Waste-Less Wednesday: Down on the Farm

October 14, 2015 § 2 Comments

The issue of food waste has gone mainstream. Back in July, John Oliver covered the topic during an episode of “Last Week Tonight.” And last month, the USDA and EPA got in on the act, issuing a national Food Waste Challenge. The goal? To reduce food waste in the US by 50% by 2030. Already the challenge has received buy-in from major food retailers, as well as food industry and charitable organizations (although no formal program is in place yet).

Much of what’s reported and discussed in the media targets food waste at the consumer level: the food we buy and never eat, the science-experiment leftovers in our refrigerators, and the edible bits we toss out, like carrot greens and cauliflower leaves. But the consumer end is just one aspect of the food system in which food waste occurs. Food waste happens at all points in the system, literally from farm to table. According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) report, “Wasted,” the total loss for fruits and vegetables at the production level is about 20%, (“production losses are greatest for fresh produce”) and from post-harvest to retail amounts to about 14%.

The type of waste that occurs on large, commercial farms often involves leaving behind fields of edible product to serve supermarket requirements for size and beauty. The amount of fresh food wasted in this way is staggering.

Just Eat It – Field Waste – Cauliflower (Deleted Scene) from Grant Baldwin on Vimeo.

But what about local farms in the 650, many of which are family owned and already focused on sustainability? How can a small farm — reliant on farmers’ markets, restaurants, and CSA subscribers for sales — manage and reduce food waste, while growing a business? I had a chance to ask John Vars, who is a partner-farmer of Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero (along with co-partners Mike Irving and Teresa Kurtak) during FCF’s CSA Open House farm tour in August.

John Vars, one of Fifth Crow Farm's three partner-farmers, getting ready to lead a farm tour

John Vars, one of Fifth Crow Farm’s three partner-farmers, getting ready to lead a farm tour during the CSA Open House in August

You don’t see the kind of prettying-up waste that has happened on large, commercial farms. In terms of what Fifth Crow takes to market or provides to CSA subscribers, it’s the whole product harvested from the tree or bush or out of the ground. You’ll see the occasionally blemished or odd-sized fruit, extra-large heads of cauliflower, root vegetables with their greens still attached, and even roots-on basil.

Roots-on basil plant from Fifth Crow Farm: kept in water at room temperature, it lasted almost five weeks

Roots-on basil plant from Fifth Crow Farm: kept in water at room temperature, it lasted almost five weeks

Farmers’ markets are one of the less-predictable retail outlets for local farms. Market sales can be affected by weather, time of year, and customer tastes, just to name a few of the variables. Estimating market demand and producing “the right amount” is an on-going challenge for any growing food business.  You don’t want to disappoint customers by running out too quickly, but you also don’t want to end up with too much unsold product that you might have to take home with you.

One step in reducing food waste from farm to market then, is getting good at estimating your customers’ demands. Fifth Crow Farm currently participates in six Bay Area markets weekly, in addition to providing farm products to restaurants and CSA subscribers. With six years (now closing in on seven) of growing seasons behind them, the Fifth Crow folks have enough data and experience to better predict and plan what they take to farmers’ markets.

While they’ve gotten better at estimating what to take to market, inevitably there are items that don’t sell. In line with their sustainable, community-based approach to business, Fifth Crow handles leftover market products by:

  • Donating to community organizations that are able to pick up product directly from the market
  • Returning unsold produce to the farm and offering it to the employees, at no charge
  • Using it as food for the farm’s pasture-raised chickens (which produce some of the best eggs I’ve had recently)
No food waste: Fifth Crow Farm's pasture-raised chickens dine on greens, beets, kohlrabi, and fennel

No food waste: Fifth Crow Farm’s pasture-raised chickens dine on greens, beets, kohlrabi, and fennel

John mentioned that the partners especially like being able to offer the unsold products to their employees. In addition to paying a fair wage, it’s another way they support the employees’ hard work throughout the season.

So that’s how one local farm is doing it right: taking a multi-pronged approach that benefits the land, the community, and the farm as a business. Have you asked your local food producers and retailers how they’re reducing food waste? What did you learn? Share your experience in the comments below.

Waste-Less Wednesday: The Latest in Food Waste

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Starting today, Waste-Less Wednesday is getting a bit of a change up. In addition to tips and recipes for reducing food waste at home, you’ll be seeing the occasional news roundup of food waste topics, near and far.

While I think about food waste at a micro level — i.e., my kitchen and local food system — recent conversations with friends have reminded me to look beyond the 650. Conversations about food waste are now happening with more frequency at the national and international levels, thanks to chefs, writers, and food activists. We’re learning more about the impact of food waste on hunger, loss of resources, and climate change — and how all of us can be a part of the food waste solution. Here’s a roundup of what you might have missed recently.

September 29, 2015
Book Release: Waste Free Kitchen Handbook: A guide to eating well and saving money by wasting less food by Dana Gunders

Photo via Amazon.com

Photo via Amazon.com

Dana Gunders, who authored the pivotal food-waste report “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” is a Project Scientist with the National Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. I first heard her speak about food waste during a panel talk co-hosted by CUESA last year. During this educational and inspiring discussion, Gunders gave a most memorable description of consumer food waste: “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.”

As a scientist, Gunders wanted to understand what consumers needed to know to reduce food waste. Specifically, what did they need to know about buying, storing, and cooking food, including food that seems ready for the compost pile? For example: “When you’re standing in your kitchen with a wrinkled tomato, what do you need to know in order not to waste it?” In addition to practical information, the book also contains what Gunders calls “use-it-up recipes” for ingredients on the brink (or maybe just a little bit past).

Get the whole story in just 2 Minutes.
Read Dana Gunders’ blog post about the book release: Why I Wrote the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook | Dana Gunders’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC

September 28, 2015
United Nations’ Food Waste Luncheon is All About the Leftovers

Photo via @UN_spokesperson (Twitter)

Photo via @UN_spokesperson (Twitter)

Blue Hill and wastED Chef Dan Barber and former White House Chef Sam Kass recently created a luncheon of repurposed food for 30 world leaders. The meal, which included dishes created for and served at Barber’s wastED pop-up restaurant brought attention to the issues of global food waste, loss of resources, and climate change. The printed menu included a description of each course, but also the source of each ingredient. The first course, “Landfill salad,” consisted of “vegetable scraps, rejected apples and pears, and chickpea water.”

Get the 2-Minute version of the UN Food Waste Luncheon:
“UN Serves ‘Landfill Salad’ to Highlight Food Waste”

September 25, 2015
More Than a Billion Pounds of Seafood Going to Waste Every Year

Fresh, wild Alaskan salmon fillets, purchased in the 650

Fresh, wild Alaskan salmon fillets, purchased in the 650

Food waste doesn’t occur just on the farm or in the food-manufacturing plants. According to a recent NPR article, almost half of the US seafood supply ends up wasted. While seafood waste happens throughout the system — from boat to processor to consumer — “consumers are far and away wasting more seafood than any other group,” tossing out 1.3 billion pounds of seafood annually. Some of this seafood is purchased and never eaten, and some is “plate waste” that ends up in pet food bowls or the garbage.

Consumers aren’t solely to blame for seafood waste. Processing plants discard the “less desirable” parts of fish (think: fish heads) in favor of supermarket-perfect pieces. Commercial fisheries contribute to waste as well, through bycatch. Bycatch are the unwanted fish and other marine life that are caught in addition to the target species. Efforts are being made in the industry to reduce bycatch, but it’s still a problem.

Want to know more? Check out this 3-minute read on the state of seafood waste in the US:
Via NPR | The Salt | “We Leave Half Of All Our Seafood On The Table (And In The Trash) by Alistair Bland

September 16, 2015
USDA and EPA Set National Food Waste Reduction Target
Food waste hits the big time — and that’s a good thing! The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have issued a nationwide food-waste challenge: a 50% reduction of food waste by 2030. A variety of big-name US food retailers, agriculture industry reps, and charitable organizations have already signed on with support (Albertsons, Wegmans Markets, and City Harvest, just to name a few.)

Read the press release in 2½ minutes or less:
Food Retailers, Agriculture Industry, and Charitable Organizations Support First National Goal to Reduce Food Waste by 50 Percent by 2030.”

Want more detail? Check out the Office of the Chief Economist’s web page on food waste.

What’s your food waste story? Share in the comments below.

Waste-Less Wednesday: Front-End Solutions

April 29, 2015 § 2 Comments

Did you happen to catch the film “Just Eat It” on MSNBC last week? The 74-minute documentary, produced and directed by Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer, examines the topic of food waste from field to table in North America. If you missed it, here’s a taste. (For more information about the film and additional screenings, check out the website.)

Just Eat It – A food waste story (Official Trailer) from Grant Baldwin on Vimeo.

No boring facts-and-figures, talking-heads approach, this film chronicles the couple’s adventures and reactions during their six-month project to give up grocery shopping and live solely on reclaimed food. That’s right, from asking for out-of-date products and ugly vegetables at the supermarket to outright dumpster diving at wholesale food-supply locations, they not only eat, but eat well for duration of the project. (Spoiler alert: They don’t actually eat food scraps, but rather reclaim perfectly good packaged food discarded by food businesses, such as distributors and grocery stores.)

The film intersperses the couples’ experiences in acquiring food with eye-opening details direct from farmers and food-waste educators about how and where food waste occurs all along the food supply chain. Most staggering fact? 40% of all food, from farm to factory to table is wasted — left in the field, considered unsaleable by grocery stores, and just plain thrown in the garbage. Cameron Anderson, Harvest Manager for grower Pacific International says in the film that 20-30% of food grown is left in the field. Why? It’s a two-part issue: supermarket specifications for produce and customer expectations about appearance.

Just Eat It – Field Waste – Cauliflower (Deleted Scene) from Grant Baldwin on Vimeo.

Supermarkets refuse otherwise perfectly fresh and edible produce because it doesn’t meet specifications for size or beauty. And customers support this approach by seeking out the perfect produce. How many times have you passed by bruised apples or weird-looking squash? (Confession: I’ve done it.) Even farmers’ markets, generally known as a good source of fresh and local food, aren’t immune. In the film, one market supplier points out a lone bunch of greens at his stand, saying that it won’t sell because customers think there’s something wrong with it if there’s only one left.

In terms of what we buy and take home, Dana Gunders, Project Scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says that 15-25% goes to waste. (I first heard these statistics from Dana during CUESA’s “Beyond the Green Bin” panel talk last year.) Putting that in practical terms, she says it’s like “buying four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and leaving it there.” How does it happen? We over-estimate what we need, don’t use food before it spoils, throw away packaged or canned food because we’re not clear about what “best by” dates really mean, and so on.

Putting a dollar value on it, $165 billion worth of food is lost or thrown away annually in the US. And yet, approximately 17% of all Americans struggle with food insecurity, which means that at some point during the year, about 54 million people lack a reliable source of food. (Bringing it home, food insecurity in San Mateo county is close to 12% of our population.) At a macro level, we need a way to transfer that $165 billion of unnecessary food waste to those who lack a steady source of nourishment.

Wasted food is a waste of resources, which, when you think about it translates to even more dollars lost: the labor, water, and supplies that go into producing that food. Given our worsening drought conditions here in California, wasting food will have an even higher cost.

Food waste, then, can seem like an overwhelming and insurmountable problem. Indeed, social media reactions during the film included surprise, guilt, and anger at the amount and cost of waste. But knowledge is power, and as Maya Angelou said:  “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Films like “Just Eat It” and panel talks like CUESA’s “Beyond the Green Bin,” provide the information we need to “do better.”

So while I’ve posted about ways to reduce food waste on the back end — using, salvaging, or preserving what you already have — let’s talk about ways to get ahead of food waste on the front end, before you’re making that “toss or keep” decision.

Be a Man (or Woman) with a Plan
Before you head out to the grocery store, take a quick inventory at home. What food staples do you need? What are your go-to foods for those quick weekday meals and how much do you have on hand? Having a plan before you get to the market or grocery store will not only save time, but also means that you’ll reduce the possibility of impulse buys or “just in case” purchases. (On that same note: don’t shop hungry.)

Planning ahead will also leave you some leeway for those unexpected dinners out or nights when you’re just too tired or overwhelmed to cook and pizza is on speed dial. Which leads me to why it’s a good idea to shop “European-style”: buy smaller quantities and shop more often.

Shop Euro-Style
Time is a limited resource, so many of us try to consolidate a week’s worth of food shopping into one trip. Believe me, I get it. However, what that means is we’re often overbuying and unable to use produce (some of which has a very short shelf life) before it starts to fade. If you’re wasting food because you’re trying to save time, and that wasted food has a cost beyond what you paid for it at the grocery store, what are you really saving?

Consider purchasing enough food for about a few days at a time and commit to using it up before shopping again. Your food will be fresher, and you’ll use more of it. Maybe you visit the grocery store once a week for proteins and packaged goods and the farmers’ market on the weekends for produce. Find something that works for your schedule and lifestyle. Don’t have time to get out? Sign up for a CSA delivery (or choose one that drops off at a central point in your neighborhood) or a broader delivery service like Good Eggs.

Make a List
Make a list of perishable items to use first and keep it on your refrigerator. For example, delicate herbs, salad greens and tomatoes have short shelf lives and should probably at the top of your “use first” list. You can also use this list as a place to jot ideas for recipes you want to make and ways to use up certain produce items.fridge-list

Take It Home
Dining out and takeout/delivery contributes to food waste in a couple of ways. As I mentioned above, it’s often the reason we don’t get through all of the fresh food purchased from the grocery store or market. But restaurants are also giving us large portion sizes — often more than most people can eat in one sitting.

Consider taking home whatever you don’t eat during the meal. More often than not, I can get at least one more meal out of restaurant leftovers, sometimes two. Or you can use the restaurant leftovers to create a new meal using what you have at home. Case in point: I recently ordered vegetable biryani (rice dish) from my favorite Indian place. Talk about value for money — I had enough biryani for three days’ worth of meals! Indian cooking is not in my skillset, but with the biryani as the foundation, I added my own steamed vegetables and protein to create some deliciously spicy dishes and saved myself some cooking time.

Food waste is not an insurmountable problem and changing how we shop for, store, and cook food can make a huge difference. How are you working to reduce food waste on the front end? Do you shop “Euro style”? Designate a place in the fridge for “use first” items? Share your ideas in the comments or on our Facebook page!

Getting Ahead of the Green Bin

April 9, 2014 § 5 Comments

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: CropMobster.com. 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.

Restaurant
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.

Eat the Brazilian Way

March 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

For the past month or so, new dietary guidelines from Brazil have been making food news here in the US. Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics, lists the ten easy-to-understand guidelines proposed by the Brazilian government. There are no pyramids, no squares, no “this many servings,” just common-sense advice for eating well and mindfully.

Mixed Greens Salad, Ruby Grapefruit, Pistachio, and Grilled Chicken at Osteria Coppa (San Mateo, CA)

Mixed Greens Salad, Ruby Grapefruit, Pistachio, and Grilled Chicken
at Osteria Coppa (San Mateo, CA)

Fresh food, moderation, mindful eating, and sharing meals with others are key points of these guidelines. This approach puts the power of eating good food back in the hands (and mouths) of consumers. And it reminds us of the simple pleasure of enjoying and sharing the food we have. So many of us seem to have lost our connection to the food we eat — or we’re connecting with food that’s not healthy for us — and Brazil’s guidelines could be a wake-up call for Americans, particularly with new US guidelines due from the government in 2015.

While I agreed with the entire list — and was awed by the simple, common sense of it all — the top three guidelines for me are:

  • “Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.”
  • “Eat in company whenever possible.”
  • “Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.”

What I appreciate most about these guidelines is that they make a point to incorporate the planning, preparation, and sharing of food into everyday life. Healthy meals and good food are essential to our well-being, and we need to stop treating them as an afterthought. And I’m not talking about fancy food either. I’m talking about making a fresh salad, homemade meatloaf, or whatever suits your budget and skill level, and enjoying it with family and friends.

I really believe that the experience of food is to be shared — it’s a fundamental reason I started this blog. We create community by sharing our recipes, our successes and failures in making food, our dining experiences, and even what we do with the food that grows in our yards. Equally important as what and where we’re eating are food issues, such as dietary guidelines and food waste, and how we can affect change at home and in our communities.

The day after Ms. Nestle’s post about the Brazilian dietary guidelines, I had lunch with my friend Patricia at one of my favorite restaurants in the 650, Osteria Coppa. Osteria Coppa focuses on fresh, seasonal food, sourcing their ingredients from local foodcrafters and farmers. Patricia is a renaissance woman: baker, cottage food advocate, writer, and career coach — just for starters. Obviously we had a lot to talk about, including food! I remember thinking that our lunch together was a great example of what the Brazilian guidelines espoused, easily checking off at least half of the guidelines. Which is to say that following a different set of dietary guidelines might bring a greater benefit than just counting calories and checking off how much you ate today.

Fregola Sarda Broccolini, and Preserved Lemon at Osteria Coppa (San Mateo, CA)

Mt. Lassen Red Trout,
Fregola Sarda Broccolini, and Preserved Lemon at Osteria Coppa (San Mateo, CA)

If you haven’t had a chance yet, skip on over the Food Politics blog and read through the Brazilian dietary guidelines. Sound like something you could follow? Do you already? What plans do you have for making, sharing, and eating fresh food in good company this weekend?

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