WSU Extension helps prevent Washington food waste through education, outreach

Four people working in a row of bok choy. Three show off the produce they have gleaned while the fourth continues working in the background.
A group of Extension-trained gleaners reclaim bok choy.

Food waste significantly impacts the environment and the economy, both in the state of Washington and worldwide. WSU Extension professionals are tackling this critical issue across the state in agriculture, households, and even at the landfill level through education and outreach.

“People usually don’t realize food waste is cumulative,” said Diane Smith, a regional food and nutrition specialist with WSU Skagit County Extension who educates youths and families about the significant need to decrease food waste.

“If every person in Skagit County threw away a slice of bread, that’s about 120,000 slices,” Smith said. “How many times will that occur per day, per week, or per month?”

Educating for food security

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 35% of all food produced in the U.S. ends up in the landfill. That’s roughly $100 billion dollars’ worth of food annually. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, since 2015 more than 1 million tons of food waste has been generated in Washington state each year. Of that total, more than a third was edible.

Selfie of Diane Smith while on sabbatical. A pool and historical building can be seen in the background.
Diane Smith, regional food and nutrition specialist with WSU Skagit County Extension.

“Bread is one of the most wasted foods,” Smith said. “If you pay $5 for a loaf but don’t eat all of it, you could be throwing away more than $1.50, which is a high percentage of the cost.”

Smith works with families to increase awareness and provide practical solutions at the household level to prevent and reduce food waste, reclaiming wasted dollars and edible food.

“Ultimately, less food waste means the food system is more secure,” she said. “There are many simple things that people can do to mitigate food waste, like use what you have, and buy what you need.”

When too much food is bought, she points people to Extension educators who are available to advise on food preservation best practices to extend the shelf life.

“Understanding date labels, food shelf life, and how to use food scraps are just some of the ways families can reduce food waste,” she said.

Smith acknowledges that not all foods will be used.

“Composting is a great option for unused foods,” she said. “Diverting foods from the solid waste stream is important to reduce the environmental impact.”

Nearly a fifth of the total content that ends up in Washington landfills is from food, according to a 2022 report from the Department of Ecology. Rotting food generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“Methane is nearly 30 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, which poses a climatic issue,” Smith said. “But we generate ripple effects to address this issue when we educate consumers at the county level, the family level.”

Extension partners reducing waste

Clea Rome, director of Clallam County Extension, works with partners to create infrastructure that diverts food from the waste stream.

“Since about 2015, we’ve been working and coordinating closely with area food banks and schools to get a county processing kitchen up and running,” she said. “I’m excited to say that this processing kitchen was just completed and has already captured significant amounts of potential food waste.”

Profile picture of Clea Rome standing outside in a jacket.
Clea Rome, director of WSU Clallam County Extension.

Abundances of beets, carrots, and greens from local food banks and farms have been transformed into delicious, healthy coleslaws, beet soups and braised collard greens. The food goes to nursing homes, schools, and other community organizations.

“This processing kitchen is creating a sea change in the way we deal with food waste and food insecurity in the county, in our schools, and for our families.”

At a time when food waste is a problem for Washington, food insecurity has also increased since 2015, according to further data from Ecology.

“Food banks experience feast-or-famine situations,” she said. “A regular occurrence is they’ll receive a lot of one fresh product type, but they can’t move that volume of product to the people who need it. This processing kitchen is boosting food bank capabilities.”

Creating connections that feed communities

Farmers work hard to grow produce that feeds the people of Washington and the world. But not all produce gets into the hands of those who need it.

The Farm Gleaning Program, run by waste prevention specialist Benji Astrachan in Clallam County, works with farmers and volunteers to schedule community harvests of fresh produce right in the field.

“Farmers can’t always sell their produce wholesale for many different reasons, whether aesthetics, quality, or minor pest damage, to name a few,” he said. “The farmers we work with allow a group of Extension-trained volunteers to harvest produce semi-weekly.”

Astrachan’s program reclaims more than 1,000 pounds of produce per week that is donated to volunteer gleaners and the Port Angeles Food Bank. The food bank there acts as a hub, coordinating food out to backpack meal programs, school districts, commercial kitchens, and smaller food banks.

“Breaking down that divide between people and the food they eat, understanding and getting to know the folks who grew their food, understanding why some types of foods are better, healthier, tastier, and creating more connection and meeting around eating local food are just some of the ripple effects I’ve seen from this Extension programming,” he said.

Getting started

The United Nations estimates more than a third of food is wasted, and along with it, water, land, energy, labor, and capital. Food Waste Prevention Week will be recognized in the U.S. this year April 1-7, 2024.

WSU Extension tackles the issue of food waste through programs, outreach, education, and research at the state and county levels.

Learn how you can become Waste Wise in this CAHNRS News article or visit Island County Extension’s Waste Wise website to get started.