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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

How to think about the food we waste.

Uli Westphal

Why do some food issues catch fire while others languish, inert or mired in controversy? Food waste is one. Seemingly overnight, it has gone from being the province of humorless scolds to what every cool kid is talking about. Nose-to-tail use of animals you butchered yourself was one thing. But these days you can’t hold your head up as a professional chef or even home cook unless you can turn out a mean garbage salad.

The political world changed overnight too. In September, the Obama administration went from being largely silent to committing to a 50-percent reduction in food waste by 2030. The sweeping, if unenforceable, gesture came the same week as the United Nations General Assembly session, where world leaders talked about sustainable development, and three months before the climate change conference in Paris, where the Food and Agriculture Organization announced a multi-country initiative.

In December, Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced the Food Recovery Act, a long list of ideas that, like many congressional bills, seemed to be more about idealism than realism (direct the hot-button School Lunch Program to buy “ugly produce,” establish the USDA Office of Food Recovery). But almost instantly, one of its key components—a permanent and significant tax break for businesses and farmers who donate food to food banks and soup kitchens—got passed in the omnibus spending bill and is now law. By policy standards, food waste has gone from zero to 60 in mere seconds.

Why the speed? Politics, for one. Tell people to grow organic, and pesticide and herbicide companies will accuse you of depriving the world of drought-resistant, increased-yield, nutrient-enhanced crops. Tell them to eat less sugar, and soda companies and the sugar lobby will come after you.  

But tell people to stop throwing out food because they overbought or ordered in more often than they’d planned one week; point out that the food hauled to landfills in plastic bags rather than composted will rot and emit methane as efficiently as a field of belching cows; show schoolchildren and college kids the vats of recently cooked food and unopened cartons of milk and juice they’re throwing out every day, and they’ll want to change. Nobody leaps up to defend wasting perfectly good (or practically perfect) food. Food waste doesn’t have a constituency.

“It’s not controversial,” Pingree, a longtime organic farmer and restaurant owner who, along with Rosa DeLauro, is one of the most progressive legislators on food and agriculture, recently told me. “Everyone’s grandmother said, ‘Don’t waste food.’” Nor were the ideas in her bill unheard of; many have been germinating for years. Two books, Tristram Stuart’s 2009 Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal and Jonathan Bloom’s 2010 American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), got the current discussion around food waste rolling. A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill, summarized ideas from Bloom’s book; to the surprise of the NRDC staff scientist who wrote it, Dana Gunders, the report became one of the agency’s most-downloaded ever.

As with most food matters today, though, it took chefs to make food waste sexy. Dan Barber, whose book The Third Plate argued that farm-to-table must mean the whole farm—not just the choice and ripe-in-season bits, but the offal and tough, unused cuts of animals and weedy, fibrous leaves and ends of vegetables—created a pop-up restaurant last March called WastED (the “ED” for “education,” presumably). It served menus he and other star chefs created using food that would otherwise be discarded or simply never sold because no one thinks to cook with it. All of New York fought for a reservation.

Barber’s menus made a deep impression on his friend and champion Sam Kass, who for five years drove Michelle Obama’s obesity-fighting campaign. “Not till I ate at Dan’s pop-up did the issue crystallize for me,” Kass told me recently. When U.N. representatives approached Kass about a lunch Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was hosting to help focus world leaders on climate change and food, he asked Barber to design the menu. It worked. Seeing and tasting something on the plate always makes an issue register as can no documentary (most recently Expired? from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic) or TED talk (like Stuart’s, with its 1.3 million views). When Kass saw Ban and IMF chief Christine Lagarde at the World Economic Forum in Davos months later, she told him it was Barber’s dumpster-dive salad she remembered. (I remember it too—I got to try it at a pop-up Barber participated in one night at Eataly. It had many artful ribbons of vegetables and a bright vinaigrette, both of which can hide a multitude of sins, and only a few things that looked vaguely brown.)

So what’s realistic for the government to enact in the short term? “You get a crystal ball,” Pingree replied when I asked her what in her bill was likely to see the light of law. “Here’s the issue about realism. Sometimes success is luck and timing.” The next law she thought ripe for change is expiration dates on food products. Spouses and roommates constantly argue, and “they’re confused for all the right reasons,” she said. Every manufacturer makes up a different set of rules, so nobody knows what they mean. Her bill requires any manufacturer using a sell-by date to add the words “Manufacturer’s Suggestion Only” in the same size, font, and color as the date (infant formula is exempted), and it directs the FDA to generate a list of foods like raw shellfish that are sold ready to eat and that have a high risk of microbial contamination with time—a relatively short list of foods, in other words, that are likely to make you sick if you wait too long. In February, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced a similar bill. Apart from the reduced food waste, cleaning up sell-by dates would be a public service toward promoting domestic tranquility.

Bloom says keeping food out of landfills is the single most effective step in reducing waste and helping the environment—with the benefit of forcing people to literally stick their noses in the amount of food they’re throwing away. San Francisco, Seattle, and Massachusetts have all passed legislation limiting the amount of food waste that can be dumped and mandating curbside compost collection. “To be honest, it keeps garbage from being gross,” Gunders, of the nrdc, told me, adding that pretty much any household can cut out 10 to 20 percent of its own waste by paying even scant attention to it. “It ends up being a more tidy kitchen situation.” Pingree thinks kids will be the best nags—or “fabulous ambassadors,” as she calls them—who will guilt their parents into composting, just as a previous generation guilted their parents into recycling.

No food trend would be complete, of course, without flashy apps and tech start-ups. Many apps link businesses with hunger-relief organizations that can use their surplus food, including Spoiler Alert, from two students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Various apps alert you to markdowns of produce approaching their sell-by dates at nearby stores—something I’d happily use, as I’ve long searched out sale racks in supermarkets not just for bargains but for ripe fruit. Imperfect Produce, a Bay Area–based company, home-delivers proudly ugly organic fruit and vegetables to several cities. Even dedicated brick-and-mortar stores are opening: In Boston, the Daily Table puts “short-dated” food, items near their (remember, arbitrary) sell-by date, in its produce bins, and a glossy supermarket aimed at conscience-driven high-income buyers has just opened in, where else, Denmark.

Some apps are maybe a bit Portlandia-ready, like LeftoverSwap, which has people meeting on street corners to exchange leftovers. Some gizmos are a bit creepy, like the smart refrigerators from Innit, which are equipped with cameras that know exactly what you’ve bought, measure gas emissions to deduce which produce is about to spoil, and serve you recipes to use that food.

Will any of this really change anything? Will your smelly compost, or stingily measured-out lettuce, help anyone besides you and your conscience? “No, you’re not putting your leftovers in an envelope and sending them to Africa,” Gunders admitted. But consumers account for 40 to 50 percent of the food supply that is wasted, she says. Stuart insists the U.S. “operates in a global market,” and told me that “if we buy and waste food, we’re taking it off the global market shelf people in Mali and across Asia depend on.” (He also promotes celebratory, Barber-style banquets of salvaged food called Feeding the 5000, and has helped start a beer company that ferments bread ends that would otherwise be discarded.) Gunders said a successful reduction of demand by even 10 percent could translate to lower demand and lower prices that could “allow people at the margins to afford more food themselves.”

I plan to be ever more vigilant when tempted at produce bins, and even compost. But what I plan to keep my eye on is action based on the ideas Pingree has turned into potential law—the changes, however many more dumpster-dive salads I virtuously order, that can help fix one of the few global-scale problems that she, at least, makes seem solvable.