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How Food Waste Ended Up on Restaurant Menus

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Once the restaurant world's darkest secret, food waste is now its top cause.

The rich eat more animal products; the poor often subsist on staple crops like rice or corn. Some kitchens stock fish sauce while others keep a few sticks of butter on hand at all times. Everyone eats, but the way we do it is slightly different in every household in every country in the world. The one constant is how much food we waste.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption each year ends up in the trash — that's 1.3 billion tons of food. In developing countries, this waste is mostly due to poor infrastructure and difficulty with storage and refrigeration. In middle-/high-income countries — including the U.S. — consumer behavior, lack of culinary education, and high aesthetic standards are the main culprits behind food waste.

One-third of all food produced for human consumption each year ends up in the trash — that’s 1.3 billion tons of food.

The problem, to the extent that it exists today, dates back roughly 50 years. During the Depression and the wars that followed, food was a precious resource. But by the 1950s, most shoppers in the United States transitioned from mom-and-pop groceries or small chains to the mega-marts we know today. These supermarkets sourced foods from throughout the nation, and the need to transport food over long distances made it impossible to sell foods nearing the end of their life — they had to not only survive harvest and transport, but look good in a grocery display, too. Today, as journalist Jonathan Bloom writes in his book Wasted, "The average U.S. supermarket produce item travels 1,500 miles before it arrives at its destination."

According to Bloom, "the awareness [about waste] has steadily increased," noting the 2008 recession had a big impact on people's attitudes toward food. When individuals, nonprofits, and corporations started finding ways to waste less, chefs also got on board. In December 2013, the Real Junk Food Project created a pay-what-you-want cafe in the UK, cooking with unwanted food. Earlier this year, acclaimed New York chef Dan Barber, of Blue Hill, created a $15 per plate pop-up called WastED, where the menu was made entirely of discarded foods.

And finally, even governments are recognizing this waste as a serious problem. Last week, the lunch served to 30 world leaders at the United Nations was made from vegetable scraps, rejected fruit, and other food waste. This meal was served after the UN announced its Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 — one of which included halving "global food waste at retail and consumer levels" by 2030. Just one week earlier, the USDA and EPA joined together to announce the same goal within the United States. So if food waste as the issue du jour has been in the air since the early 2000s, what was the catalyst? And why did it take so long for us to catch on?

Signage at the UK's Real Junk Food Project cafe. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Food Waste As Charity

Efforts to feed the poor are nothing new; all of the world's major religions advocate for the practice. Today, the most popular forms are soup kitchens, which became popular during the Great Depression, and food banks, the first of which was founded in 1967. More recent is the practice of collecting food waste and turning it into meals for the hungry.

The first of these programs, New York's City Harvest, was started by soup kitchen volunteers in the early 1980s. Potato skins were popular at the time, and the group started wondering what happened to the rest of the potato once the skins were cut off. Most chefs simply threw the leftovers out. "The founder asked a chef if she could collect the excess potatoes and he agreed," says Lisa Sposato, food sourcing director of City Harvest. Soon a group of people were running around to various restaurants, transporting wasted food in the trunks of their cars, and bringing it back to the soup kitchen where it could be turned into nutritious meals.

Another major food recovery group, DC Central Kitchen, has a similar origin story, only from the other side of the fence. It was founded by a nightclub manager who volunteered with a program that fed the homeless. He noticed that this program purchased all its food from grocery stores; meanwhile, his club threw out large quantities of food every night. "In a city where the proximity of people who are hungry and people who are eating in restaurants is extremely small," says chief development officer Alex Moore, "he thought there had to be a better way to do this." Not surprisingly, many pay-what-you-want cafes, some of which have a charity component, have also adopted food recovery — it's a cheap source of good food.

Gaining Steam in the Mainstream

For the first few decades of these nonprofits, there was still little talk in the public about "food waste." DC Central Kitchen, City Harvest, and others like them were simply extra resourceful about finding sources of donated food. In the early years of the millennium, a UK man named Tristram Stuart, now the author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal and a major activist for waste reduction, started dumpster diving, which led him to discover the extreme waste throughout the food chain. "Before 2002, there was literally nothing on food waste in the media," Stuart says. "It was just a total void."

Bloom, the journalist, was volunteering at DC Central Kitchen when he started making similar realizations. In 2006, he started a blog called Wasted Food, opening with the revelation that 40- to 50-percent of all food produced in the United States goes to waste. "When people did talk about food waste it was in the same vein they do today," he says. "But there were much fewer conversations." He refers to the gain in food waste awareness as a rising tide and, following that metaphor, 2009 seems to be the year that the tide broke.

In 2009, a first-time filmmaker and dumpster diver by the name of Jeremy Seifert released a documentary called Dive! looking at food waste. That year, the FAO commissioned a study on food waste in both high- and low-income countries (it was released in 2011). And in the most dramatic display of the year, London's Trafalgar Square was filled with mounds of gnarled apples, wonky potatoes, and the often-discarded ends of bread loaves for an event called "Feeding the 5000," which turned those food scraps into a meal for 5,000 people.

"We ended up with all these surplus ingredients. You may order a case of zucchini but not use a third of that."

In the following years, many acclaimed restaurants started highlighting their role in food-waste reduction. Blue Hill, the UK's zero-waste restaurant Silo, and Copenhagen's tasting-menu hotspot Amass — have famously announced waste-reduction goals or practices. But the message that taste, not appearance, should dictate whether food finds its way into cooking is still for people of a certain socio-economic class.

That may be changing. Saucy By Nature, a Brooklyn restaurant that opened just last month, was actually created for the sole purpose of reducing food waste. Owner Przemek Adolf started vending at local food pop-ups like Smorgasburg in 2011, but soon found himself moving into the catering business. "We ended up with all these surplus ingredients," Adolf says. "You may order a case of zucchini but not use a third of that." While looking for a commercial kitchen to expand his catering options, he came across an open restaurant space. Adolf wasn't looking for a storefront, but realized that a restaurant with a "zero waste" concept could solve some of the problems he was having with his catering business.

Saucy By Nature's lunch and dinner menus change every day and are created out of leftover ingredients that didn't get used at an event the night before. "We're offering our cooks the opportunity to be creative and come up with menus instead," he says. New guests do need to be introduced to the restaurant's unusual structure, but it helps that the dishes themselves are familiar — pot pies, salads, curries, and roasts — and have reasonable prices for a farm-to-table restaurant.

Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

Food waste at the Real Junk Food Cafe in the UK. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

The Next Wave

Other countries, like the UK, have made greater strides in reducing food waste. An awareness campaign started in 2007 cut down on avoidable food waste by 18 percent in just four years. In 2013, the UK's largest supermarkets started releasing figures on how much food they waste (most likely in an effort to show progress reducing it down the line). Earlier this year, France actually made it illegal for supermarkets to waste food.

But change in the United States hasn't gotten far into the policy realm other than some city or state efforts. Until the recent USDA food waste reduction goals, it's been mostly a grassroots cause. Andrew Shakman, CEO of Lean Path — a company that's built a system to track and reduce food waste — says the company encountered a lot of resistance in the beginning. "We'd get crossed arms and tense body language and people would say 'we don't have food waste,'" he says of his restaurant clients. The chefs equated food waste with doing a "bad job," according to Shakman. But without admitting the problem, it wouldn't go away.

"We’d get crossed arms and tense body language and people would say, ‘We don’t have food waste.’"

With the rise in food waste awareness, Lean Path's business has "been growing very substantially," Shakman says. It's also opened the door to create new businesses from what used to be a dead zone of economic loss. Farmers whose produce doesn't conform to buyer standards once had little reason to harvest that food other than the occasional invitation to gleaning organizations. But Imperfect Foods, a California-based enterprise that launched over the summer, wants to find a market for this produce. Ben Simon, CEO and co-founder, previously started the Food Recovery Network, which recaptured wasted foods on college campuses. Currently, Imperfect Foods operates on a subscription model and has its products in Raley's supermarkets in the Sacramento, California area.

Because this produce is both local (currently sourced from 10 to 15 farms in the California area) and 30- to 50-percent cheaper than grocery prices for "perfect" foods, it has wide appeal. "We're trying to democratize the CSA and take it from being this thing that costs $40/week into something that is reasonable for the average person," Simon says. By creating a separate market for non-standard foods (something that European grocers and organizations did last year to great acclaim), there will be more inexpensive food for those who need it and less going to waste in the fields.

Looking Ahead

But despite the uprising of food recovery organizations, gleaning, composting laws, and otherwise, there's still a lot of food going into the garbage. "These programs are just a drop in the bucket," Bloom explains. Not only do consumers need to rethink how we judge food (most often based on appearance rather than taste), we need to learn how to use imperfect foods. Though organizations like DC Central Kitchen have made the best out of our food waste habits, "we can't build our business model on always having waste," Moore acknowledges. "We can't risk creating a tiered system where we say poor people should settle for lower quality, less-appealing food because that's what's available." Celebrity chefs going out of their way to serve wasted food — not just for special events but every night — would help make recovered food something for all classes to enjoy.

While there's still a lot of work to be done, in some areas, there has been a total transformation. There's hope yet that people might meet the UN goal of reducing food waste by half in the next 15 years. As Stuart says of the journey so far, "I can't quite believe how easy it's been to change the world."