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Always Making Too Much Food? This New Tool Helps You Cut Food Waste

Food
Kim Sielbeck for NRDC

By Jodi Helmer

When it comes to meal preparation, I thought I was a pro: I make shopping lists, eat leftovers and bake overripe produce into breads or simmer them into jams. My husband, Jerry, and I even have a compost bin — but we still end up tossing plenty of food into the trash can. And every time we dump another spoiled yogurt or fuzzy zucchini, we tell ourselves, "We need to do better."

Jerry and I agreed to test Meal Prep Mate, a new tool from NRDC's Save the Food initiative, to see if the planning tools, recipes and storage tips could reduce our food waste. Entering information into the site's calculator on what proteins, produce and grains we planned to cook, plus how many people we were feeding and how many meals each person needed, helped us create a smarter shopping list, gave us suggestions for supplemental recipes using some of the same ingredients, and offered new ideas for spicing up our leftovers.


I also learned a few new strategies for reducing food waste — an important goal when you consider that up to 40 percent of the food in America is wasted. In fact, discarded food is the top category of material in our landfills, contributing more to climate pollution than all of the cars in Georgia. Food waste happens at all stages of the food supply chain, from farms and processing facilities to supermarkets and restaurants, but 43 percent of food waste is generated at home.

That said, many of us think of tossing food as perfectly normal. But spending a couple of weeks using Meal Prep Mate helped change my mind about this. It also helped me to change my habits. Here's what I learned.

Think beyond the recipe.

Who hasn't spent hours scrolling through Pinterest drooling over recipes? Experimenting with new dishes is a great idea — and social media can help you find new favorites — but collecting everything needed for just one big meal can lead to a lot of leftover ingredients. After all, it's hard to buy just a splash of cream or a few stems of parsley.

Instead, choose recipes in duos or trios that use a lot of the same ingredients — and "think about using things in new and innovative ways," says NRDC sustainable food systems specialist Andrea Spacht. Use leftover stir-fry veggies in omelets; make pasta salad from the remaining half box of penne; chop up leftover roast chicken to make soup.

Meal Prep Mate offers suggestions for "remix recipes" that use extra food. I selected yogurt, berries and granola for breakfast and got a recipe for protein pancakes made by adding yogurt to pancake mix for a more filling morning meal; it turned out to be a great idea when we had a few tablespoons of yogurt in the bottom of the container. Pancakes with leftover berries: Yum!

Pay attention to portions.

Meal Prep Mate's planning tool suggested portion sizes for our stir-fry meal (the tool offers different recommendations for how much of any ingredient you'll need based on whether you're cooking breakfast, lunch or dinner), and its guidance was spot-on. Knowing I would need only one cup of chopped bell pepper (about one pepper) saved me from buying an extra "just in case" we needed it.

Spacht cautions that making several meals' worth of a dish to last all week may sound like a good idea, but lots of leftovers can lead to boredom. "You may end up with meal fatigue from having the same thing over and over," she says. To avoid this, consider how many days or nights of the same dish that you and your family will happily eat. Meal Prep will help you scale down the recipe accordingly. You'll be more excited about that tub of refrigerated chili or chicken enchiladas if it's the second time you're reheating a plateful instead of the third or fourth. And Meal Prep Mate has suggestions to help "remix" your meals; if you get tired of your meal plan, use your building blocks to create a whole new dish without wasting the food.

Do a quick kitchen survey before shopping.

Confession: Although Jerry and I are compulsive meal planners and list makers, we tend to do both without looking at what's already in stock in our kitchen. As a result, we often come home from the store with items we don't need. It's not a big deal to keep extra nonperishables like oats or quinoa, but buying extra mangoes or milk (and not consuming them quickly enough) creates waste.

We changed things up, first "shopping" in our refrigerator and pantry to see what items we had on hand that we could build our meals around. This helped us shorten the grocery list we were taking to the store, where we also followed Meal Prep Mate's suggestions for ideal quantities of food to bring home. The combination of strategies led us to reduce both our waste and our grocery bills.

"There is a climate benefit to paying attention to the foods that come into the house," Spacht points out. A lot of resources go into producing our food. According to a groundbreaking NRDC report, wasted food uses 18 percent of farming fertilizer — the production and transport of which is an energy- and greenhouse gas–intensive process in itself — and generates 2.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. It also consumes a lot of water: A whopping 21 percent of agricultural water goes toward food we end up tossing.

Don't forget about breakfast.

Even the most enthusiastic meal planners tend to focus on dinner and take what Spacht calls an "ad hoc approach" to the other meals of the day. I'll admit to making a meticulous shopping list for all of our evening meals and guessing at how much bread, bananas and eggs we need to get through the week (and I'm often wrong).

"When you plan for some meals and have an 'anything goes' approach to others, you miss opportunities to potentially reduce a lot of food waste," Spacht says.

Look at the calendar.

We shop once a week — but that doesn't mean we always need enough food for seven days. I forget that lunch with a girlfriend or ordering pizza with our nieces means fewer meals we need to prepare. Spacht suggests looking at the calendar to determine the number of days you'll actually need meals instead of assuming that you'll always need to plan for a full week.

Study up on storage.

Improper storage is one of the main reasons that food spoils in our kitchens. Save the Food offers a comprehensive guide to food storage that will help you prolong the life of your produce, pantry staples and everything in between. For example, did you know that wrapping meat in two layers of plastic prevents freezer burn? And that natural nut butters will last up to three months after opening when stored in the refrigerator? That's twice as long as it will last if kept in a cabinet.

"Rather than tossing food because you're not sure if it's still safe to eat, learn how to store food so it'll last longer," Spacht says. "It's such an easy step to cut down on food waste."

Since using Meal Prep Mate, I've also gained a new appreciation for my freezer. Jerry and I keep chickens, which means lots of eggs. Thanks to the tool, we now know that lightly beaten eggs can be frozen in an airtight container. We've already added a few batches to our freezer — which gives me an idea for next weekend's brunch plans.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.