Root to Stem -- How Changing the Way We Think About Food Can Reduce Waste

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that global food production must increase 60 percent by 2050 in order to feed our growing population. For some, the answer to avoiding this potential catastrophe is to continue to increase yields using conventional farming techniques, which include monocropping and GMOs. For me, the answer lies in eliminating the inefficiencies that exist in our current food system. For instance, it is widely stated that an estimated 40 percent of food produced in the United States goes to waste.

As consumers, many of us are already privy to recommendations to lessen household food waste such as ignoring cosmetic imperfections, buying only what we need and composting. Unfortunately, much of the waste occurs long before the food reaches our plate. One major step that each of us can take to help reduce food waste is to shorten the supply chain from the producer to your table. Purchasing directly from the farmer, fishmonger or butcher and working with them to create orders that distinctly fit your needs will decrease product and energy waste that occurs during processing, distribution and storage.

Another is to collectively challenge the way that we think about food. Like Einstein said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Making use of all edible products, even the obscure, is an effective way to minimize food waste. For instance, have you ever eaten pig head terrine, insects, anchovies or the leaves of a beet plant?

Last weekend, I was at my local farmer's market and bought a stalk of broccoli. Even as a food activist and trained chef, I have been conditioned to throw away (or compost) most of the broccoli plant, using only the florets. At the Natural Gourmet Institute, one of our founding principles is to eat "whole foods, as nature provides them with all of their edible parts." In that tradition, I vowed that day to eat my entire broccoli plant: floret, leaves and stalk. I took to social media asking the Instagram-a-verse what could be done with broccoli leaves. One day later, I received a response: "You can cut the vain [sic] out of the leaves then blanch the leaves and make a pesto or you can cut the leaves the same way and give them a shot of olive oil then roast for 15 minutes!." Perfect.

While the concept of utilizing a whole animal from 'nose to tail' is becoming increasingly popular, we are still throwing away many plant parts that are edible and nutritious. Once these plant parts end up in the trash, they require excess fossil fuels as they are transported to a landfill, where they will decompose and release methane into the atmosphere.

This week is an exciting time to talk about food waste. Friday will mark the first United States event hosted by international organization, Feeding the 5000. In an effort to raise awareness about edible food that is tossed, often for aesthetic reasons, Feeding the 5000 will salvage enough food from local farms to feed 5,000 people. On Friday night they will host Disco Soup, a spirited event where volunteers will prepare the rescued food to distribute to Food Bank NYC and their network of local charities. Founder Tristram Stuart will also take the stage at Food Tank's Food Waste Free NYC event on Thursday, September 19 where he will meet with leaders of the local food movement to discuss food waste in New York City.