‘Every Bit of the Animal’ — A Maria Finn Q&A

Maria Finn is an author, journalist and artist. While she was an Autodesk Artist in Residence in late 2014, she set out to change our perception of food and food waste. Following an evening spent shucking oysters, she found herself faced with a mountain of shells. Instead of discarding them, she created beautiful oyster shell tiles that now line the backsplash of her kitchen.

Her philosophy of ‘waste not, want not,’ extends to her work foraging and wildcrafting in the San Francisco Bay and holistic food preparation using every bit of the animal. Finn recently completed a novel, “Sea Legs & Fish Nets” based loosely on her experience working on an all-female fishing boat in Alaska and has written five books, including “The Whole Fish” and “Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home.” She writes for FERN and other outlets.

How did you get the idea to make tiles out of oyster shells? Had you seen other interesting uses for oyster shells?

I have used oyster shell tiles in my container garden; I use them as mulch that holds in moisture, looks good, and has a slow release fertilizer for Mediterranean plants. I’ve also used them ground up in the medium in my wall hanging indoor mushroom boxes. But I think the shells are so beautiful. To me, this is part of the pleasure of opening and eating oysters. I love their fractal texture and mother of pearl glimmer. For the tiles, I started off using ground up oyster shell with the cement, then saved the flattest pieces, or shattered them for the top of the tile. I worried about the strength with the ground up oyster shells, as handmade tiles are a lot of work, so I then went with just cement and the oysters for finishing them.

I hope to start a native oyster colony on the hull of my houseboat. Not so much to eat, but because each oyster cleans 50 gallons of water a day. And their colonies are so beautiful. Mussels are also great filters, and I just learned that the pace at which they open indicates the water quality/pollution in a bay. So I’m talking with some people at Autodesk about a future project of hooking up an LED light sculpture that connects to the mussels/oysters on my houseboat and the lights will indicate the bay’s water quality.

I see your work through the lens of using the whole animal or plant, often called ‘tail-to-snout’ eating. How much does avoiding waste play into your art, both practically and philosophically?

I’m author of the TED book, The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Will Make You Happier, Healthier and Help Save the Ocean. Much of this was inspired by the two years I worked monitoring the salmon run on the Yukon Delta for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. I spent a lot of time with Yupik women at their fish drying camps. They use every part of the salmon—even turn the male’s milt into a sort of Popsicle dipped in seal oil. Traditionally, they make lamps, bags, and other items out of salmon skin. I met the artist Emily Johnson at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is Yupik, from Alaska, and also does this.

While an Artist-In-Residence (AIR) at Autodesk, I wrote an Instructables post on how to catch a salmon, and then break down a whole salmon. I created recipes on using the skin, head, bones, trim and every part of it—including salmon SPAM from the collar and belly. At the time, I was also making items for the renovation of my houseboat, so I thought I’d give the salmon skin lamp a try. Another artist there, Jennifer Berry, has been doing an art project on road kill, and is an experienced leather tanner. Eric Forman, a fellow AIR, was making light boxes. I collaborated with those two, and now have a very modern version of the Yupik salmon skin lamp. One of my neighbors is so excited by my salmon lamp; we are going to make more this salmon season. Hoping we catch them.

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May 18, 2015 | Posted in Environment, Seafood | Comments closed

Love Food, Hate Wasting Money

You know what’s weird? We pay such close attention to saving a buck or two at the supermarket, but rarely consider how much money we’re throwing away through the food we waste.

-Researchers have found that we discard about 25 percent of what we bring into our homes. That adds up to more than $2,000 annually for a family of four. Ponder that figure the next time you’re in the supermarket agonizing over sale items. And then consider the simplest form of waste prevention—buying the right amount. That’s a gentle way of saying ‘Don’t buy too much!’

As the Love Food Hate Waste campaign will illustrate, there are many causes of food waste. Luckily for you, dear reader, one of the main ones is a lack of awareness. So hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you can cross off that one. And with such awareness, you can assess how much food you’re wasting in your home.

How does one do that? You can keep a food waste journal and factor in the dollar values of the food squandered (and for extra credit, the environmental impact). That will prompt you to draw some conclusions about the type and amount of food you’re wasting. Yet, you will achieve nearly identical results simply by composting. Separating out our food waste forces us to notice our patterns. And then it’s on you to—dare I say it—adapt.

The solutions are not difficult, and I’m sure you will come up with your own as long as you’re motivated to do so. On that topic, remember—we’re talking about some significant cash savings here. And I haven’t even mentioned the ethical justness of not throwing away (or even composting) food when so many in our community don’t have enough to eat. Plus, there’s the significant environmental impact—if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter after China and the US.

Now that you’re properly motivated, here are several tips from my own house:

  • Buy less. I tend to shop more often, buying less each time. It’s easier to project food needs for a day or two than for a week.
  • Keep it neat. The times when I waste food are when my fridge is cluttered. Keeping it relatively sparse helps, as does storing food in clear containers. Remember—out of sight is out of mind (is out with the compost).
  • Be realistic. Factor in your busy lives and how much (or little) time you have to cook. It may make sense to not buy as many perishable ingredients.
  • Love your leftovers. I usually plan a leftover smorgasbord meal once a week, or plan to have one dinner twice during the week (“planned-overs”). Alternately, the best lunch is last night’s dinner. But I find that packing up a meal-size portion the night before facilitates the whole process.
  • Strategize. Plan several meals around similar recipe items and avoid those recipe one-timers. I’m much more likely to use parsley on back-to-back nights than I am parsnips. But maybe you’re the opposite. That’s why you should create your own, personalized food waste reduction strategies. I’ll leave you with a final thought: a waste study in one part of New York found that the most food waste came from households. That means we individuals have plenty of room for improvement. But more importantly, we have real agency here. So let’s get to it!

This article is crossposted on Metro Vancouver’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign site.

May 7, 2015 | Posted in General, Household, Supermarket | Comments closed

France Fights Food Waste

The French take their food seriously. And now we know that they don’t look too kindly on it being wasted.

In mid-April, a government-appointed committee released a proposal to tackle food waste in France (PDF in French). The Fight Against Food Waste (Lutte Contre Le Gaspillage Alimentaire – #GaspillageAlimentaire) suggests 36 ways to do just that, and Parliament will likely debate each one separately with the intention of distilling those ideas into a national policy on food waste. If that happens, it will be historic.

“It’s the first proposition for a comprehensive national policy on food waste that brings together a lot of different potential measures to reduce food waste throughout the whole food chain,” said Marie Mourad, a PhD student at Sciences Po in Paris writing her dissertation on initiatives around food waste.

MP Guillaume Garot, who isn’t afraid of mixing it up at Disco Soupe events, led the committee in proposing a variety of measures. One of their most powerful ideas is the suggested ban on supermarkets throwing away food, which comes after a related 200,000-signature petition. That idea, together with mandatory donations to charities that request the food and extended tax deductions for donations could change the excess food equation in retail. With the inedible excess, one far-reaching policy would be legislating a food waste hierarchy of feeding animals, creating energy and then composting.

There may not be anything available for dumpster divers if all of the above policies happen, but they would have legal protections thanks to a proposal that would essentially make dumpster diving legal. Following a recent, high-profile case in France, this idea would offer “clemency” to dumpster divers under a proposed “recovering is not stealing” ordinance.

Meanwhile, building on Intermarché’s popular Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, the report also pushes for more markets for nontraditional produce. And at the farm level, there are several proposals to promote and sustain the gleaning of unharvested crops.

The report suggests adapting the size of restaurant portions to consumers’ needs and encouraging a pay-by-weight option, two ideas that seem as un-French as they are interesting. Meanwhile, the committee seeks better data on how much food is wasted, more public education on the issue and even a public agency to fight food waste, a la Britain’s WRAP to potentially do both. Only time will tell what ideas gain traction, though. Mourad expects the supermarket food waste ban and dumpster diving protections to be among the least controversial.

The annual cost of food waste in France, according to the report, is as much as €20 Billion annually and €400 for the average family. In that context and with a strong tradition of gleaning—and celebrating it in art and film—France is exhibiting an appetite for curbing food waste. To which, I say, ‘Bon appétit!’

How much change is French culture willing to stomach? The best indicator may come from an unlikely source—a proposal to mainstream “le doggy-bag.” As in most of Europe, taking leftovers home from restaurants tends to be viewed as a bit…gauche. The practice faces a “cultural obstacle,” Garot told the press, but 75 percent of those polled recently said they’d like to take food home from restaurants. In that changed milieu, the main question may be whether to use the French “sac-à-emporter” (literally, ‘to-go bag’) or a hybrid term like “le doggy-bag” or “le gourmet bag.”

While Americans are miles ahead in loving restaurant leftovers—or at least taking them home—US policy makers would do well to emulate both the ideas and ‘esprit’ of this new French food waste movement. And then, on both sides of the Atlantic, we may soon be bonding over the shared values of “Liberté, Egalité, le Doggy.”

This piece is cross-posted on Food Tank. Visit those fine folks for all of your sustainable food needs.

May 1, 2015 | Posted in International, Leftovers | Comments closed

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


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