• Jonathan Bloom writes about why we waste food, why it matters and what we can do about it. This is his blog.

Reclaimed Gourmet: 5 Takeaways from WastED

Dan Barber’s wasted food pop-up/restaurant scene disrupter/edible think-piece ended its run last week. Here’s are five takeaways on the phenomenon that was WastED (#WastEDny):

1. It was a true phenomenon! At least in the New York restaurant—and, hence—media scene. Everyone from The New Yorker to the New Republic raved about the idea and especially the execution. While I didn’t see as much buzz on social media from those without megaphones, Alan Richman, writing in GQ, captured the mood thusly: “I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a Manhattan restaurant where so many people appeared so enthralled, so thrilled.”

It felt like two weeks of non-stop conversation about America’s wasted food problem. More specifically, WastED brought a focus on food items people rarely consider food. This comes as no surprise, as serving an offal meatloaf called “dog food” and setting the table with beef tallow candles (for dipping bread) tends to capture folks’ attention. While I would’ve loved to see more take-home lessons on the problem of food wasted on the farm and especially household levels…

2. …WastED was exceptional. You can’t blame WastED for not being all things, and most of all it was wonderful. The creativity and camaraderie seemed palpable (and visible on Twitter), as visiting chefs worked together to find interesting uses for often-discarded items. For example, that category’s poster child, carrot tops, became a marmalade, and the more esoteric pineapple core was charred, draped with candied mango skin and served with lime ice cream.

WastED customers undoubtedly went home having had their food assumptions challenged. The question I have is whether they brought home any usable ideas. Will it inspire people avoid waste in their own kitchens or just intimidate them because they don’t work in Dan Barber’s? Judging from this follow-up piece, I’d guess most people will at least be on the lookout for new ways to use kitchen castoffs, as Barber advised in this interview.  One helpful way to encourage that is to avoid calling these food items ‘garbage,’ as Money did. They are not that.  And on the topic of money…

3. …Was WastED Too Costly? What to make of paying first class prices for dishes using “second class grains and seeds?” In other words, should the price reflect the low cost of the ingredients or the creativity and skill required to carry them out? I would have loved more of the former, enabling a variety of folks to enjoy and learn from this virtuous experiment. The cost veered away from populism with all of the small plate dishes priced at $15. That is not outrageous for a fine (and norm-challenging) dining experience in Manhattan, especially at a place like Blue Hill, but I think the restaurant missed an opportunity to reach a broader audience.

4. What’s in a name? I appreciate the education implied in the name WastED, even though there were a few complaints of pedantism (to which I’d respond, what did people expect?). But on a lighter note, every time I see ‘WastED,’ my mind’s editor hopes that it was helmed by a guy named Ed. I would settle for Ted or a chef nicknamed ‘D.’ As in, ‘man, it’s impossible to get a table at WasteD.’ Something to chew on for next time, D. Barber!

5. And looking ahead, let’s hope there is a next time! By any name, an annual exercise of cooking with foods often wasted would be useful in a restaurant industry that too often leans in the opposite direction. Whatever happens next, it will likely be a bit different. Maybe it’s held at a different restaurant, hosted by another chef. Maybe it tours the country, landing at other restaurants like an edible art exhibit.

Even more radical—a pop-up that attempts to eliminate prep waste. A major hurdle for any restaurant is predicting demand to know how much to order and prepare beforehand. There will always be excess unless a) you’re comfortable or even aspiring to run out of everything by the end of the night or b) demand is known in advance. With the latter, how about a restaurant where you commit to your meal the day before, so the restaurant knows exactly how much to order? That kind of operation would be similar to catering, but minus the mindset that running out = death. Sure, this order-in-advance restaurant wouldn’t allow for walk-ins, but for a popular spot where reservations are made months in advance, this idea could conceivably happen…and with just one click! I mean, what’s more exclusive than an eatery that makes you order in advance?

More realistic and better still, maybe the restaurant industry will gradually adopt some of the notions, if not the tactics, behind WastED. Subtle, lasting changes—now that would be truly radical.

This piece also ran on Food Tank. Visit those fine folks for all of your sustainable food needs.

April 8, 2015 | Posted in Restaurant | Comments closed

Public Service Reminder

Don’t forget: it’s what’s inside that counts!

March 31, 2015 | Posted in Household | Comments closed

Unique Lessons

I saw this beauty this weekend at the farmers’ market and fell in love. You say ugly, I say gorgeous. 

Is it a V? Maybe a U? Perhaps an N or a C? Yes.

The best part of this saga is that my son needed to bring in two sweet potatoes for a class soup yesterday. Instead, he got to bring one giant, unique one. On the way to school, he seemed a bit unsure whether this awesome ugly would count as two, but excited to show it to his peers. Apparently it was a hit. Now that’s my kind of learning!

And in a postscript that will please all Tar Heels–especially those behind the UNC-Chapel Hill Feeding the 5K–my boy delighted in the ability to spell U-N-C with a sweet potato!

March 10, 2015 | Posted in Alphabet Produce, School | Comments closed

NYT Talks Trash–And That’s a Great Thing

Don’t look now, but The New York Times is talking trash—food trash. In other words, The Old Gray Lady is giving wasted food the love it deserves.

Yesterday’s Food section features three compelling, informative pieces on food waste, and it further indicates the rising profile of this once-ignored issue. Side note: it’s odd that an article detailing the rising food waste tide can help further raise that tide, but that’s the power of The Times. Who says newspapers are dead??

Anyway, we mostly have Kim Severson to thank for this exploration of the wasted food, which centers on her article, “Starve a Landfill.” It’s an ideal title because it connotes that vital EPA hierarchy for keeping food out of landfills.

Because waste prevention should take precedence, I wish the piece hadn’t begun with composting, which sits at the bottom of the above hierarchy. Still, I was thrilled that Severson mainly focused on avoiding wasted food. And I loved the discussion toward the end about how cooking solely from recipes drives waste, as you accumulate many items you only use once. The prescribed remedy: intuitive cooking, as found in The Flavor Bible.

I did find a few items a bit off. For example, the European Union flirted with naming 2014 the Year Against Food Waste, but it never actually happened. The EU may have loosened the ban on oddities, but it left intact the far more damaging specific regulations on the size and shape of specific produce items. And while I love the artistry of the line ‘discarded is becoming delicious,’ it is alliteration over accuracy (with which I can sympathize). We’re talking about food that previously would have been discarded. Splitting hairs? Possibly. But it links avoiding waste with Dumpster diving, which is a very different thing.

And I do think semantics matter. To wit: ‘expiration dates’ are a complete misnomer, with disastrous consequences. And think about the minor differences between ‘food waste’ and ‘wasted food.’ On a more positive note, whether you call them ‘broccoli stems’ or ‘broccoli,’ I couldn’t agree more with chef Daniel Humm’s description—delicious!

Along similar lines, the Food section also featured a handy accompanying article with advice on avoiding waste in your own kitchen. While the abbreviated print version is easily digested, the online one might overwhelm you with pro tips. Yet, it’s a treasure of a piece, distilled culinary wisdom that we’d all do well to—literally—cut and paste. So make grandma proud and put it on your fridge. Similarly, I keep this UC Davis guide to fruit and vegetable storage (PDF) on my fridge to know where to put plumcots.

The Times’ advice comes divided by categories—produce, dairy, etc. If it’s overwhelming, try focusing on one type of food for now. I focus on avoiding food waste professionally, and I found plenty of novel ideas here. For example, brining a chicken with the brine used to make pickles. I’ve used it to flavor and moisten egg salad, but never chicken.

I was a bit surprised not to see a mention of simply shaving off mold on cheese. Maybe that tip was deemed too basic, but it’s certainly a common occurrence. Given the abundance of food waste avoidance tactics, you probably found something missing, too. If so, we’d love to hear your tips and ideas in the comments section.

And finally, there’s the quirky, provocative piece on those pesky produce stickers that are proving problematic for commercial composters. And the same can be said for backyard composters alike, which begs the question—is there a better way? Two words: Buy local. Shopping at farmers’ markets, farm stands, or even picking or growing your own eliminates the need for those PLU stickers, which convey more info than you’d imagine!

But in the supermarket world, laser branding could alter that sticker status quo. Whether it’s deemed worth the expense is another question. Without an alternate system, it’d be fun to see what wider distribution of those sticker bingo cards mentioned in the article might accomplish, with prizes that most people would want—financial incentives instead of a free bag of compost.

In the end, though, as several NYT commenters noted, it’s not really a big deal. Like any home composter, I’ve grown accustomed to those stickers sneaking into my compost pile and, later, garden. I haven’t heard many complaints from the vegetables.

This piece also ran on Food Tank. Visit those fine folks for all of your sustainable food news.

March 5, 2015 | Posted in Household | Comments closed

#F5KUNC

This Fall, I participated in an amazing Feeding the 5,000 event at UNC Chapel Hill. The organizers, Carolina Dining Services, spent weeks, if not months, preparing for this meaningful day of action.

The organizers, led by Ryan Moore, gleaned sweet potatoes, sought out wonky produce, and bought bycatch fish that would otherwise have been squandered. All of those products became delicious stews served as a communal, free lunch in the center of campus. There were wonderful posters, thought-provoking signs, and then a few talks to cap it all off.

It was a special day, and I’m not just saying that because I studied journalism at UNC a scant–gulp–10 years ago! Here, judge for yourself:

Feeding the 5000 – UNC from IMECUS Video Agency on Vimeo.

February 18, 2015 | Posted in Campaigns, College, Repurposing | Comments closed

Friday Buffet

Here’s a roundup of recent wasted food news, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

With the former, a UK org called Hubbub is pushing the humble (and potentially artistic) pancake as a way to reduce wasted food. Why pancakes? Because they’re so flippin‘ versatile!

On the latter, the notion of ‘raccoon meat’ certainly feels disgusting at first. But there is some logic in Grist‘s take on the matter. Much like pigs, raccoons excel at converting our food waste into…food (if you can stomach eating raccoon).

Somewhat sublime: On July 1 (the end of a 6-month grace period), Vancouver restaurants will pay an extra 50 percent of their trash costs if more than 25 percent of their trash is organic waste. That means about 6,000 restaurants are busy strategizing on what to do with their organic waste. There’s nothing like a little economic incentive to prompt behavior change!

Staying in Canada, here’s some insight on Fixing Food Waste from Alternatives Journal and Calgary Food Bank.

Finally, enjoy this short documentary on Rob Greenfield, a passionate, extraordinary dude:

February 13, 2015 | Posted in Campaigns, International, Leftovers, Supermarket, Waste Ban | Comments closed

Could Bump Mark Debunk Date Labels?

If you’re like me, you love innovations that prevent food from being wasted and hate the inefficiency of expiration dates. That’s why I’m high on Bump Mark, an in-package fresh food indicator now in development.

Solveiga Pakstaite, a recent university grad in Britain, created Bump Mark after winning the James Dyson Award to do so.

As you can see, here’s how it works: Each package of food would have an indicator strip with a small amount of gelatin calibrated to decompose at the same rate as the food in the package. When it does, the liquidy gelatin lets the user to feel the buried “Bump Marks” that signal the food isn’t safe to eat.

Bump Mark labels would offer an improvement to the dreaded date label because the former would be based on something more concrete than a conservative estimate of when that food should be eaten (the latter). It’s worth pointing out that while US date labels only speak to food quality, not food safety, UK date labels carry a bit more weight.

Additionally, Bump Mark could help communicate that food doesn’t suddenly expire on a specific date, but slowly wanes into diminished taste and texture before becoming dangerous to eat. It’s telling that the idea came from asking ‘how do blind people know when their food has gone bad if they can’t read the expiration date?’ That led to the realization that most of us are relying on the false certitude of expiration dates.

On the negative side, though, this kind of technology could prompt more packaged produce. In other words, more packaging. And that’s not great for the planet, nor is it good for people who like to customize the amounts of purchases. Although, in general, reducing packaging is less important than reducing wasted food because of food’s embedded natural resources. Increased produce packaging would also doom more waste in produce that doesn’t fit the package size.

Pakstaite says that her innovation will be available for mass adoption by the end of the year. It remains to be seen whether the British food industry will go for Bump Mark, but given the fervor for reducing food waste in the UK, I wouldn’t be surprised. And if it does become a common sight, Bump Mark could truly debunk the expiration date myth.

January 28, 2015 | Posted in Food Safety, Household, International | Comments closed

Send Me Your Produce Letters!

I’ve often posted pictures of fruits and vegetables shaped like letters on this blog. You know, alphabet produce.

Until now, I’ve just shared the oddities that I’ve found at farmers’ markets and in my home garden, but I haven’t sought contributions from the outside world. That’s about to change.

Ssssssend me a letter like this!

As of this very moment, I’m trying to create a full produce alphabet. And here’s where you come in: Please send me your pics of fruit and vegetables that look like letters! Anything from A-Z!

Tweet them to @WastedFood or submit them to the Wasted Food Facebook page and please use the hashtag #AlphabetProduce.

I’m working on this project with Portland State University PhD student Renee Curtis (@PDXFoodRecovery) and Jordan Figueiredo of @UglyFruitAndVeg. We plan to curate the images into a full alphabet poster. Ideally, we’ll make this poster available as a download and also get it into as many schools as possible.

But to do that, we need your pictures! So give it a try, Twitterverse. Let the letters fly, Facebook. And remember, without your help, there will be no Produce Alphabet!

January 14, 2015 | Posted in Alphabet Produce, Campaigns, Farmers' Market, Garden | Comments closed

Making Fresh Food Last Longer

We all want to maximize the life of our fresh food, and this infographic from Pounds To Pocket provides plenty of novel ideas for doing so. And I do mean plenty!

Be sure to read the ‘why it works’ explanations. Hope you learn some new tricks!

January 6, 2015 | Posted in Infographic, Stats, Storage | Comments closed

Looking Back, Then Ahead

2014 has been a banner year for fighting food waste. There many successes to celebrate, including those on the policy level: Massachusetts’ ban on commercial food waste to landfills went into effect on October 1, The Milan Protocol included a goal of 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2020, and the USDA streamlined procedures for donating mislabeled meat products.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seems genuinely interested in doing something on the food waste issue. He was quoted in The New York Times thusly:

“I’ve become very sensitized to this because my wife is a relatively small person and I’m a relatively big guy,” Mr. Vilsack said. “She gets the same portion size as I do when we go to a restaurant, and sometimes we take it home but often we don’t because it’s really not the kind of food you can take home.”

Happily, the food waste social campaigns kept building momentum. Who can forget the Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign from French supermarket chain Intermarché? And EPA’s Food Too Good To Waste is finally surpassing pilot project status.

Finally, 2014 saw many, many gatherings: from the first two Feeding the 5,000 events in the U.S to the Zero Food Waste Forum to the first academic gathering entirely focused on food waste at UPenn. 

Where do we go from here? We won’t have to wait long for the first changes to take effect. Seattle and Vancouver have waste bans going into effect January 1 (although enforcement won’t be until July in Seattle). And look for more states to declare bans on food waste to landfills. As for other changes, we’ll just have to wait and see. Food Waste World is always full of surprises!

December 31, 2014 | Posted in International, Legislation, Waste Ban | Comments closed
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