What is (Food) Waste?

By: Karen Diep, Culinologist Contributor 

Food waste is something most of us don’t think about. It’s a common mistake we all make. It’s difficult to bring ourselves to worry about “trash.” However, when issues like a 9 billion population by 2050 looms over your head, you really have to wonder: how are we going to feed all these people? To fully understand the core issue of food waste, we need to understand what food waste actually is.

Food waste is defined as food that is discarded, lost, or uneaten. Does this make the food inedible? Some people who argue that. Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food are accumulated worldwide (as of 2011). That’s one third of the food produced each year. The losses happen at all points of the food chain. From the farmer to the manufacturer to the distributors and to the chef–all the way down to our plates. People will discard approximately 95-115 kg of food each year (209-253 lbs) in North America and Europe, and approximately 6-11 kg/year (13-24 lbs) in Africa and Asia.

Today, a significant majority of chefs and commercial food companies are working to counteract the effects of food waste by reusing their food scraps. The first issue we face is our perspective when it comes to food waste. It’s not trash. A majority of food waste is still functional and can be used again for consumption without any danger to our health. There a number of ways we can reduce and/or reuse food scraps, waste, and other unwanted pieces of food. We should all be working to find solutions to reducing/reusing food waste. Here are a few methods to spark your creativity:


From the Chef: WastED

Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm recognized the issues and took it to the kitchen by creating a three week pop-up in March of 2015 and aptly named it WastED. He and his talented team of chefs created a menu made of the typical kinds food trash we all throw away in the kitchen. Imagine strawberry tops, kale stems, fish heads, and other not-so-pretty, yet edible, things. He also featured a guest chef line up which included Mario Batali, Enrique Olvera, Daniel Humm and Grant Achatz.

The food? Spectacular. The experience? Memorable to say the least. The aim was to change our mindset and enforce that food is food no matter how it’s presented. Barber recognized the abundance of food at all ends in the American food system and the amount of loss occurring at each end. His goal was to “preserve that abundance” and “[take] a hard look at what we’re using and not using and figuring out ways to make it desirable.”

0l_EPtuCFrom the Bartender: Un-usable Re-usuable
Although most probably associate food waste with what’s going on inside the kitchen, plenty of half-decent and drinkable wines go down the drain behind the bar everyday and we don’t even know it. As many know, wine begins to oxidize as soon as it is opened. The flavors change rapidly and the once pristine freshness of the bottle will quickly lose its flavor. However, does this mean you can’t drink it? Of course not. Any broke college student will kindly take your half-empty bottle of merlot no questions asked. Bartender Nathan O’Neill has quickly recognized this and started a project to look at possible methods of reusing old wines and alcohols for drinks thus extending the life of the bottle. By letting the wine sit it will continue to oxidize and reach different stages of flavors that range from sour to even more sour. By using trial and error, O’Neill began to take notes of different oxidizing stages of the wines, each with its own unique character and body. He used an aeration technique to aerate the wines which introduces a whole new body of flavor into the drink. Using the oxidized wine in drinks is just one way to extend your bottle even further. Aerating it will give you a whole new cup of wine and whatever you do from there is up to you. O’Neill’s preferred drink: a crafted “Londinium sour” uses lemon, a bourbon whiskey and a 2012 Tomas Cusine Vilosell oxidized 5 days at room temp.

Now, O’Neill isn’t the only one keeping the trash out of the trashcan. At Chef Barber’s WastED event, he also invited guest mixologists to craft upcycled drinks to pair with the trash on trash menu. One drink on the menu included a Vodka Espresso with LiV Vodka, espresso, and a spent coffee grounds cordial from london bartender Dick Bradsell. So now you have no excuse but to start drinking your trash as well.

static1.squarespace.comFrom the Lab:
Nordic Food Lab
The people at Nordic Food Lab have long worked on inventive ways to make and serve foods. From insects to pickled everything, their work moves towards using local, natural food products that are often not deemed appropriate for eating. The Nordic Food Lab looks to use what we already have instead of what we don’t have. The Lab always has multiple projects going on and publishes them regularly on their blog.


From the Scientist: Arielle Johnson
In the recent years, chefs have looked to scientists for food inspiration (hey, that’s Culinology!) and answers to their kitchen dilemmas. And now, those scientists directing their research to restaurants to find creative solutions to our very technical problems. Arielle Johnson is a PhD graduate of UC Davis and came to Noma to become the head of their test kitchen as the MAD/Noma research manager. Her research specialty lies in fermentation and is one of the ways she seeks to eradicate food waste by recycling it back onto our plates. A few papers have been published by the science community which utilizes fermentation to turn waste into a usable substance but the research is still minimal. Much of the research has been applied at the industrial level but is still very much in need of a closer look in the kitchens of the everyday chef.

Her guide to undo waste is just one part of her mission to remove food waste altogether. While chefs strive to find creative approaches to issues as enormous as these, scientists think more practically and want to utilize their expertise to remove food waste from the trash and guide it back to our plates. As Johnson says, “[we need] to put into practice the theory of using flavor as a guide to thinking about and solving these problems.” Food waste will not disappear in a day but with some logical thought and scientific know how we are sure to advance our efforts.


From the Co-op: Isabel Soares and Ugly Fruit
Soares created a co-op network of individuals to reverse the core issue of food waste: our attitude. There is a standard stock photo of fruit and vegetables that all supermarkets and grocery stores seek to meet. We want fruit that is perfectly smooth, colored, and shaped in every way. But nature does not function in this way. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of unwanted–but perfectly edible food–is thrown away due to aesthetic imperfections. Soares is targeting this mental obstacle by changing the ways we think of food. Through her Fruta Feia Co-Op (which literally translates to ugly fruit), she hopes to reshape our thinking that food must be lovely to be edible. From the individual that purchases all the way up to the government that regulates.


A woman looks at a food department in a super market in Nice

From the Lawmakers: France bans Food Waste at the Supermarkets
As you now know, food waste happens at every level. From farm to fork, we are all at fault when it comes to wasting food. However, when things cannot be accomplished by the average citizen, the government can step in and create change. The French government has recognized this and in February, they passed a law banning supermarkets from wasting food.

The law places the responsibility in the hands of supermarkets and requires markets larger than 400 sq meters to donate unsold food to food banks. The law also prevents markets from contaminating food with chemicals to prevent dumpster divers from attempting to consume the discarded products.  Failure to uphold the new laws result in fines up to 75,000 euros. Europe is one of the leading food wasters in the world and while a number of European countries have recognized this,  few have taken measures to do find solutions.

On the same note, The European Union (EU) has recognized their massive issue and have started their own initiative to reduce food waste across their countries. The French government is urging the EU to use their measures as guidance to tackle this costly matter.

This bill not only aids those at the market, but also those that cannot afford the market. Food banks will now have to expand and increase their storage capacity to accomidate the copious amounts of food donations that will be coming in from the markets as a result of the new regulations. This radical bill has far reaching, positive consequences that are sure to encourage other governments to follow suit.


From the United Nations: SAVE FOOD
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a branch of the United Nations that is focused on the agricultural development and food supply of countries around the world. Their initiative, SAVE FOOD, began in 2011 in partnership with Messe Dusseldorf as a mission to reduce food waste worldwide. Their plan is built on four pillars: awareness raising; collaboration; policy, strategy and programme development; and to support investment in programs and projects.

Restaurants with Zero Waste Programs

Silo from Brighton, England
Read this article featuring their zero waste program

AMASS from Copenhagen, Denmark
Read their blog about their investigations in reusing different types of waste

Sandwich Me In from Chicago, USA
Read this and watch this about how they how this sandwich joint keeps its trash cans forever half empty.

Read more about Food Waste with these articles:

“How ‘Ugly’ Fruits and Vegetables can Help Solve World Hunger” by Elizabeth Royte published March 2016


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