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In the United States, an astonishing 40 percent of our food is wasted, and most of the waste goes to the landfill. Here in Santa Barbara County we're doing much better at only 20 percent, but we can still do more.

Expiration dates complicate our waste of food. Expiration dates on food products have a variety of meanings, but usually do not indicate the product is unsafe.

There is no standard definition for the expiration date either. So when you open the fridge and observe a product has passed its use-by date but still appears sound and wholesome, it may not be necessary to throw it out. We should all use our eyes, nose and taste to determine if food is unsuitable before tossing it.

Giving usable food items to those in our community who are less fortunate is a humanitarian way to cut back on food waste. There are numerous places to donate in our community including Catholic Charities, the Foodbank, Salvation Army and Unity Shoppe, just to name a few. You can find a full listing of options for Santa Barbara County via this link:

Another option is to donate food from your fruit trees. Households that have five or more fruit trees can contact the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County to have their fruit harvested. Residents with fewer than five trees are encouraged to pick the ripe fruit and bring it to the Foodbank themselves.

You can also donate food scraps to local animal organizations. BUNS — Bunnies Urgently Needing Shelter — accepts fresh greens and vegetables, and Lil' Orphan Hammies accepts fresh produce and bread products. The Santa Barbara Zoo also accepts edible fruits and vegetables such as leftover produce that residents have grown at home, and organic, pesticide-free tree trimmings and branches to feed to the Zoo's animals.

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Pete Pearson, director of Food Waste at the World Wildlife Fund states, “When we throw away food, we’re also throwing away the land, water, and energy used to produce that food.”

The World Wildlife Fund recommends this holiday season avoid tossing food in the trash by taking these steps:

Try not to over prepare food; instead try to prepare “just enough.” Encourage friends and family to take leftovers home. Store leftovers in the freezer to enjoy after you’ve had a break from them for a little while. Search “holiday leftover recipes” online for new ideas.

The key is to get creative and prevent waste from even occurring. Make preventing food waste your personal act of conservation.

Susan Klein-Rothschild is deputy director of community health at the county’s Public Health Department.