The Big Waste

We Americans are spoiled.

But you knew that, right?

I just finished watching a Food Network show that made this fact all too plain. Called The Big Waste, the show featured four Food Network chefs – Bobby Flay, Michael Symon, Anne Burrell and Alex Guarneschelli – who were challenged to create a multi-course gourmet banquet for 100 people.

The catch: “You can only use food that is unwanted, rejected or otherwise deemed unsuitable for sale – waste food headed for the trash.”

To gather their bounty, the chefs visited meat shops, fish markets, orchards, farms, bakeries and grocery stores. Every one of these locations had a sickening amount of wasted food. Examples:

  • A chicken had a wing that was broken in processing. The farmer said they couldn’t sell it because the consumer would think the chicken was diseased or otherwise not fit to eat. “They think there’s more to it than just a simple broken wing.”
  • Eggs at one small farm varied in size from walnut to, oh, maybe the size of a plum. Not sellable because they weren’t of a uniform size or all the same color, farmer Brian said. “Brian throws away around 2,000 eggs a year, but the estimated number of wasted eggs in America is 5 billion,” according to the show’s narrator.
  • After a wholesale meat seller produces center-cut short ribs, the leftovers are discarded because people “don’t know what to do with this end of it.” As Chef Michael said, “Customers fall into habits, and so do we. … It’s good to see stuff [like this] because it makes us think.”
  • Cabbage at a you-pick-it farm had been tossed to the ground – in the middle of the crop rows – by people who thought the heads were too small or too wilted (the outer leaves only) or for some other unknown reason. The farmer estimated a 40-50 percent waste of his produce. Chef Bobby said, only half-jokingly, that those people should be charged a penalty for picking and then dumping perfectly good food on the ground (and for someone else to have to pick up, I would add). At the same farm, beautiful, blemish-free stalks of corn had been bent over in a hurricane, but the pickers passed them by because they weren’t standing upright.
  • At one grocery, peas had spots and carrots had small bruises, joining lots of less-than-picture-perfect produce heaped onto discard piles. At the same store, containers of ricotta cheese had been set aside for disposal, one day past the “best before” date. Shortbread imported from Scotland was being hauled out because it was “past its best-before date.” But as long as the date isn’t an expiration date, many products are safe to use past “the date,” the narrator said.
  • Hundreds (thousands?) of peaches at one you-pick-it orchard were tossed onto the ground because they were “not quite perfect.” Tomatoes at the same farm had a few cracks from too much rain and were similarly tossed – destined for the farm’s massive compost pile.

All edible food. All considered waste.

About 40 percent of the food produced in the United States isn’t eaten, according to the narrator – enough waste food to fill a football stadium every single day. The grocery store owner with all the not-so-pretty produce and the ricotta approaching its “best before” date actually thanked the chefs for taking the food off his hands; otherwise he would have to pay the trash folks to haul it off.

In an unusual twist, Anne met a “freegan” – a man name Robert who “tries to avoid consumerism at all costs.” He said there’s a misconception that all “people who go through trash for their food are homeless people or people with need, and it’s not [true]. I have a good job, and I have a nice home, and I do this because I want to and because it’s there.”

All things considered, Robert seemed like a reasonable guy, and he helped Anne dumpster-dive through a supermarket’s trash, a location he frequents for the discarded food. Much of the food was in packages (containers of quinoa salad a day before the sell-by date) or had peels or rinds that made them safe for rescuing (avocadoes, mangoes). (I don’t think they took the unwrapped bagels or loaves of bread.) I don’t know about Robert, or you, but this is where I would draw the line. I wouldn’t be afraid to take soon-to-be-discarded produce from a store owner or manager who explained why it wasn’t on the shelves, but items already in the alley trash would be very iffy for me. (Mom, I know you’re glad to hear me say this.)

But, as Robert said, it’s crazy to throw out perfectly good food; he said he would “like for there to be one day that I could ride from one end of Manhattan to the other without any food that’s still edible being put out.” I agree.

Anne invited Robert to the banquet, to dine among the restaurateurs, critics and other foodies and judge how the four top chefs succeeded in their mission.

I have to stop here and say I know what you’re thinking: With all this talk about dumpster diving and the retrieval of less-than-perfect, perishable food from certain disposal, what about safety – is some of the food as spoiled as we Americans are?

Don’t worry – with each batch of food the chefs took back to the kitchen, they had a food-safety inspector come in and examine it. Most of it passed, save a chunk of prosciutto that was 43 degrees – or 2 degrees higher than is considered safe. Prosciutto is cured, preserved meat, Anne argued, that would be safe even at 2 degrees above the limit. But the inspector wouldn’t pass it. You could tell that Anne had trouble with this one. She knows how prosciutto is produced and said she would be taking that chunk of meat home.

Despite that small setback for the culinary crew, it was heartening to know that a safety inspector examined the chefs’ finds. It would be easy to sensationalize the matter of American waste and disregard the fact that we have real issues with food safety and the system that purports to oversee it (but that’s a whole ’nother post).

In case you’re wondering how the chefs fared in their mission, they succeeded; they found enough destined-for-the-dumpster food to feed all 100 guests one appetizer, two entrees, a side dish and three desserts – all gourmet fare.

As Chef Anne kept saying, this makes me really sad.

And as Chef Alex said, “It’s making me even think about my own standards and how absurd they’ve become.”

As it did for each of the four chefs, this experience changed the way I look at fresh food, especially produce. I usually pick over the apples in the grocery store, examining each and every one to make sure it is bruise- and hole-free. After all, who wants to eat a bruised apple? (I must have had some kind of premonition about the show, though, because the last apples I bought had a few bruises; I have simply been cutting off the small bruised areas and eating the rest.)

When it was all over and the 100 guests had been fed (and satisfied – one food critic could be seen trying to scrape the last little bit of sauce with his fork), each of the chefs – many of whom I’ve seen waste food on their own TV shows – had something to say about their experience:

  • Bobby: “I have a different sense of what the definition of waste is when it comes to food now, because we just need to learn how to use it.”
  • Anne: “Makes me think twice whenever I put anything in the garbage.”
  • Alex: “I think now when I do buying for my restaurants I’ll think a lot about not minding so much nature’s imperfections.”
  • Michael: “It’s very, very eye-opening. I tell you, when I go to the grocery store now, I’m gonna to buy the holey apple with the spot.”

There is more to be said on this vast topic, but thank you, Food Network, for giving the subject some star power. Maybe a few people will sit up and listen, and maybe the conversation will continue.

If you live in Arkansas and know of excess food that is edible but destined for the dump, or to help out with a tax-free donation, visit Potluck, Arkansas’ only food-rescue organization.

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4 thoughts on “The Big Waste

  • Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Super post! Excellently written, compelling, relevant, and useful. And your comment about apples toward the end reminded me of something. I always make it a point to buy pristine apples, but one day, my oldest was disappointed looking at his unblemished fruit. He frowned and asked me if I had any with bruises. “Because the bruises are the sweetest part.” Even better, he’d been TAUGHT this notion at school, so I wonder if the inverse is true: are we teaching a new generation of consumers to only look for unblemished, picture-perfect foods? And could we teach them the opposite?

  • Monday, January 16, 2012 at 7:14 am

    That’s a fascinating point, Kristi. I’m interested in knowing more about what our children are being taught. And I’m glad he’s listening to the parts about not expecting perfection. If our kids can teach us some of these lessons, maybe the world won’t go to hell in a fruit basket, where I’ve often thought we were headed. Or at least maybe we won’t get there quite as quickly.

  • Monday, January 16, 2012 at 8:27 am

    It seems to be difficult to obtain this food unless you are a TV personality. I have heard a McD’s manager lament the fact that he has to throw food away when there is a homeless man close by who is hungry and is not even allowed to dumpster dive. I have asked a Wal Mart manager if there is some way that the food can be donated to hungry people. He said it could not be done because they might get sick. There is a line drawn, and one minute it is good enough to sell and the next minute it is unfit for human consumption. The line can not be blurred even for someone who is probably more likely to get sick from NOT eating.

  • Monday, January 16, 2012 at 8:56 am

    That’s really sad. I understand that we have to have standards, but somewhere the system got out of whack.

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