand is that children are especially susceptible to diseases caused by pesticides. Remaining as healthy as possible while growing up is the best way to ensure a proper and prepared immune system for adulthood. Adults don’t have such a high risk of contracting a disease because their immune systems are fully developed and pound for pound they do not ingest as much pesticides as do children.

Ingesting pesticides is something that no one should do, especially developing children. Pesticide exposure at very low levels can have long term affects meaning that even a “safe” level of pesticide residue can pose risk. Many kids do not clean their fruits and vegetables off with water before they eat them, leading to harmful pesticide ingestion from conventional produce their parents buy for them. As a matter of fact some of the most popular produce eaten by children is on the Dirty Dozen list, apples being number 1 and peaches a little further down.

A recent article by the EWG reported that a study conducted by “Cynthia Curl of the University of Washington published February 5, found that people who report they “often or always buy organic produce had significantly less organophosphate insecticides in their urine samples, even though they reported eating 70 percent more servings of fruits and vegetables per day than adults reporting they “rarely or never” purchase organic produce.” WOW, what an amazing study.

There is mounting evidence that organic food is clearly the healthier choice. Not only does organic food help out or environment by being sustainable but it helps us grow our future and that is healthy children. However it is important to remember that not all organic produce is pesticide free and that they can still pose health risks. Always thoroughly wash your produce.

-Posted by David

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Permaculture Chickens

Permaculture

The basic concept behind a permaculture approach is finding a design solution to a multiple of problems.

Chickens themselves offer a variety of solutions to a variety of problems. Specifically, chickens act as lawn mowers for overgrown brush and weeds, bug eaters for invasive creatures, garbage disposals for food scraps and dead animals, fertilizers of the soil and compost tillers, egg layers for the breakfast table, and a hearty source of meat for the dinner table.

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“The Chicken Connection” by Abundant Permaculture illustrates the cycle of the chicken and how it works in tandem with its environment.

Chickens

The Challenge
The chicken serves to answer a whole host of challenges, however the one challenge that is furthest reaching and most relevant is egg production.

If you frequently purchase eggs at your nearest grocery store you may have noticed an increase or a fluctuation in egg prices. It is very plausible that this could be the result of the avian flu that impacted a great number of egg laying birds resulting in a shortage of eggs. Even some restaurants were affected by it!

Not only is the shortage of eggs a very real dilemma but the way they are being produced is also a very real issue. Many of the eggs purchased at the grocery store are products of inhumane treatment of chickens who live in cramped, dirty, and claustrophobic environments such as those highlighted in the documentary Food, Inc.

Additionally, free range* labeling leads us to think we are buying humanely raised chickens that can roam outdoors when in reality there is no regulation for minimum space per bird. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition of ‘access to the outdoors’ looks different from that of The Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). The HFAC states that in order for chickens to be considered “free range” and Certified Humane they must have at least 2 square feet when indoors and be outdoors for at least 6 hours a day as weather permits. This is much better than the USDA and industry standard of “free range” where the many chickens may have so much as a “pop hole” to the outdoors. (*Free range indicates that chickens are not confined to cages inside.)

The Solution
So how do we help alleviate this problem? Backyard chickens! By housing these backyard permaculture chickens we not only have access to delicious eggs, lawn mowers, and debuggers, we also get a new and unconventional family pet!

Raising Chickens

The General How To
You might be asking yourself what comes first when owning permaculture chickens…the chicken or the egg? Well, luckily this time there is an answer. It is the chicken!

In order to get started with your chickens Justin Rhodes offers a step by step how-to, answers to frequently asked questions, as well as a comprehensive list of basic materials needed at Getting Started with Chickens: the Ultimate Guide. To go over a few of the basic responsibilities for owning chickens we will look at housing, feeding, and harvesting.

Housing, Feeding, and Harvesting
Housing. There are several aesthetically and functionally diverse ways to design a chicken house. A few designs featured by Justin Rhodes of Abundant Permaculture have proven to be successful when raising chickens:

The A-frame is designed for mobility and has an exposed ground, it is also perfect for winter housing due to the covered roof. The Chicken Tractor is ideal for mobility with two wheels and wire mesh flooring to eradicate manure build up. Lastly, the Poultry Pen, like the A-frame, has an exposed bottom and is ideal for summer use due to the partially covered roof.

Feeding. This part of the puzzle does not have to be a constant high expense; in fact there are ways to make it relatively cheap and affordable…

  1. Ration your feed
  2. Soak your feed
  3. Feed grass – 20 percent of diet, free range
  4. Kitchen scraps – feed them everything
  5. Feed weeds and insects

Lastly, the benefits to us: Harvesting! In the morning you get to walk out the back door and snatch a few eggs for your morning breakfast. Once the chickens mature to about 5 months of age they are typically able to produce about 4 eggs a week. So with only 3 chickens that is a dozen eggs a week!

Where to get them
There are several different options to choose from when deciding where to purchase chicks. In Albuquerque we have online forums (such as here, here, and here) where the local community can post notifications of chickens for sale, as well as tips, tricks, or answers to any questions asked. You can also get chickens shipped to you through poultry supply websites.

Enjoy all of the benefits of your backyard chicken while having peace of mind that you are helping bring about a solution to a widespread problem.

-Posted by Rebekah

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The Future of Sustainable Agriculture in Albuquerque

New Mexico’s local food production system is being cultivated through sustainability efforts in newly rewritten and revised planning documents. These multi-jurisdictional plans contain visions, goals, and policies surrounding sustainability of local health and agriculture systems, but will these efforts be enough to support future population growth, if executed to their fullest potential?

To begin, the Middle Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) encompasses the middle Rio Grande region including Bernalillo, Sandoval, Valencia, and Torrance counties, and focuses planning efforts for the future on a long-term regional scale. The Regional visioning process within the MRCOG Focus 2050 plan emphasizes preservation of agricultural, cultural, and historical areas, and emphasizes a regional focus based on inevitable future growth within the region. A federally mandated regional plan is necessary for all urban areas, and emphasizes key issues for the region based on a preferred land-use model:

These three different areas lead into a focus on issues of community health, agricultural preservation, and expansion of community open space. Focus 2050 regional plan outlines its decision power on who pays for open-space preservation and expansion, and provides a general framework to devise common goals for the future. Within the Focus 2050 plan, some smaller focus groups include the MRCOG Agriculture Collaborative, which outlines specific goals and operational strategies for regional conservation and preservation efforts.

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The triple bottom line of sustainability. Credit: www.americanalertnews.com/sd3bl.png

Currently the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are also in the process of rewriting and revising the county comprehensive plan, known as the ABC to Z Comprehensive Plan, which contains sections pertaining to land-use, parks and open-space, and resilience and sustainability. The document is currently online and is available for public review before the final draft will be voted on at the end of 2016. In the “Resilience and Sustainability” chapter, the plan references the generations principle as well as the triple bottom line of sustainability, with the biggest underlying future issue being water sustainability. A demand for resilient infrastructure would produce lower life cycle costs, and higher efficiency in public systems. A vision within the plan emphasizes agriculture as green space, and creation of signature parks within the county. The Bernalillo County Commission references the 2015 Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Master Plan for specific procedures regarding funding, acquisition of land, and future development of Open-Space and Parks/Recreation facilities.

P.R.O.S Master Plan was formulated based on surveys of community members and district officials, which produced a common vision of agriculture preservation, local food access, education venues, community based agriculture, and designated P.R.O.S facilities as a county health resource.

Here we have yet another version of the sustainability triple bottom line, but as a means to promote public health through fresh food and healthcare access. “Recreating recreation” is the resounding mission throughout the Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan, and funding for agriculture, health, and education venues is of highest priority. Stakeholders and partners such as NMFMA and NMSU Cooperative Extension Service are identified as partners to assist with educational programs at their facilities. At the same time, Open Space is one of the ultimate authorities on regulating local land-use, as they protect unique areas that are not zoned for urban development. In many cases, open space forms a greenbelt or growth boundary for an urban area, and has the power to influence preservation of natural areas, and promote infill development. An example of a high priority development in the plan is acquiring funding for agriculture improvements to the UNM North Golf Course, to build a water re-use pipeline to facilitate a campus farming operation.

Food policy councils are increasing in popularity throughout the U.S., and are focused on “the long process of striving in improvements in food for all, not the few.” The New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council originated through grassroots efforts to influence political policies regarding the local food economy, and has been successful in acquiring funding for farm-to-school, food education, farm to restaurants, farmers’ market expansion, and food assistance programs. Santa Fe has also formed a food policy council with similar efforts and successes, and serves as an example that a food policy council can exist on both a state and local level.  Albuquerque and Bernalillo County currently operate under the New Mexico Farm to Table policies, as well as in partnership with the NMSU Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service as stated in current planning documents.

Are the current planning efforts enough to sustain a strong local food system for the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County? Will the current and recent plan revisions eventually act as a de facto food policy council for Albuquerque, or do these planning documents simply draw the political framework necessary for a stronger local food economy? As a general observation, municipalities with successful food policy councils such as Santa Fe, and many others in the U.S., have year round farming and farmers’ markets as a potential measure of their success.

-Posted by Daniel

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Diving for Food Waste

March 5th 2016, midnight.  Partner in crime, check. Clad in black, check. Headlamps, check.

We set out on an undercover investigation to see if the rumors and urban legends are true. What rumors?  Well, I’m sure you’ve heard all those shocking statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) about how they estimate that 32 percent of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted. I’ve also heard urban legends of those divers whose reefs are dumpsters, taking home pounds and pounds of booty…perfectly edible food that was thrown out…for no cost at all!

Jeremy Seifert’s award winning film, Dive!, shows him and his friends going around America eating like royalty off their dumpster finds. “854 million people in the world go hungry. In the United States even our trash cans are filled with food, you just have to go get it,” he says.

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Dumpster diving. Image credit: Dive!

Ridiculous – but I was curious, is it true? So I decided to find out. I found myself diving under the cover of nightfall, inside of one of the many dumpsters around Albuquerque, a grave site for some of the many tons of American food waste.

My total findings were about 60 pounds of doughnuts and 15 pounds of bagels.  Quite the find, but nothing like the pounds and pounds of all different types of food that were shown in the Dive! documentary.

It seems that there is a definite commercial food waste problem, but that wasn’t too apparent from my findings. Most of the places I investigated either donate their food waste or keep it in locked trash compactors, so I wasn’t able to snoop around as much as I wanted. I encourage you to look around yourself and see what you can find.  I’m sure you will be surprised.

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Doughnuts from the dumpster. Image credit: Nick

But why is this a problem? Interestingly, In the United States, organic waste is the second highest component of landfills. When the organic matter decomposes in a landfill it undergoes a process of decomposition that is different from how it would decompose on earth’s surface. Inside the landfill, the food waste decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen) instead of aerobically (with oxygen). Simply, when this happens the waste gives off methane gas instead of carbon dioxide. And unfortunately, methane gas is a greenhouse gas that is more detrimental to changing the climate than carbon dioxide!  Shockingly, landfills account for 7% of global methane emissions.

So food waste is harmful to our environment, but it is also even more inadmissible when we understand how many people in the United States are food insecure. How is it possible that we throw away so much food when so many people go hungry? According to Feeding America, one in seven people in the US is at risk of hunger, and when speaking strictly about children in New Mexico, nearly 30% or one in three children is at risk of hunger.   Located here in Albuquerque, Roadrunner Food Bank is an awesome organization that is trying to help bring this commercial food waste to the hungry across New Mexico. Amazingly, they help get food to about 70,000 people who struggle with food insecurity!

So work is being done to help combat the food waste issue. What do you think is the best way to solve this issue? Dumpster diving? Well definitely not here in Albuquerque, but I want to inspire you all to get creative and find ways to combat food waste in your community.

-Posted by Nick

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