Celebrity chefs and food manufacturers are setting an example for us all in reimagining and repurposing discarded food
When I first began to cook, learning to discriminate between what I could and could not eat was essential to understanding my way around the kitchen. Dark green tops of leeks, for instance, are considered waste. Radish roots are for salad, but the greens are usually discarded. As a cook and an avid eater, I generated a significant amount of unused vegetable matter. Eventually, I began composting those food scraps. But what if those radish greens and leek tops had value? What if they were not considered waste?
Unused food product has become a major environmental issue. One third of the food produced globally goes to waste every year, along with all the resources spent on its production, even as 1 billion people around the world starve. Meanwhile, the methane produced by food discarded in landfills contributes 8% of greenhouse gases that are rapidly warming our planet to dangerous levels.
When restaurants, food manufacturers, and caterers break down raw ingredients, peel vegetables, and trim cuts of meat, they generate enormous quantities of scraps. Supermarkets, meanwhile, throw away produce just slightly past its aesthetic prime, sending wilted lettuce and imperfect-looking bananas to the landfills.
In 2016 ReFED, a U.S. non-profit consortium that is committed to reducing food waste, produced a report called “Rethinking Food Waste through Economics and Data: A Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste.” Among their findings: in the United States, $218 billion is spent each year just to grow, process, distribute, and then dispose of food that nobody ate. Landfills receive 52.4 million tons of food in a year. Restaurants in the United States alone produce 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, worth about $25 billion. The quantity of waste is mind-bending.
Problem of perception
Now some celebrity chefs are setting an example for us all in reducing waste with creative methods. Massimo Bottura, owner of the Michelin three-star Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is a famous advocate of using discarded food scraps rather than throwing them away. In his cookbook Bread Is Gold, published in 2015, he provides recipes that reclaim unused food items, including one for chutney made from banana peels.
Plenty of foods considered inedible in some cultures are part of the diet in others. Koreans, for example, make a tea from corn silk. Many chefs today appreciate the woody flavor corn husks add to broths. The green tops of leeks can be used for soups, and radish greens add a peppery bite to salads.
“Waste,” says Chef Douglas McMaster of Silo, the U.K.’s first zero waste restaurant, “is a failure of the imagination.”
Waste is also a byproduct of affluence and privilege. I often think about the disconnect between my grandmother’s kitchen sense and my mother’s: My grandmother survived the Second World War with her family in Siberia, where food was scarce and hunger widespread. When she speaks of that period, she often recounts digging in the ground to find discarded potato peels, which for her were a nutrient-rich food. When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey during the 1980s and ‘90s, we never thought twice about discarding our potato peels — or most food, for that matter.
Converting organic waste into soil
Composting — the process of converting organic materials into densely nutrient-rich topsoil — is a commonly practiced solution to food waste. San Francisco is one of several American cities that has established a municipal program to collect and treat organic waste. New York City currently requires commercial kitchens to dispose of organic matter in separate bins.
Huge digesters, essentially in-house machine-operated composters that convert food scraps into soil using special enzymes, help offset the volume of waste generated by large food establishments that would otherwise be hauled away and processed off premises.
To be sure, alleviating the burden on landfills and turning organic matter into soil is an incredibly important solution for cities and companies to pursue. But, as many food waste entrepreneurs are realizing, a better solution is to limit the creation of waste in the first place and compost only what is truly inedible. In the case of commercial composting, hauling tons of food scraps in tractor-trailers across state lines to commercial facilities (sometimes great distances) and operating fossil fuel-powered machinery to process waste expends energy and places carbon in the atmosphere. Profit is another incentive: according to a recent report, restaurants save seven dollars for every dollar invested in methods to limit food waste.
Turning liabilities into assets
By rethinking how we cook and what we consume, we can create innovative solutions that bring huge ecological and social benefits. Some new food companies have already implemented systems to prevent nutrient-rich foods from being thrown away.
Take, for example, the case of acidic whey. A byproduct of Greek-style strained yogurt, it cannot legally be disposed of by throwing it down the drain or into natural waterways, because it sucks up the oxygen in water and destroys aquatic life. The whey is, however, tangy, probiotic, and nutrient-rich. And so large yogurt-manufacturing companies like Chobani pay to have it transported in bulk to farmers, who feed it to their animals.
Homa Dashtaki, the owner of White Moustache, a Brooklyn-based artisanal yogurt brand, calls whey, which is full of vitamins but contains no calories or fat, a “golden elixir.” She has begun supplying restaurants with whey for their own experiments, like specialty cocktails, but still has a significant quantity left over. Rather than pay someone to haul it away, Dashtaki created innovative products, like a probiotic tonic made of flavored whey, and a probiotic popsicle infused with fresh fruit.
On a much larger scale, the New York-based specialty foods distributor Baldor has pursued a zero waste strategy by creating an entirely new business ecosystem. Thomas McQuillan, the company’s vice president of strategy, culture, and sustainability, understands the value of carrot peels. “Food product has to be consumed by human beings, it has to be consumed by animals or it has to be turned into energy or compost,” he said recently, while giving a lecture at New York’s Food Waste Fair. He added that food “should never go to landfills.”
In 2016, Baldor set into a motion a program called SparCs (scraps spelled backwards) to eliminate food waste from their fresh produce processing facility. It takes the150,000 pounds of fruit and vegetable by-product it generates each week and turns it over to animal or human consumption. Baldor partners with chefs to create baked goods, broths, juices, and sauces with these scraps, and with farmers who use them for feed. Since its inception, the program has diverted 6,000 tons of produce from landfill. Baldor has thus not only generated new revenue streams, but also reduced its waste haul by 73%. It is now a zero organic waste company.
A new consciousness
While not every food service company can afford to rethink its business model, companies with the resources to do so must take the lead. This is the only way to create a cultural shift that will set the standard for small food businesses.
When companies like Baldor and White Moustache notice inefficiencies in the existing structures and begin looking for creative and environmentally sustainable solutions, they change how we as a culture understand the value of food. By strategically intervening and reframing the idea of waste while reasserting the value of the whole vegetable, for instance, we not only limit food waste, but we also ease the burden on our environment and maximize the nutrition of food to reach more people.
These ideas and policies can affect how we all cook and eat in our own homes, so that we create a more sustainable and innovative food culture. We already have the capacity to feed the entire world. Reframing waste as food is the first step toward ensuring a more just and sustainable food system.