As my kids moved through their middle school health classes, I followed the USDA’s transition from the food pyramid to the MyPlate illustration as the tool of choice for teaching young eaters – and all Americans – about the building blocks of a healthy diet.

But it wasn’t until last month’s Feeding 5000 event in Portland that I learned about another triangular paradigm, this one championed by advocates of reducing food waste. Mark King of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection introduced the concept to me at the event, where hundreds of volunteers fed thousands of eaters with food gleaned from Maine farms.

The Food Recovery Hierarchy, developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is visually represented by an inverted pyramid. The triangle provides a framework to help municipalities, institutions, corporations and restaurants decrease the amount of perfectly good food they now toss into trash cans. As King explained the hierarchy’s layers, I mentally scaled them down to fit my own kitchen.

King said the most effective way to reduce waste is at the source. For us home cooks, that means buying only what we need and have plans to use immediately. If you can, buy seconds – ugly or bruised produce that may not look perfect but is perfectly edible – so that waste isn’t pushed further down the pyramid.

If you buy too much in spite of your best efforts not to, the next step in the hierarchy lies in diverting edible food to food banks and rescue programs. While individuals can readily hand off surplus canned goods, donating fresh, more perishable food is complicated by food safety issues.

Instead, home cooks can process perishable goods – vegetables into pureed soups or extra dairy items into macaroni and cheese – that can feed hungry, shut-in neighbors. Have a look around. There are more neighbors in need than you may think.

When feeding people is not possible, feeding animals is the next best option. I can offload a few bits of leftover people food to my black Lab and hound mix, Theo, but only as an occasional treat, not as a solution to curb my family’s overall food waste. If you’ve got chickens or pigs, you’ve got a more reliable outlet at this level than I do.

Commercial kitchens can tap into a growing number of services that turn food scraps into biogas and spent cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. A household biogas system, like those sold by HomeBiogas, runs about $1,000 and converts food waste and animal manure into enough clean gas to cook three meals and produce 10 liters of clean natural liquid fertilizer daily.

Mainers can tap into Maine Standard Biofuels’ biodiesel conversion program by dropping off used cooking oil at its Ingersoll Street location in Portland, checking with a local transfer station to see if it supports the service, or putting the oil out with a Garbage-to-Garden curbside compost bucket for home collection.

The last step in the hierarchy is composting. With much ado, last spring I gave into decades-long pressure from my in-laws to compost, joining the WeCompostIt! fold.

Before I took up composting, I was very diligent about adhering to what I now know to be the higher levels of the food waste hierarchy. But since, I’ve been more lax, pitching usable scraps into the bucket before first considering how to repurpose them.

Thanks to King and his explanation of the Food Recovery Hierarchy, now I have a better visual of where composting should fit into my own efforts to waste less food.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester, and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at [email protected]

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