Getting Ahead of the Green Bin

If you’ve been following 650Food, you know that I’ve written about food waste previously, and that I’m working on reducing food waste in my own kitchen. I’m loving the opportunity to research and learn more about the ingredients I’m buying and coming up with new ways to use them. My current projects involve carrot greens and broccoli stems (but more about that some other time).

Carrot greens
Project in progress…

I’m really intrigued by a root-to-stalk approach to cooking produce, and it’s inspiring me to think and cook differently!

While these kitchen experiments make for good content — and good eating — the fact remains that food waste is a broad-reaching issue. At a consumer level, we’re not only wasting food, but also the money that we spend on that food (about $2,000 annually for a family of four!). When you consider the resources used to produce that food — time, money, labor, water — the cost is even greater.

Harder to swallow still is the fact that 1 in 6 Americans — more than 50 million people — are “food insecure,” which means that they don’t have access to a regular food source at least some time during the year. In San Mateo county, the heart of the 650, almost 12% of the population was food insecure in 2011. (Want to know the numbers for your county? Check out Feeding America’s site.) It’s an issue that can quickly seem overwhelming when you consider its reach, but a diverse cross-section of people who love and respect food are working on the problem and have some great ideas that can help at the home and community level.

CUESA, the organization that puts on the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers’ markets co-hosted “Beyond the Green Bin,” a panel talk on food waste (with creative snacks from Perbacco and Bi-Rite Market) on March 24 at the Commonwealth Club.

CUESA "Beyond the Green Bin" panel
L to R: Julie Cummins, Dana Frasz, Staffan Terje, Nick Papadopolous, Dana Gunder

Julie Cummins, Education Director for CUESA moderated the panel, which included:

Julie Cummins kicked off the discussion by talking about how the Bay Area has been a leader in the nation for providing green bins for curbside pickup of food and yard waste. So, we’re really hitting it in terms of the “recycle” part of “reuse, repurpose, recycle,” but now it’s time to look at what we can do to minimize using the green bin for food waste.

I was particularly jazzed to hear what Dana Gunders (NRDC) had to say, as her report “Wasted” basically blew me away when I read the breadth and depth of food waste in the US: 40%. That’s the total percentage of food that goes to waste from farm to table to trash. Or as Gunders put it: “It’s like going to the grocery store, buying five bags of groceries and dropping two of them in the parking lot — and leaving them there.” And that’s every time you go to the store. Think about that for a second.

Food waste happens at all points from farm to landfill. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • On the farm: Some produce never leaves the farm because the expense of bring it to market exceeds the cost of not taking it to market
  • In the supermarket: Food may go to waste due to market requirements for “perfect” produce, or a store might purchase more inventory than it can sell
  • In restaurants: Portion sizes have increased significantly in the past 30 years, and customers can’t eat everything they’re served
  • At home: Consumers end up throwing out food due to poor planning and overbuying when shopping, as well as confusion around product expiration dates

So that’s the “bad news” as Dana put it, but the panel had lots of good news. When asked what they and their organizations were doing to address the food waste issue, as well as how the rest of us can help in reducing food waste, they had a lot to say.

Community & Business
Dana Frasz’ organization Food Shift is working on ways to move beyond composting as the answer to food waste by developing food distribution solutions. Currently programs exist to recover food, but not to store and distribute it to those who could benefit. Food Shift is bridging that gap by partnering with a variety of food-related businesses — such as grocery stores, festivals, and farmers — to create a “sustainable food-recovery program.” Partners include Andronico’s Markets and Airbnb.

Food Shift not only closes the gap in the food-recovery and distribution process, it’s helping to create employment opportunities through its partnerships and programs. What Dana and her organization are finding is that through Food Shift’s programs, they’re making a viable case for food recovery, which can lead to changes in food policy.

Farms & Food Producers
Nick Papadopoulos, an entrepreneur with a farming background (his family owns Bloomfield Farms Organics), learned that using social media is an effective way to alert a broad audience about leftover food from farmers’ markets. The social media “alerts” fall into four categories: deals, donations, freebies, and trades.

What he learned through that experience has been funneled into a next-level project for crowdsourcing and alerts: The site connects farmers with their communities to reduce food waste on the farm and in the market by posting an alert on the Crop Mobster™ site. “Deals” might include a case of eggs or a new type of kale at 50% off. Donations and freebies can benefit organizations that support food insecure families and individuals.

If you live in the Bay Area, check out the CropMobster™ site. It provides yet another way to connect with local farmers and their products.

Chef Staffan Terje talked about the importance of education in a restaurant environment — not only in regard to the ingredients used, but to help his staff reduce food waste. As a chef, “[his] job and duty is that nothing goes to waste.” Illustrating that innovative and creative thinking can produce simple and delicious food, Chef Terje provided two appetizers for tasting before the event: a carrot-greens pesto and a creamy beet-greens dip.

The lessons of a restaurant kitchen can be transferred to the home cook, as he views a household much like a “mini restaurant.” Everything counts, and considering the use of only part of an ingredient is a waste of time, labor, and money. We need to “start with ourselves and examine what we eat.” He recommends letting the seasons dictate what we eat by choosing locally produced seasonal food.

The Home Kitchen
The NRDC is working on several ideas that can help consumers reduce food waste at home. One of the biggest contributors to food waste they’ve found is confusion regarding the “sell by” or “best by” date on food packaging. There’s no standard, and so consumers often throw out products that are actually still good to eat or drink. Dana Gunders and her group are proposing a standard approach to labeling products paired with ways to educate consumers about that new standard. Furthering the consumer food-education process, the group is working on a cookbook (due in 2015) that will “close the knowledge gap about food” — how to store it, how long to keep it, and what to make with it.

A simple way to reduce food waste at home? “It really starts at the store.” She recommends planning ahead for grocery shopping and factor in the possibilities that you might end up going out for dinner or be too tired to cook one night. Also, she recommends using the freezer: make food ahead and freeze it, or freeze your leftovers for future meals. Can’t finish your restaurant meal? Take a doggie bag home. Her best advice for reducing food waste: “Make it fun — a game in your kitchen.” (Couldn’t agree more!)

We’re all contributing to that 40% in some way, but we can change that! Even the small efforts that we — as cooks, food lovers, people who like to eat — make at home, in restaurants, and at the market will make a difference.

0 thoughts on “Getting Ahead of the Green Bin

  1. Loving this focus on food waste in your own kitchen as well as regionally. Such a great topic to explore. Way to go.

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