Recently, the Food Network, showed The Big Waste, a documentary on wasted food in the United States. A couple of statistics cited in the show caught my attention. Annually, roughly 40% of the food produced in the United States is not eaten. That comes to about 200 lbs. of wasted food per person, or enough to fill a football field every day. A recent study published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggests that one-third of the world’s food produced for humans to consume (1.3 billion tons a year) is either lost or wasted. These are staggering numbers, especially considering the magnitude of hunger in the world. The report offers many preventative measures.
The Big Waste documentary isn’t all that unique. It is reminiscent of a 2010 documentary shown on BBC, the Great British Waste Menu. The Food Network chose to introduce a male/female competitive element into their program by pitting celebrity chefs Anne Burrell and Alex Guarnaschelli against Bobby Flay and Michael Simon. Entertainment value generates the impact of The Big Waste, as it addresses a serious issue. Big personalities attract and sustain attention. The show stimulated significant responses from viewers through Facebook and Twitter.
The Big Waste suggests that we are part of the problem, and we can be part of the solution. The problem of lost and wasted food is well-known among academics and activists, but now the issue is working its way into popular culture.
Two chef teams demonstrated through a competition to one hundred restaurateurs, foodies, taste makers and food critics that outstanding meals can be created from what is destined for the trash or compost pile. By watching the chefs source the lost and wasted food that they need to prepare their dishes, the viewers are exposed to backstage areas of the food chain. Through the chefs’ quests, viewers learn how we can become part of the solution by changing our food sourcing practices, and are encouraged to explore foods we may have avoided, such as offal. Competition rules called for both teams to prepare main courses. Flay and Simon were asked to prepare appetizers, and Burrell and Gurnaschelli were asked to create desserts.
Flay and Simon deep-fried squash blossoms stuffed with a ricotta cheese filling, which was coupled with three sauces and a basil pesto which used shortbread for texture, and corn. Many of these were sourced at a food market. Consumers weren’t buying the squash blossoms, the ricotta was a day beyond the sell date, but their quality was excellent and was safe to use. The shortbread also was being discarded because of the sell date on the package. The chefs also selected fresh peas, radishes, carrots, onions, artichokes and thyme which had slight imperfections, and were being discarded. The corn came from a farm. It was knocked down by a storm, and potential buyers worried that there might be something wrong with it. There wasn’t. The basil came from an organic farm, and it had gone to seed. Some of its flavor potential had been lost, and it was heading for the compost pile. Other fruits and vegetables were destined for the compost pile because they were bruised, frequently by customers looking for the perfect item. On pick your own farms, shoppers frequently picked items and discarded them for what they perceived to be better items. Some pick your own farms lose 50% of what they produce. Largely customer demands for perfection and wariness of sell by dates condemned these foods for loss or waste. The narration noted that 27 million tons of edible food is lost every year in supermarkets, restaurants, convenience stores and other outlets for these types of reasons.
Flay’s and Simon’s entrée offerings featured offal: beef tongue, hearts and discarded ends of short ribs served with carrots, parsnips, cabbage and pesto. As with the other items, all were destined for the trash or composite pile. The offal and other body parts of butchered animals are frequently discarded because of lack of consumer interest in them, even though restaurant quality offerings can be made from them.
Burrell and Gurnaschelli served fried oysters, stuffed chicken legs, fish ravioli, a tomato base soup flavored with fish and seafood for their entrees. A trio of desserts was created: roasted peaches, a sweet corn flan, and a peach tartine accompanied by frozen afogatto made with espresso and cocoa powder. The fish and seafood came from a fish market. Oysters had been returned by a good customer who ordered too many. It couldn’t be resold. Red snapper was returned because a party had been canceled. Halibut was bruised. All were safe to eat and could be used. The flour, espresso and coca came from a well-known bakery that was reluctant to mix left over amounts. The peaches had slight imperfections on the skin, and many had been discarded on the ground by picky consumers. The same could be said about the tomatoes. The poultry was destined to be discarded because wings or skin had been broken while being plucked and cleansed. Suspicious customers didn’t want to buy whole chickens with imperfections. Eggs were discarded, but then reclaimed, because of size or color variations. All were perfectly good, but were not marketable. At a supermarket, Burrell with the help of a “freegan,” went “urban foraging” or “dumpster diving.” They found perfectly good tomatoes, bread, Swiss chard, bagels, avocados, and a variety of prepackaged salads.
The “freegan” who helped Burrell did “dumpster diving” by choice, not necessity. The term “freegan” is compounded from “free” and “vegan,” although not all freegans are vegans. Elements of the movement have been around for decades. However, its current form is traceable to the 1990s. As a social movement, freegans believe that we live “in a complex, industrial, mass-production economy driven by profit, abuses of human, animals, and the earth abound at all levels of production (from acquisition to raw materials to production to transportation) and in just about every product we buy.”
Those who aren’t ready to become “freegans” can still make a difference. We can be a part of the solution to lost and wasted food. We can make a difference: rethinking how we handle food, what we choose to eat, how we prepare it, where we get it and how we choose to get it.
And by the way, Flay and Simon won the competition.