Food Matters: A new documentary digs into a worldwide scandal
FOOD MATTERS, PEOPLE!
A few ways to help reduce food waste:
• COMPOST, ALREADY! Aspen residents may pick up a free 6.5-gallon bucket at the City of Aspen Environmental Health and Sustainability Department, second floor of City Hall; Pitkin County residents, head to the landfill.
• PLAN MEALS. Knowing exactly what to buy at the grocery store reduces waste, saves money, and makes shopping a snap.
• FREEZE LEFTOVERS. Dinner in a hurry next week? Yes, please.
• USE SCRAPS. Make broth from vegetable cuttings or bread pudding from stale loaves.
• BUY LESS FOOD. Just do it.
If, as William Shakespeare wrote back in the 17th century, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” then why are we burying our brethren alive in landfills?
According to the powerful new documentary film produced by Anthony Bourdain, “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste,” one third of all food produced in the United States — 133 billion pounds — is thrown away, uneaten.
Of that, 90 percent ends up in the trash dump. There, choked of oxygen necessary to decompose properly, discarded food festers and emits methane gas, which is 23 times more noxious to the planet than carbon dioxide. The movie, which screened during the Aspen Filmfest last week to a sold-out audience (and won the Audience Award for best doc), is stuffed with such stomach-turning stats.
Here’s another: Did you know that a single head of lettuce needs 25 years to fully break down in a landfill? Yeah, neither did the handful of people on the street interviewed on camera. The top guess was just four years. They were way off!
“Food waste is sinful, criminal, and financially foolish,” notes Mario Batali, one of a slew of celebrity chefs, farmers, food purveyors, entrepreneurs, and activists featured in “Wasted!” He goes on to explain that every culture has its own iconic dish prepared using items that might be considered waste: Provençal bouillabaisse is made with reject fish bones; prosciutto di Parma is produced by scrap-fed pigs.
One in five kids in this country don’t get enough to eat every day. The solution to world hunger isn’t producing more food, Batali explains — the 1.3 billion tons of wasted food would easily do the trick. Instead, the issue boils down to a lack of respect for hardworking farmers and for food itself.
“Wasted!” explores this gross epidemic from multiple angles. First up: Farms, where a ridiculous 10 million tons of produce go unharvested annually. Dan Barber, chef-owner of Blue Hill restaurant in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns upstate, explores the notion of what is usable, too. An area farmer leads Barber into a field of cauliflower, a prime example of a crop that produces a large proportion of waste simply by growing. Cauliflower is mostly leaf — only 40 percent of each plant is flower, the white stuff we consume. But why? Barber asks, while munching on a freshly picked cauliflower leaf. “Delicious!” Good news, he adds: “Diners are increasingly demanding new tastes.”
The next stop is the supermarket, where the average American spends $1,500 per year on wasted food. A major culprit, besides overbuying, is as confusing as it is corrupt: “best by,” “best before,” “use by,” and “sell by” dates.
As chefs, savvy consumers, and anyone who reads the FDA Food Product Dating website understand, “Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.”
Best-by, best-before, use-by, and sell-by dates added by U.S. manufacturers indicate quality: taste, texture, appearance. And they are largely misleading. I eat eggs weeks past the date stamped on the package; I don’t get sick, and I save a few bucks. (A good test: place the egg in question in a glass of water. A fresh egg will lie on its side; older eggs will stand on end; rotten eggs float — discard!) When in doubt, use the more reliable, highly scientific method: The smell test.
Grocery stores also have a dirty habit of stocking far more food than they are legitimately able to sell, because the appearance of plenty is thought to subtly convince consumers to purchase more, more, more. Foods with expired sell-by dates are pulled from the shelves, sometimes sold at a deep discount a day or two before the date. Oh, and all of that extra food is thrown into dumpsters behind the stores. (Last year, France forbid supermarkets from wasting food; surplus is donated to food banks and charities.)
The food waste problem, however, isn’t totally depressing. “Wasted!” introduces viewers to ventures that are turning trash into treasure. Take Toast Ale in the U.K. The brew was conceived as a means to use up bread ends chucked by companies that prepare and package grab-and-go sandwiches sold across the country. (Ever since the Fourth Earl of Sandwich ordered his steak served between two slices of bread so that he might carry on playing cards without getting greasy hands, Brits have been top consumers of these handheld meals — currently noshing on a billion sandwiches per month.) Toast replaces one third of the grains in its pale ale recipe with waste bread. Nobody interviewed indicated that the beer tastes any different, either. Brilliant!
“Wasted!” travels to Japan, where the Food Waste Recycling Law has effectively reduced, reused, or recycled more than 80 percent of the country’s waste. Danny Bowien, chef-owner of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York, swings by a farm on which pigs are fed scraps of specific foods. One agency turns 35 tons of food waste into animal feed daily, thereby spawning hundreds of varieties of designer pork that blind-tasters deem far sweeter than conventional Japanese pork, fed corn. “I feel like I’m tasting pork for the first time,” Bowien quips.
There’s talk about trash fish and by-catch — 6 pounds of unwanted fish are caught for every pound of shrimp, for instance. Here Batali pleads with us to stop calling it “trash fish,” which “diminishes the value” of these species. (He suggests another term, such as “exotica.”) We visit acclaimed chef Massimo Bottura’s soup kitchen — “refettorio” — in Milan, which runs on food deemed unsellable to the public. First started as a pop-up during the 2015 Milan Expo, the project has spawned refettorios in Rio de Janeiro and London. He plans to open one in the U.S. next.
Finally, in New Orleans at the Samuel J. Green Charter School, we see the city’s largest schoolyard edible garden. Here on a third of an acre in an urban area reborn post-Katrina, students plant, tend, and harvest crops. Learning about the process from seed to school lunch inspires respect for the food. And, since much of the school’s philosophy is about respecting food, the kids compost everything. Students collect cafeteria leftovers in tabletop pails and return scraps to a carefully layered compost pile. They take turns flipping the decomposing matter to cultivate nutrient-rich soil that will return to the garden, full-circle.
In fact, a few local school field trips were in the audience at the Aspen Filmfest screening of “Wasted!” Now I’d suggest that the doc be required watching for every school-age child (and every adult, for that matter) across America.
“Wasted!” ends on a positive note: Everybody, regardless of income level or social status, can participate in reducing food waste. As the name of this weekly column suggests, food matters! So let’s treat it so.
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