Last February the Waste and Resources Action Program—a British anti-waste organization—reported that one-third of the food produced globally is never eaten. That’s roughly two billion metric tons of edible waste that ends up in landfills, where it emits about seven percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists have taken notice and the problem—food waste—is now a serious environmental concern. “If more and more people recognize their own food waste,” writes Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, “we can take a bite out of this problem.”
As Bloom suggests, reformers have largely placed responsibility for reducing food waste in the hands of consumers. More often than not we are rightfully admonished to eat the whole metaphorical hog as an act of ecological redemption.
Too often the movement’s leaders assume that the disadvantaged—despite bearing the brunt of environmental injustices—have neither the will nor the means to ameliorate global environmental problems.
“Leftovers can be turned into completely different meals,” writes one reader of Bloom’s blog, Wasted Food. “To better utilize food,” writes another, “use the whole animal” (the reader suggests bone broth). “STIR-FRY,” says a third, who claims to “live in a forest.” Throw in the prevailing advocacy for eating “ugly fruit” and the intrepid dumpster divers and you have a landscape of waste warriors crusading to achieve meaningful reform by piling our plates with food items we’d normally toss (or have already tossed).
The most conspicuous example of this eat-the-leftovers approach to reducing food waste recently came from celebrity chef Dan Barber. For a stretch of time in March, Barber cleared out his famous Blue Hill restaurant and replaced it with a “pop-up” creation—called WastED—that served food scraps salvaged from commercial kitchens. For $85 a meal, patrons could sample an array of dishes cooked with recycled culinary debris, including pickle butts, carrot tops, offal, and skate-wing cartilage. Exchanging spare ribs for kale ribs, diners were able to experience a culinary novelty while doing a good deed for the environment. It was the American way of reform epitomized: Fix the problem by buying something that makes you happy.
Barber is one of the most innovative and socially conscious chefs working today. He can coax more taste from the compost bin than most chefs can get from a cut of Kobe and a stick of butter. And he can tell you, convincingly, why this ability matters.
WastED’s approach was also a refreshing diversion from the “our-endive-was-picked-by-virgins-in-our-local-micro-garden” song-and-dance. That said, a pop-up eatery that invites the well-to-do to eat a meal made of garbage that costs more than half of what an average family of four spends on food every week isn’t only peripheral to the problem; it’s a media-hogging distraction from a far more prosaic but effective way to reduce food waste.
Before exploring that option, it’s worth noting the socioeconomic context of Barber’s experiment. Food and poverty typically intersect with unfortunate consequences (say, obesity) that further disempower low-income consumers. The concept of WastED—particularly the idea that it takes a famous chef and his village of wealthy patrons to confront this food crisis—only exacerbates the problem. When wealthy diners elevate food scraps to haute cuisine, they might reduce a little food waste. But they also send a message to the masses: We can transform barnyard food into gourmet fare; so leave this one to us.
Unfortunately, this attitude pervades the American environmental movement. Too often the movement’s leaders assume that the socio-economically disadvantaged—despite bearing the brunt of environmental injustices—have neither the will nor the means to ameliorate global environmental problems. The implication that’s never articulated but frequently manifested is that better educated and more economically privileged “progressives” are therefore entitled to rescue the dispossessed from ecological degradation.
The inaccessibility of an $85 meal drives home this point. And not just for low-income folks. It’s also a middle finger to the middle class.
The inaccessibility of an $85 meal drives home this point. And not just for low-income folks. It’s also a middle finger to the middle class. The median-income family of four spending $150 a week on food would, in order to participate in the WastEd experience, have to spend $340 for a single meal of kitchen scraps. The message sent to the hoi polloi is just as insulting: Stay away.
If WastED aimed to be a replicable model for less tony restaurants to democratize, matters might be different. But Barber’s pop-up lasted all of 17 days. The wave of adoring media attention peaked just as Blue Hill re-opened. Jonathan Bloom, who “loved that [WastED] employed creativity to shift our definition on what is edible and delicious,” nonetheless lamented the concept’s brief duration. “I wish WastED wasn’t a pop-up,” he writes in an email. He adds that, despite some success in Europe with leftover-based restaurants, “the whole exercise was too esoteric.”
He’s right. It was an esoteric concept. But the bigger problem is that “food waste” and WastED entered the mainstream media in tandem, thereby obscuring a far more accessible and totally boring solution that we’ve known about for a while: wrapping more food in plastic. Covering perishables in a synthetic film may not be as sexy as eating a veggie burger made with leftover juicer pulp, but—especially if the wrap is free of Polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—it’s almost certainly a more effective and scalable way to extend our food’s shelf life.
The purveyors of bananas, cucumbers, grapes, and potatoes have known this for a long time. Some very tedious scholarship bears it out. And common sense confirms that you can’t sell a plate of fancified broccoli stems if the head of broccoli rots in the first place. Plastic, which can biodegrade, makes it more likely that food will be eaten. More importantly, it allows all of us to come to the table.
The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.