Today’s Solutions: June 15, 2024

Someone may offer you a freshly caught whole large fish, like a salmon or striped bass. Don’t panic – take it!   

– Julia Child


One evening when I was eight years old, I sat in a small french cafe with my sister and parents when the waiter delivered my father’s plate – an entire pig leg, from the knee down. It was beautifully arranged, but I had never seen something that looked so much like an actual animal being served as dinner.  Feeling concern, I glanced at my father who seemed equally perplexed by the version of “porc” he had just been served.  

We had moved across the world for my mother’s job and now we were sitting in a restaurant on our first night in this new land confused and slightly amused by our maiden meal. It was our first introduction to the french language and to the reality that how food is served, valued, and approached in other countries is vastly different from the U.S.

Years later, while I am not habitually served entire pig legs, I realize that rethinking the parts of the animals and plants we consume is an important theme in the broader issue of food waste. Taking full advantage of our food resources and redefining “edible” and what part of our food we cook and eat can make our food systems more efficient, sustainable and able to feed our growing global population. 

40 percent of everything grown, raised or harvested for food goes to waste in the United States, and similar rates of food waste can be found around the world, though the nexus of loss is different for developed vs. developing nations.  The food loss occurs at all stages of the food chain including production, transportation, retail distribution, preparation, and personal consumption. Furthermore, the food waste itself is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gas production from emissions in production and transportation to the slow decomposition of vegetable and animal matter in our landfills.  If nothing changes in our food systems, we will have a difficult time feeding the projected global population of 10 billion in 2050. The good news? Food waste is an issue with very real solutions, which are being embraced more and more every day.

Innovative chefs such as Dario Cecchini and Nick Balla are pushing us to both expand our food horizons and find our way back to our roots by being inventive and pragmatic about how we use our food. In an eye-opening Chef’s Table episode, Cecchini demonstrates how using all parts of the animals we eat (yes, legs, feet, eyeballs and all) is the most effective way for making our meat resources as sustainable and efficient as possible. Using the entire animal not only eliminates food waste but allows those who choose to eat meat to do it with the least waste and most respect for the animal. 

San Francisco based chef Nick Balla takes the same approach with veggies. Cooking with “ugly produce,” he demonstrates that you can get the same great taste by using cosmetically challenged produce and when it comes down to it, it all tastes the same!

From farm to tech to table 

In the agricultural sector, 10 percent of food produced is spoiled along transportation lines and sometimes large harvests go to waste because of lack of hands to collect it or unpredictable market prices. We have all seen boxes of lettuce abandoned on the side of the highway or fields of produce left to rot. 

Fortunately, high tech innovations are stepping up to the food waste challenge. One of the most prominent tech advances, aside from automated harvesting, is hyperspectral technology. Originally developed by NASA, this scanning technique assesses the amount of light reflected by an object and when applied to food harvest and processing centers, can provide real-time information about large volumes of food such as ripeness, freshness, size, and shape, allowing food to be sorted and distributed more efficiently. This allows produce of similar ripeness to be placed together and allows deliveries to be more uniform, preventing food waste. 

If you’re like me, you have probably cut open an avocado in anticipation of green goodness and found a disappointing brown mess inside. But what if that ripe avocado you bought yesterday could stay good on your counter for weeks rather than days? This is exactly what companies like Apeel Sciences are trying to achieve. The technology is not as complex as it sounds. Apeel places a thin organic “peel” on the outside of produce which slows down water loss and oxidation, essentially slowing ripening and extending its shelf life. This technology holds tremendous potential not only for the moldy strawberries in your fridge but it can provide vital nutrition potential for areas where storage technology or access to fresh produce is limited. The coating is edible, uses non-toxic natural organic materials, and aims to revolutionize how food is stored, shipped, and preserved, especially in parts of the global that have limited access to refrigeration.

You’ve likely heard the term “blockchain” when discussing digital currency, but it has agricultural applications as well. Blockchain technologies are changing the way the industry operates by providing more efficient delivery from producers to sellers, sometimes even allowing the middleman to be cut out. The system provides comprehensive, real-time, digitally stored data about product growth, packaging, and transportation creating transparency within the food system and facilitating communication between producers and suppliers. Eliminating slow paper transactions and data collection means increased efficiency in the entire supply chain. 

Benefits of buying local 

Improvements in farming technology can reduce food waste, but so can personal shopping habits. Buying food produced locally from farmers markets or community sellers means the food you eat doesn’t have to travel as far to reach you, so less of it is wasted along the way. Additionally, smaller local farmers are more invested in the successful sale of all their produce and are therefore more cautious about wasting crops.

Lastly, local farmers plant what is seasonal and regional meaning the food you buy isn’t being brought to you from some far off tropical destination. Overall, buying locally requires fewer resources for your food to reach you and likely less was wasted en route. Plus, you are supporting your community and eating wonderful fresh food: a win-win situation.

Who are you calling ugly?

Once your food leaves the farm, it is in the hands of restaurants, grocery stores, and other retailer suppliers. Unfortunately, a large amount of food goes to waste at grocery stores because it is not cosmetically “perfect” enough for sale. While being worried about whether a tomato is round enough may seem silly, the amount of food wasted because it is “ugly” when it actually tastes perfectly fine is alarmingly high. Fortunately, companies and activists are trying to change the narrative surrounding “ugly” food. 

Innovative companies like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods are buying “ugly” produce at a low cost and reselling it to consumers who do not mind if their carrot is crooked or their apple is lopsided. Food banks across the country have been using this model of working with farmers to provide a market for less than perfect produce for several years.  Even the culinary world is catching onto the love of ugly produce. Dana Cowin, the editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine praises “ugly” foods and encourages chefs to incorporate them into their meals. In her Ted Talk, she discusses how French grocery stores are marketing “inglorious fruits and vegetables” to get customers to see the perfectly imperfect nature of their foods. Some stores are even cooking recipes out of “ugly” produce for their customers to buy to prove that ugly on the outside can still be delicious on the inside. 

France also passed a law in 2016 which requires grocery stores to give food near expiration dates to local food banks rather than throwing it away.  Stores can face a fine of $4,500 for failing to comply with the regulation.

The “ugly” food trend has even reached the world’s top chefs. Culinary geniuses such as Dan Barber and José Andrés are incorporating imperfect ingredients such as crooked carrots, fish heads, and dandelion greens in their cooking to show not only that these foods can be used at the highest level of culinary excellence, but also to take a stand against food waste. Dan Barber’s Blue Hill Farm goes one step beyond cooking ugly food and has created an entire sustainable and interactive farm to table food experience which optimizes local and seasonal foods and repurposes waste into compost and animal feed on the same property where the food was grown. 

Getting chefs and companies onboard not only raises awareness about food waste and innovation but also normalizes the concept of making the most out of our food. Cowin says, “If we can take what we once thought was ugly and see it as beautiful we can reduce food waste and change the world.”

What can you do in your own home?

How much food waste does your family produce? Tossing out an overripe banana can be a bummer if you were hoping to eat it for a snack, but when you consider that food waste is responsible for eight percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, tossing that banana feels much more sinister. 

Grocery stores and restaurants are tackling food waste, but what can you as a consumer and home chef do to minimize your food waste? We already discussed buying locally, but other shopping and cooking habits can also help you cut down on wasted food, and even your wallet. Meal planning will substantially cut down on purchases of unneeded ingredients and help you save money. Inventive recipes that use parts of food we normally consider waste is another cool trend. 

Aside from going into the grocery store with a plan, being smart about when you toss food can help you stretch your perishables for longer. Best buy dates are often a conservative estimate, so judging your food’s viability by smell and color, rather than expiration date will avoid unnecessary waste. Even if your produce has gotten overripe, there are many recipes that are more than accommodating of aged ingredients. Making banana bread with overripe bananas or using mushy oranges for juicing are great ways to make the most of fruits past their prime. 

Even being a food waste pro, its nearly impossible to avoid waste altogether. Luckily we are here to tell you what to do with your orange peels, moldy carrots, and onion skins. Compost! Composting means your food is decomposing outside a landfill in a much more environmentally friendly way. In fact, Implementing worldwide composting could reduce emissions by 2.3 billion tons over the next 30 years. And it’s easy. If you are not ready to invest in your own compost pile, composting can be as simple as collecting all your food waste in a bucket and disposing of it in your green waste can rather than your trash can. Many local community gardens or compost facilities will also happily accept your compost and might even come to pick it up for you. 

Foraging ahead on food waste 

At the end of the day, awareness is the first step to success. Make note of your food habits. Are there certain vegetables that always seem to end up fuzzy and abandoned in the back of your fridge? Maybe you can split a package of mushrooms with your friend if you always end up with too many on your hands. Being aware of our personal contribution to food waste is key to not only reducing our personal waste but increasing awareness about the issue of food waste and moving towards a culture that cherishes food in all its forms and cultivates it responsibly.

Reducing food waste can seem like a daunting task because food is wasted at so many different points from the farm to the family. But luckily, this means there are so many points along the chain where we can help reduce it! Whether it’s buying locally, planting a garden, reaching for that misshapen tomato at the store, donating unneeded ingredients, campaigning for a local composting program, or patronizing a restaurant that serves fish heads, the possibilities for contributing to food waste reduction are endless and easy!

About the Author:

Amelia Buckley is a staff writer for the Optimist Daily and pursuing her undergraduate degree at University of California, Santa Barbara. As a global studies major and lover of the outdoors, Amelia is passionate about crafting stories that focus on critical global issues which impact our environment and natural spaces.


NOTE: This is article is part 2 of our “Future of Food” series.  To read part one, click on the link below.

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