Try these 3 easy recipes to extend your groceries

This summer, headlines about climate change and drought, here in California and across the world, have grown increasingly dire. Reservoir levels are low, temperatures are high, and so are food prices.

We hear a lot about buying food grown locally, which saves on fuel used for transportation and supports local farmers. But how do you make the most of what you buy?

With an eye to climate change, Whitney Reuling of the nonprofit Sonoma Family Meal is certain a class Thursday, Aug. 25, can help, by teaching people how to reduce food waste. (Disclosure: Press Democrat Dining Editor Heather Irwin founded and still works with Sonoma Family Meal.)

“Food production is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, contributors to climate change,” she said, referring to water and fuel use and carbon-dioxide emissions. “Wasting food is simply wasting precious resources. And given the state of the world, we have no business wasting anything.”

To help people make the most of their foodstuffs, Sonoma Family Meal chef Heather Ames will demonstrate how to cook with veggies and other perishables that might otherwise be thrown out, or into the compost bin. See box for details.

“The class is less about using food scraps and more about using perishable food before it goes bad,” Reuling said. “And that requires creative cooking techniques, planning ahead and checking your fridge before you go to the store, to avoid overbuying.

“Collectively, the United States wastes more than $400 million of food a year,” Reuling said, citing Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.

The most common food scraps to wind up in the garbage can, Reuling said, are fresh herbs, vegetable stems, Swiss chard, kale and broccoli. Have leftover broccoli stems? You can make Ames’ Broccoli Tots recipe, which follows. The leftover stems of Swiss chard can become Chard Stem Gratin. And just about any veggie scraps can be made into a versatile vegetable stock, with a little guidance from Ames on which vegetables to use and which to avoid.

UC Master Food Preservers of Sonoma County, a volunteer-based group focused on how to safely preserve food at home, taught a similar class in July and showed participants how to make use of apple scraps and leftover vegetables and herbs.

“Food waste is a big problem in our country (and our county),” Tobi Brown, a volunteer with the Master Food Preservers, said in an email. “Wasted food often ends up in the landfill. When it breaks down, it releases a byproduct of methane gas, which exacerbates climate change.”

Using food wisely is paramount, Brown said.

“We need to reduce the amount of food we buy or grow to pace it with what our family can consume,” he said.

Brown has a large garden and grows much of his family’s produce for the year. But he’s also reevaluated how much he needs to grow.

“I thought I was using all my bounty from the garden well until I took a serious look at what I was giving to my chickens or the compost pile,” he said. “It’s incredible the savings you can have if you eat locally, seasonally and preserve the remainder for the rest of the year.”

Avoiding waste for everyone

Denise Toll signed up to take the Sonoma Family Meal class because she wants to learn more about gleaning, in which people, typically volunteers, gather produce left over in fields after harvests, on neighborhood fruit trees and other places to donate.

The upcoming class has her thinking about what she throws away — and about those who don’t have enough to eat.

“I worked with a group in Portland who gleaned fruit and vegetables and supplied the foods to people in need in the city,” said the retired teacher in Petaluma. “I’m embarrassed to say that it’s vegetable material I waste the most. I’m quick to compost brown, soft, soggy vegetable matter.”

With a fresh look at produce, Toll said, she’ll learn how to conserve food, pare her compost material and save money.

Toll leads a grass-roots group called Cool Block Petaluma, where neighbors gather to share ideas of how to reduce their carbon footprints in their households. Ames, a neighbor of Toll’s, is in the group.

“By taking this class with Heather Ames, I hope to find volunteer opportunities to support our community,” Toll said.

Food insecurity in Sonoma County

Rachelle Mesheau of the Redwood Empire Food Bank said food insecurity — limited or uncertain access to enough food — is a major challenge in Sonoma County right now. Her organization, the largest food bank in our region, currently serves more than 100,000 people, and that number has grown under the economic pressures brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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