June 8, 2016

Here’s how to combat food waste in your own kitchen

Because America throws away 40 percent of the food it produces

Chef Ren Nisenbaum, right, from the Spanish restaurant Jaleo, prepares a vegetable paella to bring awareness to food waste at a recent event in Washington, D.C. Photo by Margaret Myers

WASHINGTON — It’s lunchtime in D.C. Hungry government and private sector workers fill the courtyard of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, nestled between the National Mall and the White House. On this balmy May afternoon, they’re in for a treat—celebrity chef and D.C. local José Andrés and a team from his Spanish flagship restaurant Jaleo have prepared enough vegetable paella to feed thousands.

The festive dish wasn’t prepared as a celebration but rather as a reminder of a startling statistic—that America throws out nearly 40 percent of the food it produces. At the event that organizers called Feeding the 5,000, chefs like José Andrés and Spike Mendelsohn, as well as organizations like D.C. Central Kitchen and Feedback, joined forces to end food waste through education and action. The event made one thing clear: Why throw away perfectly delicious food?

According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 133 billion pounds of food from grocery stores, restaurants, and homes go uneaten. The chefs from Jaleo filled two oversized paella pans with vegetables, sourced from farms and wholesale markets, that otherwise would have been thrown away because customers prefer perfect-looking produce.

"A tomato doesn’t have to look perfect to be tasty. And we can tell our local farmer we don’t care how her carrots look, we love them all the same." — Chef José Andrés

"Don't hate me because I'm ugly." Photo by Margaret Myers

Andrés has been vocal about combatting food waste since he came to Washington as a young chef in the early 1990s. “Food waste is wrong. It affects everyone. It wastes the labor of the field workers who throw fruits on the ground because our wholesalers say they are too small. It affects supermarkets, restaurants, and consumers, because we all pay a premium for perfect-looking vegetables,” he wrote in an email to The Renewal Project. “Chefs can help by setting an example. We can explain to our guests that a tomato doesn’t have to look perfect to be tasty. And we can tell our local farmer we don’t care how her carrots look, we love them all the same.”

But what about in our own kitchens?

We spoke with Niki Charalampopoulou, managing director of the Feeding the 5,000’s organizer Feedback, as well as Andrés and Mike Curtin, CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization dedicated to “reducing hunger with recycled food.”

Below, they give three things you can do to combat food waste where you live:

1. Demand ugly fruit and vegetables!

Charalampopoulou said the easiest thing to do is use your voice. “Every visit to the supermarket, every visit to the food store, is a message that we send to the businesses that serve us our food. And by asking our retailer, or our local grocery, to stock more wonky fruit and veg … consumers [are saying] they’re actually ready to buy vegetables that are misshapen.”

Based in London, Feedback works with local organizations around the world to host events like the one in D.C., which also featured U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “We partner with local organizations that offer the tasty solutions to food waste,” Charalampopoulou said. Check out more events on Feedback’s website.

2. Volunteer

“Regardless of where you are, there is an organization that is doing some version of what we’re doing,” said D.C. Central Kitchen’s Curtin. “There are church groups. There are food pantries. There’s more out there than people are aware of. Find out what else is going on in the community and how you can be a part of that in a meaningful way.”

You can even be proactive by identifying the needs and implementing solutions yourself. Start by talking to vendors at your local farmers’ market. They may have “ugly” produce in need of a home, like an area soup kitchen or church.

“Farmers don’t want to see their produce go to waste. If someone can facilitate that transfer of goods, that’s the biggest thing we face—a distribution problem, not a food problem.”

3. Get cookin’!

The most mouthwatering tip: make a stock.

“You go to the supermarket, and you buy a box of chicken, or vegetable, or seafood stock. Why!? If you are buying vegetables, or you are buying chicken thighs, or fish, you have the bones and the ends and the heads and the scraps, and they are all so full of flavor,” wrote Andrés. “Making a stock or a stew cannot be easier. If you can make a big, beautiful pot of boiling water, you can do it. This spring my family and I made grouper head with potatoes, a traditional dish from Catalonia in Spain. I am telling you, once you try this way, you will not go back.”

Hungry yet? Go here for chef Andrés’ stock 101, and here to make his famous vegetable paella. Buen provecho!

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.