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Produce doesn't have to be "perfect" to be edible. (Dreamstime/TNS)

I’m having a difficult time wrapping my head around this documented fact: In 2016, it was reported that half of all produce grown in the U.S. is thrown out. At the same time, there is growing hunger and poverty right here in America.

As I read this news story, I assumed naively that all U.S.-grown produce makes it to market. Then consumers like you and me get it home and let it go bad before we can consume it, and into the garbage it goes. That is a factor but not the whole story.

The truth is that vast quantities of fresh produce are left in the field to rot. It then becomes livestock feed or gets hauled directly to the landfill because of — get ready — cosmetic standards.

Not every potato, watermelon, strawberry or grape cluster turns out photo perfect. Some are ugly or have blemishes. And, unfortunately, that means they do not meet retailer and consumer demands.

Just imagine how the retail cost of produce might plummet if all that is produced — even the still-nutritious but ugly produce — were available for sale. More on that in a bit.

I don’t know that there’s anything we can do individually about this matter of retail waste, but I know we can stop the carnage in our homes.

According to the World Resources Institute, the average U.S. household of four people throws out about $1,600 in rotten food every year. Wow. That makes my head spin! Even if that number is far less in your home, consider these simple ways all of us can stop throwing our food dollars into the garbage.

Don’t overbuy. The way to do this is to have a good, realistic plan for the produce you bring into your house. Make certain you will consume it before it goes bad — regardless of the great sale price or how beautiful it looks in the store. Simply buying too much is the No. 1 reason that household produce lands in the garbage.

Disinfect the fridge. I plead guilty on this one. I just don’t think about it if I can’t see a mess. The truth is that any time something spoils in the refrigerator, it leaves behind mold we can’t see. As a result, this mold attacks the new fresh stuff you put in there. Disinfecting the inside surfaces of your refrigerator regularly will make everything last a little longer and smell a lot better.

Extend berry life. Soaking berries in a weak vinegar and water solution before you store them in the refrigerator will make them last for several days longer than simply putting them in the fridge. Add 1 part vinegar to 10 parts water. Swirl the berries around for just a few seconds. Rinse and store. Strawberries can last up to two weeks longer using this method.

Bluapple. This is a clever gadget that slows down the ripening process by absorbing the natural ethylene gas, which all fruits and vegetables give off in the process of ripening. Ethylene is a harmless, odorless and colorless gas responsible for the natural ripening process. A high concentration of ethylene gas in the refrigerator or the fruit bowl speeds up the ripening process, and that’s what hastens spoilage.

Foodsaver. A Foodsaver vacuum-sealing machine is the best option for extending the useful life of produce. Food can be vacuum-sealed in bags or specific Foodsaver canisters. However, my favorite method for storing everything from strawberries to tomatoes to everything in between is in ordinary glass canning jars. This requires a Jar Sealing Kit that attaches to the Foodsaver.

Ugly produce. There is a lovely company called Imperfect Produce that offers a subscription delivery service for “ugly” food. The San Francisco Bay Area company estimates that about one-fifth of all fruit and vegetables end up in the dump for failure to conform to the industry standard of perfection. Imperfect Produce offers perfectly healthy and nutritious “ugly” produce for up to 50% less than retail store prices.

At this time, Imperfect Produce delivers to more than 20 metropolitan areas in the United States and it is expanding quickly. Be sure to check the website to see if the company has added your neighborhood yet.

What to do with leftover green salad (don’t throw it out!)

If throwing out perfectly delicious leftover green salad were a crime, I’d be serving a life sentence.

It kills me to do it, but until fairly recently, I had no idea there was a second life for a leftover green salad, dressed or not. Once tossed, passed and partially consumed, that’s it, right? Wrong.

Salad dressing. Mix the leftover salad in a blender with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add some garlic or herb seasonings and you have dressing for your next salad. I have done this several times now, and the results are quite amazing. You have to try it. Just make sure you have your seasonings handy.

Make soup. Turn that leftover green salad into hot vegetable soup: Process the salad in a blender or food processor with 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock. Pour into a saucepan. Stir in another 1/2 cup stock or the amount needed to create a nice consistency. Heat thoroughly, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve garnished with sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped fresh herbs like basil, chives or parsley.

Gazpacho salsa. Blend it with V8 juice to create a thick gazpacho (a cold Spanish tomato-based raw vegetable soup). Add a little hot sauce, and serve with chips for an appetizer. Extend it even further with the addition of red pepper and cucumber. It’s seriously tasty; however, it will vary depending on the contents of the leftover salad you start with.

Add to soup. Ina Garten, the popular TV cook, blends leftover green salad and adds it to her hot soups. The greens and vinegar add great flavor. Make sure you adjust the seasonings. And a dash of cream to finish can’t hurt, either!

Sauté. If your leftover salad began with raw greens and you tossed it with oil and vinegar, you still have a great option to repurpose the next day. Flash fry those greens in a pan. The oil base is all ready to go. Saute just until the greens collapse a bit and until whatever else was in the salad is heated through, and you’re good to go.

Or toss the sautéed greens with rice to create a beautiful side dish. You may want to adjust the seasonings, and even add a bit of lemon juice to brighten the flavors.

Mary Hunt, founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, writes this column for Creators Syndicate. Send tips or address questions to: Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740, or email her at mary@everydaycheapskate.com.

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