The Transformative Power of the Scrap Food Movement

How cooking with foods otherwise bound for the trash can address some of our world’s most daunting issues

In yoga and in life, we strive for balance. We breathe, we live, we eat, and we hope to leave the earth a little bit better than we found it. But are we really doing the best we can? In relation to food and the way we consume it—well, not really. You would think that in a place of such abundance, with farmer’s markets and organic produce sprouting up on every corner, America would be a country immune to hunger. But we’re not. Feeding America, one of our nation’s largest nonprofit network of food banks, calculates that 48.1 million Americans live in food-insecure households. While there are many contributing factors to the issue, food waste is one of the biggest. In fact, Americans waste approximately 30–40 percent of our annual food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Over the course of a year, that accounts for a loss of almost 133 billion pounds of viable food. In dollars, that’s over $161 billion of lost revenue. While it’s difficult to imagine numbers of such magnitude, it’s even more difficult to understand the reasoning behind why so much food is lost. To break it down, a typical American family of four will waste approximately $1,356 to $2,275 in groceries per year. Although you might think to yourself, I can’t possibly be throwing away that much food, waste happens in ways you might not believe.

Waste Versus Loss

To get a better handle on the big picture, it’s important to learn the difference between food waste and food loss. Food can be wasted or lost throughout the entire supply chain process, but the two specifics of “loss” and “waste” are very different. Food loss is inevitable. Food waste is not. Loss occurs when food is damaged or becomes inedible before it even reaches the store. A peach may get bruised during packing or a carton of eggs crushed. Those items are tossed because they are unfit for consumption. This is the cost of doing business on a national level. Some products just won’t make it to consumers. Waste, on the other hand, is preventable. It occurs when food that is otherwise fit for consumption is allowed to spoil due to overly strict food laws, misunderstood sell-by dates, or misguided buying or preparation practices. Perfectly good day-old pastries that are thrown out to make way for new ones are considered food waste. Pastries that were accidentally burned and are now unfit for consumption are considered loss.
It’s less about that bag of baby carrots languishing in the depths of your fridge, and more about the two tons of edible spinach a packing plant is required to dispose of due to improper labeling. Yet America isn’t the only offender.
Another aspect of food waste stems from the public’s inherent distaste for seemingly blemished products. In March of 2014, French retailer Intermarch, the country’s third-largest grocer, launched a viral marketing campaign celebrating the beauty of ugly veggies. Purchasing produce that would have otherwise been discarded and selling it at a discounted rate, Intermarch found that customers not only bought the aptly named “grotesque apples” and “failed lemons” destined for the dump, but actually increased overall store traffic by 24 percent. The marketing effort was so successful that it inspired the chain’s three largest competitors to do the same. Waste and loss don’t seem like such a big deal until you consider how much food this constitutes on a national scale. It’s less about that bag of baby carrots languishing in the depths of your fridge, and more about the two tons of edible spinach a packing plant is required to dispose of due to improper labeling. Yet America isn’t the only offender. Worldwide food waste numbers are outrageous. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) which tracks food consumption across the globe, estimates that at least one-third of food produced for human use is lost or wasted on its journey from farm to table—a total of 2.8 trillion pounds. How many people could that feed? At least three billion.

A Change in Attitude

While these numbers are disheartening to say the least, newfound publicity and rising awareness has catapulted the problem of food waste into the public eye. With organic and farm-to-table options becoming the new standard, waste cooking isn’t far behind. Chefs such as Dan Barber, a New York restaurateur and one of the first to take part in the scrap meal movement, have hosted pop-up dinners that showcase edibles not commonly thought of as food in a new light. At Barber’s wastED dinner series, which took place in New York City last spring, ugly veggies, fish bones, and stale bread took on a new life as he transformed them into something beautiful—and delicious. These kinds of events encourage eaters to question what they’ve been conditioned to consider waste. Sparking interest via social media, Barber’s wastED dinner has gone on to inspire other companies to do the same. Burger institution Shake Shack released a limited run of veggie pulp burgers. Salad guru Sweetgreen pulled together an all-scrap salad of cabbage cores, kale stems, and broccoli stalks. And finally, Saucy by Nature, a Brooklyn-based restaurant with an all-scrap menu founded by chef Przemek Adolf, who was sick of seeing his catering company’s surplus funneled straight into the wastebasket. Even with waste numbers at an all-time high, there is hope for the future. In September 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the United States’ first official national food loss and waste goal: a bill that calls for a 50 percent reduction of waste by 2030. Both the USDA and the EPA will work together to unite charitable organizations in both the public and private sector, local food banks, and state and county governments to lower food waste and improve national food security. With this push and the support of the public, we can work together to reduce our waste. Want to get involved? Here are some helpful tips from the EPA to reduce food waste at home.
  • Shop your refrigerator, get creative, and use what you have on hand
  • Plan your meals and opt for more frequent, smaller trips to the grocer
  • Avoid buying in bulk if you do not realistically need or use an item
  • If it is safe and healthy, try to use all parts of a food item, make soup or stock from kitchen scraps
  • Learn to preserve, pickle, and store veggies and fruits
  • Compost food scraps
  • Donate excess food to your local food bank, pantry, or rescue program
  • Volunteer at your local food bank
  • Reach out to local grocers, restaurants, and venues to suggest how they can donate to local organizations
Photo via iStockgurney_photo_headshotNicole Gurney is a freelance writer living and working in San Diego. She focuses on healthy living, recipe development and exploring the role mindfulness plays in leading a balanced life. Sea salt and chocolate are her weaknesses, as is the promise of a good time. Eclectic and creative, she seeks new opportunities to grow her talents as a young professional, while remaining calm and level in an ever more demanding world.