Rubbish to Riches: The Alchemy of Food Waste in Cohousing

Man adding leaves to community compost bin
Community Compost Bin at Pioneer Valley Cohousing
Chickens feasting on stale bread
Chickens Feast on Stale Bread
Dog enjoys old chicken stock poured onto his dry food
Old Chicken Stock Makes Dry Dog Food Tastier!
Man holding and pointing to food item he's taken from commercial refrigerator
"Refrigerator Cop" Lou on the Beat

I would like to say that mine is a household where celery never goes limp in the crisper. That whenever bread gets stale and milk sours, I miraculously combine them into a delicious bread pudding. Hah. While I may have great aspirations to using every last scrap of food, the plain truth is that in actuality, I fall far short of this goal.

Fortunately, I live in cohousing. Wait: what, you might ask, does cohousing have to do with food waste? Well, being surrounded by close neighbors does actually help in making better use of your food and reducing waste. It has certainly helped me at several levels in the food usage continuum, and I’m sure other cohousers could share stories of additional solutions.

Most obvious is the community compost, managed by neighbors. What a luxury to be able to take my family’s vegetable off-cuts and coffee grounds – and yes, refrigerator science experiments – down to the garden, dump them in the bin, and walk carefree back to my house. Living in community means that I have this wonderfully functioning compost system, even though I don’t personally have to put in the effort to coordinate it. I just follow the clear instructions and throw in a few shovelfuls from the leaf bin, and away I go.

However, I think of the compost bin as my last resort. Whenever possible, I like to go one level up. We happen to have a flock of chickens in our community, and they are glad to feast on many of my household’s rejects. Rather than relegating them to the compost, I regularly set aside certain choice items for the hens: leftover pasta, stale bread, fruit parings. It’s always fun to watch our birds enjoy the bounty, gobbling down melon seeds or squabbling over a crust of bread.

But then there are the things that are not suitable for either the compost or the hens. We don’t compost dairy or meat items, and I only allow small amounts of dairy for the hens. So when my daughter returns from school with her thermos half-full of mac and cheese, I turn to another grateful recipient: my neighbor’s dog. Bobo is the third in a line of lucky local canines who have benefitted from my spoof gourmet food delivery business, “Doggie Delectables”. If I make a pot of chicken soup and have a bit left over that we didn’t manage to finish in time, Bobo appreciates having his dry dog food augmented with this savory sauce. This setup is a win-win-win: Bobo gets the food, his person gets a break on the dog food bill, and I get to feel good about reducing my impact on the landfill. Plus I get points in the canine popularity contest.

It’s also good to know which neighbors might be interested in food items your household just doesn’t seem to be eating. If we’re not using up our avocadoes fast enough, I know who likes to make guacamole from overripe ones. I could reliably count on my old duplex-mate to turn a chicken carcass into soup if I wasn’t up for it. And I know who will gladly unburden me of those opened jars of pickles that have been languishing at the back of my refrigerator for longer than I care to admit.

Cohousing can also come in handy if you want to subscribe to a local CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm. A frequent complaint of CSA subscribers is that their weekly share provides them with too great an abundance of fresh veggies. What better place than cohousing to find someone who will share your share, so that you have a quantity of vegetables you can actually manage? And if you still find you have too much, it’s easy to offer the surplus to your neighbors individually or donate them for a common meal.

Let’s be honest, though. Cohousing also creates new opportunities for wasting food. Take the common dinners. As a regular head cook, I plan for excess rather than risking that my neighbors will go hungry. We have a system for buying leftovers, and I find myself eagerly promoting their sale after my dinners. But do they get eaten, or do they find their way to the compost instead? I don’t know. A more reliable strategy is to freeze large quantities of leftovers for use in a future meal. That can also save time when your cooking duty comes around again.

Most cohousing communities have gardens, which can create an overage of food that isn’t eaten. People come home late from work and don’t have time to harvest. Some are unfamiliar with the crops and can’t tell what plants are where, or when a particular vegetable is ready to pick. Some head cooks don’t have the extra time or inclination to harvest their ingredients from the garden. After all of the energy and resources invested, a large proportion of the harvest can go to waste. At my community, we have developed a couple of solutions. The first is formalizing the task of harvesting for common meals, posting a sign-up with designated harvesters for each dinner. Another is to harvest any abundant crops, wash them, and offer them to anyone who wants them.

The common kitchen refrigerator is another domain where – surprise, surprise – waste has been known to happen. We have a job of “refrigerator cop”, someone who regularly patrols the refrigerator and disposes of anything that’s gone bad. Right now, Lou is in charge of that job, and that’s a good thing. He has a particular knack for noticing when unclaimed items are at that critical stage where they are on the brink of becoming useless but are still perfectly edible. He puts those things to good use, freezing leftover entrees for workday meals, incorporating stray ingredients into community potluck offerings, and making cheese from leftover milk.

The national data on food waste is sobering. One source estimates that US households waste about a quarter of the food we buy. I feel pretty confident that, on both the household and community level, by our own efforts and by helping each other with complementary needs, my neighbors and I manage to keep our waste well below the national average. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

An inherent advantage of cohousing is that we can build on ideas and skills together, and that one passionate, knowledgeable neighbor can inform and inspire the rest of us. If several of us have a common interest in saving food, we can learn together and evolve our practices. One of my favorite moments was when my neighbor Carrie, who is working on a degree in food justice, hosted a video and discussion on food waste. It was a great opportunity for learning and conversation, and a spark for continued enthusiasm moving forward. This is also a conversation we can continue between cohousing communities across the continent. So, what interesting ideas or practices have you evolved in your home or at your community?

Tags: