Food Waste Gets the Respect It Deserves
WRITTEN BY SARAH HENRY
Food waste fighter Ben Simon, who founded the Food Recovery Network at the University of Maryland in 2011, turned a kernel of an idea into a full-fledged campus movement—with chapters at 150 colleges and counting across the country. The former head of the largest student-run waste-prevention program in the United States has witnessed a sea change in consumer and media awareness on a subject previously relegated to snoozeville status.
“I’ve seen a huge spike in interest in the subject of food waste in the past five years,” says Simon, who now lives in Northern California and co-founded Imperfect in 2015. The start-up sells so-called ugly fruits and vegetables to San Francisco Bay Area consumers in CSA-style boxes, as well as through a partnership with local Whole Foods Market stores.
“When I first started it felt like there were about 10 people focused on this topic. Now it’s hard to keep up with all the new players, innovations and research on the subject. It’s an exciting time. There’s real momentum.”
That’s reflected in Imperfect’s business plan: The company championing cosmetically challenged fruits and vegetables wants to service customers beyond California by the end of 2016; it hopes to be in most major American cities by 2018. On the East Coast, Hungry Harvest currently offers a similar service to the residents of Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia.
It’s not just start-ups, nonprofits and idealistic students jumping on the food waste prevention bandwagon. In July 2016, Walmart— America’s largest grocery store chain—piloted a program “I’m Perfect,” selling blemished and dented Washington state apples in 300 Florida stores. This on the heels of the company’s “Spuglies” campaign, which found a market for Russet potatoes roughed up by Texas weather. Both Whole Foods and Walmart have been targeted in Change.org petitions calling the stores out for tossing or turning away funky-looking produce.
Celebrity chefs around the globe have also taken up the cause. There’s top chef Massimo Bottura, of the award-winning Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. He led an effort to reclaim surplus food from the Athletes’ Village at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year to feed hungry residents of that city’s impoverished favelas. New York restaurateur and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio has taken to Capitol Hill with other fine-dining chefs to lobby legislators on the matter.
This spring, Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced The Food Date Labeling Act, designed to regulate food expiration labels in an attempt to reduce food waste. Colicchio and his restaurant brethren point to the staggering amount of food that’s wasted in American homes and seek to educate policymakers and the public on how to prevent it. Fellow New Yorker Dan Barber turned his Blue Hill restaurant into the pop-up wastED in 2015, serving fish heads, pockmarked potatoes, whipped chickpea water, burger patties fashioned from juice pulp, and dumpster-dive salad to diners eager to eat well in the name of food waste prevention. Meanwhile, global media concerns like The Huffington Post have focused on food waste as a worthy cause to cover extensively. And international companies, such as the design and innovation consulting firm Ideo, are crowdsourcing ways to tackle the issue. Educational events featuring menus filled with ingredients that would otherwise have gone to waste are drawing eaters and attention. The Salvage Supperclub, for instance, has hosted dinner parties in garbage dumpsters in Brooklyn, Berkeley, San Francisco and Tokyo. (Salvage Supperclub recipes available for publication.)
Food waste is having a moment. And combating the problem is no longer an unfun undertaking. Case in point: witty marketing efforts in Europe, such as the popular program by the French supermarket Intermarché. The grocery chain made ugly hip and hiked sales with its Inglorious fruits and vegetables campaign celebrating produce oddities. The United States is following suit. For example, Giant Eagle stores in Pittsburgh are singing the praises of misshapen potatoes and awkwardly sized apples in its Produce with Personality campaign.
Humor, it turns out, may be a much more effective weapon than guilt in the war against food waste. “People are playing with fun, creative ways to empower people to think about food waste and act,” says Simon. “It’s a good time to capitalize on that energy. This is no longer an invisible issue. With this kind of snowballing effect, there’s the real possibility for significant change to take place.”
TOO GOOD TO WASTE
Fellow food waste warrior Dana Gunders agrees. “Food is simply too good to waste,” says Gunders, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food never gets eaten.”
Her message to home cooks is clear and succinct: Just. Do. Something. We aren’t single-handedly responsible for the country’s food waste crisis and we aren’t single-handedly going to solve the problem, either. But we can all do a better job, says Gunders, of managing our own excess at home. Her focus is waste prevention, not food recovery, and she practices what she preaches. She learned the hard way that beets weren’t her thing: She’d roast them, wrap them and store them in the refrigerator, and promptly forget to eat them. So for now that root vegetable is off Gunders’ grocery list.
Gunders sees ways to avoid food waste at every stage of the food supply chain: from the farm to the fork to the landfill. “Given all the resources demanded during food production, it’s simply critical that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its way to our plates,” she says. While it might be convenient to point the finger at Big Ag or Big Business or Big Food Service Providers, the reality is that regular eaters—people like you and me—account for a significant amount of food waste. We are all to blame or, put more gently, we can all be part of the solution.
A 2016 report by a coalition of nonprofits, businesses and government officials called Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), estimates that food waste costs the U.S. $218 billion a year. More than 40% of that waste, according to ReFED data, occurs at home. Further, homes combined with consumer-facing businesses—that’s supermarkets and grocery stores, restaurants and institutional food service providers— represent 80% of all U.S. food waste. Released in March, the overall goal of the report is to reduce food waste by 20% within 10 years, a goal also shared by the Obama Administration.
With those kind of figures front and center in her mind, Gunders wrote Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, an accessible guide home cooks might actually use chock-full of practical, actionable strategies to minimize food waste. (See sidebars for tips.) Wasting less doesn’t require hard work, fancy gadgets or elaborate spreadsheets. It’s all about small changes, says Gunders, tiny tweaks in people’s daily food rhythms that can prevent food spoiling before it gets eaten.
Let’s face it: Food waste is an unsexy subject. Waste is an icky word. And there’s the guilt factor: Who doesn’t feel bad about tossing past-its-prime produce in the compost? Nobody wants to be scolded for letting perfectly good food spoil. Or reminded that a recent farmers market foraging got a little out of hand. So waste prevention gurus like Gunders have their work cut out for them.
Gunders is a warm, funny, friendly and familiar presence on food waste prevention panels around the nation. Still, her slide show featuring staggering statistics is sobering. Some 40% of all food grown or produced in the U.S. does not get eaten. It’s like buying five bags of groceries, Gunders says, and then leaving behind two of the bags in the grocery store parking lot. The average American throws away around $30 each month in uneaten food; a family of four wastes about $1,500 a year in uneaten food. Cutting food losses by just 15% would redirect enough food to feed more than 25 million hungry Americans every year at a time when one in six here are food insecure. A sizable chunk of that wasted food is never even harvested: Oddly or undersized or unsightly produce is frequently plowed back into the ground because farmers don’t have a viable market for it. Crazy-making stuff.
It’s not just an economic disaster. It’s an environmental one: Add squandered resource costs to the equation and it’s a wonder food waste isn’t a political hot potato. Food production consumes 10% of the U.S. energy budget, 50% of the country’s land and a whopping 80% of all the freshwater used in the U.S. So wasted food wastes these limited resources, too, all that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where organic matter accounts for 16% of U.S. methane emissions. Food waste, then, plays a significant role in the global climate crisis. Case in point: That uneaten hamburger that lands in the trash? The amount of water squandered on that wasted bun and meat is equivalent to a 90-minute shower, according to Gunders. Crazy-making stuff, part two.
At the heart of this saga are two basic realities that stymie change: Food represents a small fraction of the average American’s budget, making the financial cost of wasting food a low priority from a monetary, if not moral, perspective. And inefficiency and excess are built into our food system: The more food consumers waste, the more food industry players can sell. This is a relatively new problem: We waste 50% more food in the U.S. now than we did in the 1970s.
Gunders remains upbeat: She senses a shift. Stakeholders from diverse quarters—federal lawmakers, tech start-ups, social change campaigners, food movement leaders, high-profile chefs—are becoming more vocal about the subject.
“It might be our moment to make real reform,” says Gunders. “We need to seize it.”
MINIMIZING WASTE AWAY FROM HOME
Independent restaurants around the country do their part in the war on food waste. Root-to-stalk cooking and snout-totail butchery? All the cool kids do it and have done so for some time. It’s practically a badge of honor in independent restaurants around the country. Take Steven Satterfield, the chef at Atlanta’s lauded Miller Union and author of the cookbook Root to Leaf. Like all chefs at well-run restaurants, Satterfield keeps tabs on dishes and adjusts portion size, if necessary, when he sees a pattern of leftovers consistently coming back to the kitchen. He also buys seconds from farmers—bumpy, bulbous, dinged, dented, and just plain wacky-looking produce and uses it in menu items where the shape or color of the vegetable isn’t crucial to the finished dish. He’s an advocate, for example, of turning wonky-appearing tomatoes into gazpacho, where original appearance doesn’t impact the deliciousness of the final product.
Satterfield also recommends that fellow chefs purchase wisely, preserve or put up produce for future use and feed staff creatively with leftover or surplus foods that might otherwise go to waste. At his restaurant, which provides family meal twice a day six days a week, his cooks are up to the challenge of creating something both nutritious and delicious from surplus ingredients.
“All chefs are concerned about food waste, it’s something that we track if we’re running a smart business because ultimately it’s our bottom line on profit margin, which is always very tight in restaurants,” he explained on the Chefs Feed “Chef Power Hour” podcast on food waste in August. “It’s about doing the right thing as well … a lot of times you have a relationship with the farmer and you see how much hard work goes into the produce and products that they bring us.”
Case in point: Last fall, Satterfield’s pastry department was generating a lot of apple scraps, which he asked them to save. The scraps were used to make an apple jelly. His cooks also saved chicken livers, which were turned into a mousse. And they collected kale stems, in abundance as well, that were juiced in batches. Next the kitchen crew dipped sliced, day-old baguette in the kale juice to make a kind of French toast, smeared the crisped bread with the liver mousse and topped it with the apple jelly. A new $13 appetizer on the menu was born. All those ingredients, which could have been destined for the compost or garbage, were turned into a tidy profit with a little imagination and inspiration.
Organizations that move a high volume of meals—such as hotels, hospitals and other institutional food settings—look for creative ways to solve or prevent food waste. Hotels donate to local organizations that feed people in need. Uneaten banquet food is redirected to employee meals. Sustainability-oriented hotels also work closely with green-minded meeting planners to get accurate meal counts for attendees and implement waste-prevention strategies such as the deconstructed box lunch, where a guest can choose separate items to grab-and-go, versus an entire box filled with different food items, many of which go to waste.
Food-services providers at hotels, hospitals, college campuses and corporate dining facilities have also turned to the software-based service LeanPath. With this program, kitchen staff measure, record and photograph what they throw away. The system comes with scales, a camera and a digital terminal for entering data about ingredients and quantities. The service can help lower food costs by identifying which foods are over-prepared, overstocked or improperly cut. It can help identify potential solutions too— such as reducing food quantities at specific times of day, rethinking buffet containers or improving prep cooks’ knife skills.
For example, at the MGM Grand Buffet in Las Vegas, which serves hundreds of diners a day, the kitchen crew discovered that cooking- to-order versus batch production, using carving trimmings in stocks and repurposing leftovers reduced its pre-consumer food waste by 80%, according to LeanPath’s website. That amounted to a saving of between $6,000 and $9,000 a month in food costs due to waste prevention measures.
Then there’s the waste-prevention efforts of food service giant Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO). The on-site restaurant company operates in more than 500 cafés in universities, colleges and corporations in 32 states around the country. In 2015, the institutional food service provider launched a program dubbed Imperfectly Delicious Produce, which rescues blemished, misshapen or otherwise visually challenged produce that fails strict retail appearance standards and encourages chefs to include these fruit and vegetables in their menu offerings. The program has salvaged more than a million pounds of fruits and vegetables, according to Claire Cummings, the company’s waste ace, based in Portland, Oregon. BAMCO chefs have found homes for this produce in soups, smoothies and sauces.
“Our chefs have done a great job working with underutilized and underappreciated produce,” says Cummings. “As long as the flavor is still there they will find a way to utilize it. We do outreach with our farmers and our chefs and there’s buy-in at both ends once they understand the whole story.”
In her tenure at BAMCO, Cummings has figured out that most food waste isn’t happening in the kitchen—it’s on the consumer side. To address that, the company has removed trays at its all-you-can-eat facilities, to cut down on plate waste. It offers sample tastes, so guests can try before they buy, and it runs food waste awareness campaigns such as “weigh the waste” events on college campuses.
Food recovery organizations around the nation work with the food service industry to shift surplus food to those in need of a meal. In Denver, the nonprofit We Don’t Waste collects excess food from entertainment venues, sports stadiums, hotels and restaurants and redirects it to under-served city residents. In Seattle, the food bank Food Lifeline partnered with the Washington Department of Health to create Seattle’s Table, a similar kind of food recovery program. Community-based programs like these have sprouted around the country as the ranks of the hungry—and awareness around food waste—continue to grow.
Tech has come to the food waste table, too. Social impact startups such as Zero Percent in Chicago use technology to connect restaurants and grocery stores with excess food to a neighborhood charity that feeds people in need. Bethesda, Maryland’s, Food Cowboy app-based platform matches farmers and truckers who typically handle excess produce with soup kitchens, homeless shelters and church food pantries. In New England, the Spoiler Alert app enables large farms and food distributers to trigger real-time notifications to potential nonprofit recipients. Food donations to charitable groups are eligible for income tax deductions, so businesses have financial incentives to find a home for food waste.
It seems everywhere you look, efforts to redirect surplus edibles for the greater good are under way. There’s Doug Rauch’s Daily Table in Dorchester, Massachusetts, designed to get nutritious meals to the working poor using excess, gleaned food destined for the landfill. Rauch worked in the grocery business for 30 years and has seen firsthand how much food is discarded by consumers who seek perfection at the market. The ex-Trader Joe’s executive is on a mission to educate the public that much so-called expired food is still worth eating, as well.
Robert Eggers, who founded D.C. Central Kitchen more than two decades ago now, is doing something similar with his recently launched L.A. Kitchen. The former nightclub manager wants to reduce hunger and food insecurity using repurposed food prepared by youth exiting foster care and by formerly incarcerated adults trained as restaurant workers. His second anti-hunger undertaking is aimed at feeding aging Baby Boomers through recovering and redistributing excess food to senior-serving nonprofits. America is aging rapidly and a significant population of older people live in poverty.
“It’s criminally stupid to throw away food,” says Eggers in frequent public appearances. Few would disagree. He believes that everything— misshapen produce, at-risk adults, aging Angelenos— deserves a second chance. Few would argue with that sentiment either.
BEST USED: FOOD SAVING KITCHEN TIPS FOR HOME COOKS
Give eggs a chance. They can last three to five weeks in the refrigerator regardless of the expiration date. Try this quick test: Place an egg in a cup of water. If it sinks, it’s good to eat. If it floats it belongs in the compost bin.
Store fresh basil like fresh-cut flowers. Keep at room temperature with stems in a glass of water; refresh daily.
Keep whole tomatoes on the kitchen counter. They do best away from direct sunlight, stem end up. This retains the fruits taste and texture, too.
Sub in sour pasteurized milk. It can fill in for buttermilk in pancakes, waffles or baked goods that call for curdled dairy.
Soak wilted greens. Put kale, chard, collards, lettuce, spinach and arugula in a bowl of ice water for five to 10 minutes to restore crispness.
Separate berries. They do best when stored in a single layer in an aerated container or on a cloth-lined tray covered loosely with another cloth.
Sauté lettuce or mixed salad greens before they go off. Yes, cooked salad greens can be delicious in butter or olive oil with salt, garlic and red pepper flakes.
Add peeled broccoli stalks to salads. They provide extra crunch and sweetness.
Use slightly overripe avocados. They add creaminess in smoothies and mousses.
Infuse vodka. Think softening fruit, citrus peels, fresh herbs, ginger, cucumbers or chile peppers; mix in cocktail of your choice. Cheers.
Source: Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook (Chronicle Books, 2015)
FOOD WASTE RESOURCES
Just Eat It an entertaining account of wasted food from Canadian filmmakers. foodwastemovie.com
Root to Stalk Cooking: The Art of Eating the Whole Vegetable by Tara Duggan. Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons by Steven Satterfield.
Follow food waste news and find prevention tips via waste watcher Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council. nrdc.org/issues/food-waste
Imperfect produce for 30% to 50% off retail. Conventional or organic boxes in sizes small, medium, large and extra large. imperfectproduce.com. On the East Coast: hungryharvest.net
Find a home for excess edibles through a community food pantry, church or other group.
Pick up or deliver food for food-waste prevention organizations in your area.
FOOD WASTE PREVENTION TIPS
Plan ahead. Use a grocery list to limit impulse buys. Buy less, and buy more often. Factor in no-cook nights. Donate excess to a local food pantry or food recovery service before it goes bad.
Store food properly. Potatoes, onions and garlic belong in a cool, dry spot, not the refrigerator. Separate fruit and vegetables in the fridge. Dark leafy greens last longer wrapped in a paper towel or cloth.
Eat it all. Carrot tops work in salsa verde. Grapefruit peels can be candied. Potato skins make crisps. Veggie scraps add flavor to stock, as do animal carcasses. Stale bread transforms into breadcrumbs. Parmesan rinds add fatty flavor to a pot of beans.
Understand expiration dates. “Sell by,” “use by,” “enjoy by” and “best before” dates generally indicate when a manufacturer feels a food item is at its peak quality. These labels, largely unregulated, are typically not an indication of food safety. Trust your eyes and nose when it comes to what is still good to eat. Exceptions to this rule include deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses, smoked seafood: In these cases, do follow the “use by” dates.
Take a fridge inventory. Replenish perishables as you use them up, move older produce to the front of the fridge or top of the crisper when stocking new groceries so you’ll see them before they go bad.
Keep a kitchen waste diary. Use your phone to track food for a couple of weeks or fill out a wasted food form, then adjust shopping lists and cooking habits as needed.
Learn to love leftovers. Pasta, rice, beans, a cooked chicken, roasted veggies can all be reimagined into new dishes. Make it a point to take leftovers for lunch. Designate a night for foraging in the fridge.
Consider portion size. Keep careful tabs on how much you cook. Watch for plate waste at home and when eating out.
Befriend the freezer. Store extra pasta sauce, a half loaf of bread and leftovers in the freezer for future use. Label and date containers of sauces, soups and stews—which all freeze well—to jog your memory down the track.
Grow your own herbs. It’s easy to do, requires little space, and herbs are rarely sold in portion sizes designed for home cooks. Failing that: Turn excess herbs into pesto, chimichurri sauce or herbed butter before they turn to mush in the bottom of the crisper bin.
Source: Dana Gunders