Meal planning can help reduce food waste

More data, research needed to help city, residents make more efficient use of resources

San Franciscans may love their sourdough slices and fresh baked baguettes. But bread is one of the most wasted foods in homes. Instead of tossing the heels and stale loaves in the green bin, chef Alison Mountford recommends saving them in the freezer until they’re ready to blend into bread crumbs. Her San Francisco-based business, Ends + Stems, which officially launched this month, helps subscribers cook healthy meals at home while reducing food waste.

“I feel like there are very few advocates talking about what we should do in the home to reduce food waste,” Mountford told me. “There aren’t many resources for people who want to reduce their individual impacts.”

Approximately 40 percent of food in North American is thrown away by consumers. This is bad news for the environment. When stale bread, moldy strawberries and last night’s leftovers go to waste, all the land, fertilizer, water and energy it took to produce, manufacture, and transport them are also lost.

Food that ends up in the black bin, instead of the green, causes even greater environmental impacts. When food decays, it produces methane — a potent greenhouse gas. The United Nations estimates that if food waste was its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the United States.

And impacts aren’t limited to the environment. A report published by the San Francisco Department of Public Health last December found that food insecurity in The City is increasing. While some San Franciscans struggle to eat what they buy, others, including pregnant women, children and seniors, are struggling just to eat.

Thankfully, governments around the world are implementing policies to make it easier to donate and use good food. But figuring out how to change individual preferences and behavior — a notoriously complex task that’s hard for the government to control — needs more attention.

“We collectively waste more food in our homes than anywhere else along the food supply chain,” Andrea Spracht Collins of Natural Resources Defense Council told me.

Planning meals in advance is one way to reduce this waste and save money, according to research by the environmental nonprofit. Working off tried-and-true recipes makes it easier to purchase the right ingredients, in the right amounts, and avoid the expensive trap of impulse buys. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the average family of four loses more than $1,500 per year on wasted food.

Businesses like Ends + Stems can help reduce these losses. Subscribers are given a grocery list and recipes for three dinners per week. The site also provides clear steps to prep over the weekend and avoid after-work stress.

But Mountford believes more resources and information are necessary to address the problem. She told me that almost all of her customers are women, and wonders what role gender plays in waste. She also pointed to a lack of data on the actual amount of food waste solutions like meal preparation can reduce.

“I would love to have good stats and more information,” she told me.

Mountford is not alone in calling for more research. In a report examining why food is wasted in American homes, the Natural Resources Defense Council characterized the issues underlying the phenomenon as complex. It found few relationships between demographics and food waste that could be generalized across the board.

But this doesn’t mean trends don’t exist. The report recommended that cities research the obstacles and ways to reduce the total generation of wasted food. It also urged governments to set climate goals that address more impacts from the wasted food than just methane.

There are simple tricks San Franciscans can use to reduce the amount they toss in the compost, such as turning their old bread into breadcrumbs and bringing a shopping list to the grocery store. But it will be hard to make the changes our City and planet need without understanding the many reasons why food waste occurs. Along with more resources, San Francisco also needs more research to address the problem.

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Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at

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