Let’s Talk About Waste: Supply and Demand

Forty percent of edible food in the United States goes to waste. This includes over fifty percent of all available produce. Even as someone who works in the culinary industry, this seems like a LOT of waste. Especially when we consider the amount of people who don’t have enough to eat. But what is the root of this problem? Unfortunately, consumers are to blame.

We only want the most perfect fruit and vegetables from the market. When purchasing from farmers, the buyer has a standard level of quality and expects a certain amount of it. To ensure they can fulfill their contract, the farmer over plants the crop. When the time comes to harvest, the farmer may or may not be able to afford to cover all of the fields after the major buyer’s purchase is satisfied, so the surplus may not get harvested at all. If they can afford the labor, they will certainly make efforts to sell their remaining stock, but unfortunately, much of the remaining produce is turned over.

At the grocery, naturally, we pick the prettiest peach. And what happens to produce that is approaching its expiration point? It is still edible. But if no one buys it, these fruits and veggies are considered loss and discarded. The market wants to keep everything fresh. Understandably, there is a mission to avoid fruit flies and other pests, but is there really a risk of that from giving a few more days?

France is actually passing a law making it a crime for grocery stores to dispose of edible food. They are bringing hefty fines to store managers who disobey and are encouraging markets to cooperate with charities. This is a huge step forward. In the United States, there are tax deductions for donations to shelters, but it seems that many stores and restaurants don’t see the effort to be worth the time. It’s quite sad. We should take more responsibility for our communities if we have the opportunity. It seems something is amiss when we are perfectly able to help others with very little effort and choose not to. Is the corporate structure so rigid that is does not allow time for a few employees to take a few minutes to be caring members of the community while on the company clock?

I was recently reading an article on NPR about a couple who lived for six months on food that was considered inedible. They made a film about it: Just Eat It. This food that they primarily found in dumpsters was essentially never past the sell-by date, but only close to it. On that note, a sell-by date is not an expiration date. The only truly serious date on packaging that is strictly regulated is baby formula. Everything else is variable and not uniform across the board from company to company, state to state. We need to pay more mind to common sense and discretion, rather than arbitrary and subjective systems. A mushy spot on an apple doesn’t mean the whole piece of fruit deserves to be chucked.

All of this is to say that our country wastes an unnecessary amount of sustenance. There is a huge obesity crisis because of how accessible processed convenience food is. I understand that giving away produce may seem, on paper, like it is reducing the value of a farmer’s hard work. Someone does have to pay for it. And it wouldn’t be fair to expect a grocery store to pay for an entire shipment of nearly rotten product. How can we arrive at an amicable medium? We certainly have the means to feed our population healthy food, but distribution seems to be posing a problem.


Let’s Talk About Waste: Restaurants

Everyone hates to throw away food in their fridge. Wilted, nearly slimy lettuce or leftovers that have been in that Tupperware container on the back of bottom shelf longer than you would like to admit. It’s stressful to watch hard earned dollars go down the drain.

Waste in the food industry is rampant. You’d be hard pressed to find an eatery where the loss level is next to zero, even considering excess products as donations to shelters. And if you do find one, I’d like to meet the person who runs that kitchen! Food cost and waste reduction are top focus areas for staff. But do you know how much product also gets chucked in grocery stores because the shelf life is about to be fading? And what about products that the farmers deem unsellable because of minor cosmetic defects? A huge amount (approximately 40%) of produce is declared waste because it doesn’t match the average consumer’s ideal or it isn’t even harvested to begin with. This does not mean it is not edible. But as a general rule, when you shop at the market, you are basically conditioned to look for the prettiest peach, are you not? I’m going to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: No establishment in the restaurant industry would allow a less than rotting piece of produce go to waste without a fight. Find a use for everything. If there is in fact, say a crate of peaches that has the potential to spoil in the immediate future, a special will be made revolving around peaches, to be sure. This doesn’t mean that featured dishes are made from rotten ingredients. This means the chef is being conscientious about budget and ethics.

Many forward thinking chefs are doing what they can to maintain sustainable kitchens. The most basic way they do this is by sourcing locally grown organic ingredients. Some go as far as maintaining their own gardens, even if it is only a small rooftop planting of herbs. This endeavor is truly phenomenal because it also utilizes compost produced by the kitchen. The impact of ventures like these operations has the potential to conjure a staggering change. Buying from the regional community not only supports the local economy, it reduces unnecessary packaging (boxes, tape, styrofoam, plastic liners, et cetera) and shipping fuels, emissions, and time. And if you don’t care about any of those things, consider the money they cost. Who doesn’t want to save a dollar these days?

Other popular advances towards green business in the food industry include in-house water filtration for both still and sparkling waters. Even for a 100 seat venue, this is a vast amount of potential glass and plastic waste reduction. Yes, recycling is great, but eliminating the need for it is better. Solar panels are increasingly popular as well because they eventually offset many operating costs from lighting to heating and air conditioning -people going in and out all day makes temperature control very inefficient. Not to mention behind the scenes energy required for refrigeration, cooking, and hot water.

Restaurants may not market themselves specifically as green kitchens, but if you keep an eye on the industry in your area, you can discern small details about the level of dedication to sustainable practice held by the establishment. For instance, a fine dining restaurant foregoing tablecloths is likely more eco friendly than one which uses linens that require a bleach and starch to appear upscale. There is a lot of work that goes under the radar. You may or may not be able to tell if furniture was locally produced or has been refurbished versus mass fabrication. Likewise, it is sometimes not possible to tell if dishes and glassware have been sourced from local artisans. Ocassionally, management personnel even go so far as to aim to hire people who live in the neighborhood to strive towards lower levels of congestion, fuel usage, and transit time. These are things that are also valuable quality of life perks for staff.

So, when you enjoy a meal at a business like this, you are not only consuming great food, you are supporting a certain kind of standard for the future. You can leave with a full stomach and a full heart. If that isn’t a great dining experience, I don’t know what is.