Every year some six billion pounds of U.S. fruits and vegetables go unharvested or unsold, often for aesthetic reasons.
Tristram Stuart has 24 hours to produce a restaurant meal for 50 people—to plan a menu, gather food, then welcome guests to a venue in a city not his own. Complicating what sounds like a reality-show contest is a singular rule: Nearly all the ingredients must be sourced from farms and vendors intending to throw them out.
In California’s Salinas Valley growers annually trash thousands of tons of fresh greens that lack sufficient shelf life for a cross-country journey. [Photograph by Brian Finke]
After racing back to New York City from a New Jersey farm where he gleaned 75 pounds of crookneck squash deemed by the farmers too crooked to sell, Stuart bolts from a car creeping through traffic and darts into a Greenwich Village bakery. Tall and blond, with a posh English accent, he launches into his ten-second spiel: “I run an organization that campaigns against food waste, and I’m pulling together a feast tomorrow made with food that won’t be sold or donated to charity. Do you have any bread that we could use?” The bakery doesn’t, but the clerk hands him two broken chocolate-chip cookies as consolation.
Stuart flings himself into the car. His next stop: the Union Square farmers market, where he spies a chef wrapping fish in squares of brioche dough, then trimming them into half circles. “Can I have your corners?” Stuart asks, with a meant-to-be-charming smile. The chef, uncharmed, declines. He’s going to make use of this dough himself. Undaunted, Stuart sails on through the market, delivering his pitch and eventually procuring discarded beet greens, wheatgrass, and apples.
Near Apartadó, Colombia, activist Tristram Stuart examines bananas too short, long, or curved for the European market. Locals consume some rejected bananas, but growers in the region annually dump millions of tons of edible fruit.
Eighteen hours later scores of chefs, food-recovery experts, and activists talk shop over chef Celia Lam’s squash tempura, turnip and tofu dumplings, and spiralized zucchini noodles. Stuart himself had cooked very little, but he had, without a single formal meeting, ensorcelled a half dozen people to devise a menu, gather ingredients, and then prep, cook, serve, and clean up a meal for little more than the chance to be associated with one of the most compelling figures in the international fight against food waste.
Across cultures, food waste goes against the moral grain. After all, nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we squander enough food—globally, 2.9 trillion pounds a year—to feed every one of them more than twice over. Where’s all that food—about a third of the planet’s production—going?
In developing nations much is lost postharvest for lack of adequate storage facilities, good roads, and refrigeration. In comparison, developed nations waste more food farther down the supply chain, when retailers order, serve, or display too much and when consumers ignore leftovers in the back of the fridge or toss perishables before they’ve expired.
At RC Farms, just ten or so miles from the Las Vegas Strip, hogs convert surplus potatoes from a local food processor into protein that may eventually find its way onto our plates. [Photograph by Brian Finke]
Wasting food takes an environmental toll as well. Producing food that no one eats—whether sausages or snickerdoodles—also squanders the water, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, fuel, and land needed to grow it. The quantities aren’t trivial. Globally a year’s production of uneaten food guzzles as much water as the entire annual flow of the Volga, Europe’s most voluminous river.
Growing the 133 billion pounds of food that retailers and consumers discard in the United States annually slurps the equivalent of more than 70 times the amount of oil lost in the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to American Wasteland author Jonathan Bloom. These staggering numbers don’t even include the losses from farms, fishing vessels, and slaughterhouses.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S. On a planet of finite resources, with the expectation of at least two billion more residents by 2050, this profligacy, Stuart argues in his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, is obscene.