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How to Do Thanksgiving With Less Waste

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DeVonne Jackson’s earliest memories of Thanksgiving begin with her grandmother Velma Jackson, who prepared curried goat while singing the folksy Jamaican tune “Ram Goat Liver.”

“Ram goat liver good fi mek mannish water,” the singer, Pluto Shervington, croons. “Billy goat teeth make the earring for your daughter, curried goat lunch put the bite in your bark, it make your daughter, it make your daughter walk and talk.”

It’s a song about sustainability — not wasting, being resourceful, understanding food as nourishing and healing. But Ms. Jackson, 33, who is now an urban farmer and the founder of Positive Obsession, an organization focused on bringing more environmental awareness to fashion, says no single term sums up her family’s way of life. It’s just how things are done.

She grew up in Rosedale, Queens, where her father, Chris Perez, kept a backyard garden. On Thanksgiving, he would harvest thyme and tomatoes to prepare oxtail stew, then replant the leftover tomato seeds. That morning, her mother, Donna Perez, would take the family to a homeless shelter to serve food. Leftovers would be split between containers that guests brought from home and cleaned-out Country Crock tubs that Ms. Jackson would fill and store in the freezer. Meat and vegetable scraps were made into stock, which was poured into ice-cube trays and frozen.

That kind of resourcefulness is not the norm for Thanksgiving in America. In fact, the holiday is one of the most wasteful times of the year, with 200 million pounds of turkey alone tossed out annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Most dinners this year will be smaller, as the coronavirus pandemic ravages the country. Yet the day’s environmental impact may still be significant — perhaps even more so, since many Americans will be serving Thanksgiving-size feasts to only a few guests.

Reducing waste can be as simple as turning scraps into broth and reusing containers. But Ms. Jackson and other environmental advocates say it’s equally important to think more broadly about our relationship to the holiday, and the vast ripple effects of the waste it generates.

“Traditional Native peoples are raised with this idea that we have a responsibility for our land,” which means using all parts of a plant or animal, and fertilizing the ground with bones and shells so that food will regenerate, said Dr. Enrique Salmón, 62, a professor of American Indian studies at California State University East Bay.

The classic Thanksgiving ingredients, like turkey, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, were originally cultivated by Native Americans in ways that showed respect for the Earth. But the celebration has become commercialized, and unmindful of the nation’s violent treatment of Native Americans, said Nikki Sanchez, an Indigenous scholar and documentary filmmaker who lives on Coast Salish territory in Victoria, British Columbia. Those who celebrate need to be more aware of this, and take the time to appreciate their food.

“Gratitude and abundance are reciprocal things,” said Ms. Sanchez, 33. When we take from the land, she said, we should also give back — through growing, recycling, composting and replanting.

Cooking the same dishes for Thanksgiving each year also leads to mass production of ingredients like turkey and cranberries, which puts undue stress on food systems, Ms. Sanchez said.

She suggested people create a menu inspired by their heritage — smoked fish from Norway, mole from Mexico. “Think of the foods that are actually representative to who you are,” she said, and “actually bringing your own identity into this holiday.”

Dominique Drakeford, 32, an environmental educator and a founder of Sustainable Brooklyn, an organization that aims to make sustainability more inclusive, agreed that it’s time to rethink the traditional menu.

Roasting a 10-pound turkey doesn’t necessarily make sense for a four-person meal, or if half the group is vegetarian, she said. And while certain fruits and vegetables seem essential to the day, why not see which ones are grown in your area, and prepare those instead? Doing so will support the local economy while minimizing environmental damage.

Even better, Ms. Drakeford said, grow food yourself, or buy from a farmers’ market. For those without backyards, an indoor herb garden is easy to set up and maintain.

While cooking, she advised, be mindful of where you’re putting scraps. All those potato peels, egg shells and onion skins can be composted. Ms. Drakeford recommends keeping out a small container to store compostable items while you’re preparing the meal.

Leftover herbs, which are often left to rot in the refrigerator, can be used to infuse oils. Empty jars and cans can be upcycled — just wash them out and use them to display flowers or hold spare change.

Before grocery shopping, Ms. Jackson, the urban farmer, advises starting with a scan of the kitchen to see what’s already there. You may already have brown sugar and marshmallows from last year’s meal, and a quick check will help avoid redundant and unnecessarily wasteful purchases.

Then, make a shopping list with quantities, and buy only as much as you need. Bring reusable bags, and avoid buying plastic plates or utensils. (Yes, this means a pileup of dishes, but remember that plastic dishware created 1.1 million tons of waste in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Ms. Jackson added that she avoids single-use decorations; if gourds are used as centerpieces, don’t forget to eat them eventually. After the meal, offer to drop off leftovers to your neighbors, or contact a homeless shelter to see if it’ll accept cooked food or spare ingredients.

“For me, that is a big form of sustainability,” Ms. Drakeford said. “Feeding members of the community who don’t have access to food in the way that we do.”

Thanksgiving is a chance to show gratitude and share with others. Being more mindful about waste is one way to help communities of color, who are often the most endangered by overflowing landfills and the air pollution and hazardous chemical runoff they create.

Terms like zero waste and sustainability have become popular in the last few years. But Ms. Drakeford, 32, said they obscure the fact that environmental stewardship has long been practiced by Black and Indigenous Americans.

“Black and brown communities have been resourceful as hell out of necessity, due to systemic scarcity,” she said. These habits “are passed down by family members and generations, and are part of tradition and healing and other elements of sustainability that are never discussed.”

An issue as wide-reaching as environmental protection can feel daunting to tackle. But Valerie Segrest, 37, the regional director of native foods and knowledge systems for the Native American Agriculture Fund, an organization supporting Indigenous farmers and ranchers, said that food — and the Thanksgiving meal — is a great place to start.

“What we experience nowadays is this rush to go buy a frozen turkey and thaw it in your bathtub for several days, and ominous boxes of stuffing,” she said. “What is it? Where did it come from? Who touched it before? It totally rips you apart from the land.”

Rebuilding that relationship can be as straightforward as buying ingredients in their whole form and breaking them down yourself, eating a more diverse array of dishes or talking about where ingredients came from at the table.

“That is the point of a ceremony,” she said. “To spend time with your food and remember you are human.”

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