If you were scolded as a kid to finish all the food on your plate, you might not have much of an appetite to learn about reducing food waste. But this topic is critical to our daily quality of life and to long-term environmental sustainability.
Regionally and locally, those numbers still apply. And when the amount of food North Carolinians waste at home exceeds the amount from restaurants, it’s time for experts and ordinary people to devise creative solutions to some enormous food-waste problems.
First, let’s look at farms. Market demand determines to a large degree what farmers can sell profitably. The USDA sets standards for food products with a pictorial guide for reference. While adherence is voluntary, this regimentation contributes to our expectation of uniformity in what we purchase. So a farmer with a crop of too-small tomatoes can’t sell his harvest to a chain store.
Elsewhere in the food business world, restaurants expect to have a certain amount of unsold food to throw away. Grocery stores anticipate spoilage and discard expired products. In many homes, parents have kids who will refuse to eat a banana if it has a single bruise on it.
Here’s where “ugly” food enters the picture. Entrepreneurial companies such as Hungry Harvest and Misfits Market have seen the value of marketing less-than-perfect farm crops and are now selling delivery subscriptions of seasonal produce. Both of these serve North Carolina; others operate regionally around the U.S. This business model is coming under scrutiny for bypassing local growers and incurring a heavy carbon footprint for transit costs, so there’s room for refining it.
For restaurants, there’s no single solution to reducing waste but a combination of smarter ordering, diverting unsold food to charitable organizations, and composting can save a measurable amount of money. Restaurant Hospitality, a trade publication, reports that every dollar invested in reducing food waste yields about $8 in saved costs. Culinary creativity always helps. Charlotte chef Marc Jacksina is among those who pickle and puree those unpretty vegetable stems and stalks to reduce the bulk of what lands in the compost bin.
And speaking of compost: Jesse Leadbetter, a self-described “local food systems innovator” in Charlotte, stresses the importance of making solutions scalable. His wholesale company, Freshlist, works with growers in both Carolinas, and he lauds Crown Town Compost for “moving the needle” to get area restaurants onboard with composting. Cities can expect a growing trend toward required recycling, such as the program in Austin, where restaurants must compost their leftover food that isn’t suitable for donation or face fines.
A home kitchen isn’t too small to matter, and Jill Lightner tackles the problem head-on. She wrote an entire book about appreciating unlovable foods. Scraps, Peels, and Stems: Recipes and Tips for Rethinking Food Waste at Home is full of tips on shopping and cooking smarter. But I wondered if people were genuinely keen to embrace potato skins and parmesan rinds, so I tracked her down. As it turns out, we’re pretty eager to do better but we focus on the wrong ways to get there.
“I found confusion between kitchen clutter, and cooking hacks and actual food waste reduction,” she said. “Spice drawers are a good example: They can get cluttered, but that clutter is deceptive. Stale spices waste money, but nobody is tossing 20 pounds of stale cinnamon in a year. Milk, meat and seafood, grain products, and produce are the issue, not the pinches of powder we add for flavor.
“Same idea when people think they waste less food by greasing pans with butter wrappers. That’s a handy hack for sure, but you're not going to greatly reduce your food waste there. Making sure to label, date, freeze and eat every bit of what you're baking in those wrapper-greased pans will get much better results!”
Angel Lunn, a chef who farms five acres at Zane Acres Farm in Monroe, encourages consumers to adopt the shopping habits of European and Asian cultures where “it’s normal to go every day.” Using her own backyard chickens to help reduce food waste, she wryly reminds customers to embrace imperfection: “It isn’t ‘heirloom’ if it doesn’t have cracks or discoloration.”
The Food Recovery Hierarchy, developed by the EPA, is a handy graphic that depicts and ranks methods of addressing food waste. The best method is source reduction; the worst is the landfill. It’s startling in its simplicity.
Some of the most impactful work is being done by gleaners who gather unsold crops from farms and food rescuers who collect expired and other unsellable food from retailers. Jean Blish Siers, a program coordinator for the Society of St. Andrew, is always recruiting volunteers to do the hands-on work. Programs such as these that partner with charitable organizations and direct donation projects not only reduce food waste, they help alleviate hunger.
If you need more inspiration, check out the film Wasted: A Story of Food Waste. Internationally renowned chefs including Massimo Bottura and Anthony Bourdain lend their culinary chops to creating remarkable food – and awareness.
When you think about it, those bug-bitten apples and too-tiny peaches aren’t really so ugly after all. And learning to appreciate them? That’s a truly beautiful thing.
Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.