League of Women Voters

Consider food waste and food need during the holidays


One favorite holiday tradition across the U.S. is Christmas cookie baking and decorating, something we’ll do here in another two weeks. A small crowd of kids will gather in the kitchen to cut out 200 sugar cookies in all shapes and sizes. Once the cookies are cooled, we’ll ice and decorate with a melange of mini M&Ms, red hots, sprinkles of all types, colored sugars, tiny confection stars and snowmen or silver sparkles. Mothers, grandmothers and aunts handed down this tradition, the only sanctioned contribution we kids could make, mostly likely to preserve their sanity.

Growing up, mothers and aunts sweated over vats of sugar and butter rendered into toffee topped with milk chocolate and nuts, followed by rice krispie treats covered in chocolate and butterscotch chips, thumbprints cookies filled with jam, swirly butter cookies with jaw-cracking silver balls, church windows made with chocolate, coconut and colored marshmallows, haystacks made from chocolate chips, nuts and “chow mein noodles,” peanut butter kiss cookies, seven layer bars, divinity, fudges, you name it.

November and December are feasting months for many households in the U.S. One imagines that similar seasons occur during Ramadan, Diwali, Passover, and the Chinese New Year, among other cultural celebrations. Countertops disappear under platters and pans of meats, casseroles, salads, bread, nuts, fruits and candies, most of which will be divvied up or packed back into car trunks by overstuffed adults waddling uncomfortably around the dining room and kitchen, unless it’s thrown away.

One hates to think how many of those dishes and sweets ended up in thick black bags mingled with wrapping paper and disposable plates. Outside the bags, many foods would be compostable, rich fodder for anyone’s flower or vegetable gardens, while the meat might be a nice treat for the dogs and cats. Inside the bags, the food decomposes in a landfill gas, most of which is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas “with a lifetime of about a decade and Global Warming Potential about 80 times greater than carbon dioxide during the first twenty years after it is released into the atmosphere,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Methane is the cause of about one-third of the change in the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. 14% of methane comes from landfill gases, 32% from natural gas and petroleum, 27% from enteric fermentation — by-products of meat production, 9% from manure management, and the rest from sources such as other landfills, coal mining and various sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In short, putting food into the trash instead of composting or consuming it contributes to climate change.

Not that we want to keep eating beyond what is reasonable. Most of us prefer not to pack on the extra pounds. How, then, should we prepare for holiday feasts, especially considering a healthy body and a healthy planet, and also being conscious of our food-insecure community members?

Lest you’ve not read the recent numbers, Feeding America reported last year that about 10.8% of Hoosiers lacked enough access at times in their lives for an active, healthy lifestyle. This means that adults skipped meals or ate highly processed foods where the essential natural nutrients have been cooked off or destroyed by chemical preservatives such as shelf stabilizers and artificial flavorings and colorings. Many convenience foods have been designed in laboratories to compel overconsumption, tricking the body’s innate messaging system to stop eating.

Plenty of ink has been spent documenting the interconnected food crises in the U.S. from food insecurity to obesity. Presently, about 38% of Hoosiers, nearly two of five, have high BMI’s (body mass index) — the measurement of obesity — putting them at greater risk of stroke, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and certain cancers, the Centers for Disease Control reports. Much of this isn’t because Americans eat like every day is a holiday. It’s that food-insecure people, usually those with lower education and income levels rely on dollar store and food bank grocery sources, which usually have shelf-stabilized food, which in turn has higher amounts of preservatives. Shelf stability comes from processing food so that companies don’t have to throw away as much and lose profits.

Here in the U.S., more food is highly processed, which increases waistlines for more of our population. In a recent piece on MSN, reporter Sumathi Reddi noted that Americans who spend time in Europe return feeling that they’ve over-indulged on vacation, only to discover they’ve lost weight. While the factors are complex — European cities tend to be more walkable and markets are often smaller — European nations have more stringent regulations about additives in food. The EU approves only 300-400 additives whereas the U.S. FDA has a list of over 3,000 approved additives. As a result, Americans take 57% of their calories from highly refined, ultra-processed starchy, sugary, salty foods compared compared 12% by Europeans, even with their rich diets.

The good news seems to be that the body can handle some feasting, especially those handmade treats and dishes we associate with our favorite holiday. Nevertheless, we may want to reduce our food waste and consumption, as well as share more for the holidays. It’s worth making a plan beforehand so we don’t end up like our forebearers, making all the food!

It’s fabulous to make less. Pick one dish and shine! Since everyone else is also bringing a dish, consider making an 8x8 instead of a 9x13, or one dozen, in place of two.

Even better, find a way to share more! if you just love cutting out all those treats and decorating them with the kids, make them for people who won’t get a plate of cookies and candies this season. Check with local shelters, outreach ministries, or food banks to find out if they’d like your contributions. That’s where our 200 cookies are destined.

Waste wisely. Bring or set up a composting bucket and a feed bucket. Compost veggie casseroles, breads, fruit salads, even those cookies. If you know someone with chickens or goats, donate your leftovers to feed their farm animals. Share deboned meat with dogs and cats. Create signs asking your guests to sort and dispose of their food in the proper receptacle. Finally, if using disposable serving ware, choose compostable plates, forks, knives, spoons and cups. They’re readily available at Walmart, Kroger and other stores.

Last but not least, consider what you could freeze and reheat for lunch meals at work. Pack up your individual meals and label them. They’ll be good for the next couple of weeks.

Giving is as much fun as getting, and giving yourself and others a wiser food experience will season your holidays with an extra dash of satisfaction.


The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.