As with the impacts of climate change and poor dietary habits, the effects of food waste are not felt right away. You may notice the amount of leftovers and spoiled produce that you toss into the trash every week, but you don't see the mountains of waste rotting in landfills, generating billions of metric tons of greenhouse gases and wasting the Earth's freshwater resources.
The James Beard Foundation, under new chief executive Clare Reichenbach, wants to use its national platform to raise awareness and help professional chefs and home cooks alike combat a complex production, supply and consumer problem that annually results in the waste of about one-third of all the food grown in the world. As part of its new multi-year campaign, the foundation has released a new cookbook, "Waste Not," featuring tips and chef-driven recipes that use whole vegetables or scraps. It has also launched a weekly promotion, Waste Not Wednesday, to encourage consumers to learn how to better manage their household food.
"We want to build a movement around this," Reichenbach said in a phone interview.
Theoretically, the foundation notes, if Americans eliminated food waste one day a week for an entire year, the effort would save 7.8 million tons of food - enough to provide 13 billion meals for the hungry. But even if all Americans don't step up for the cause - particularly millennials, the generation least confident in its kitchen skills - chef, restaurateur and activist Tom Colicchio says raising awareness will be enough. For now.
"I think people just need to understand how much they're wasting," Colicchio said in a phone interview. "It's like putting the frog in the cold water and turning up the heat. You don't see the waste. You don't see the amount of food that goes into the garbage, but it amounts to about $1,500 to $1,800 per person per year."
Colicchio, who resigned from the Food Policy Action group that he co-founded, knows there is waste all along the food chain, from farms to supermarkets to restaurants to households. Colicchio is also assisting a group to help reduce supermarket waste by turning it into fertilizer and animal feed.
"The individual person, they can each play a little part, and that will definitely reduce food waste," Colicchio says. "But if you can get some big movers here, I think that will really put a dent in waste."
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How can home cooks (and even diners) help reduce waste? Colicchio, Reichenbach and the chefs who contributed to "Waste Not" all have tips:
- Make use of your freezer. If you're roasting a chicken, for example, Colicchio advises that you save the leftover bones in the freezer. When you have enough bones stored up, you can make a chicken stock, which is good for soups, risottos, braises and more. Or if you're cooking a big pot of beans - more than you can possibly eat in one sitting - freeze the rest for later.
"People don't make good use of the freezer," Colicchio says. "We've done such a good job of telling people that they have to use fresh goods that they're not using the freezer. And if they do use it, it's a stopover before it goes into the garbage."
- Save those fruits before they turn. For example, you can place ripe bananas on a sheet pan, with the skins intact, and bake them for 15 minutes at 350 degrees until the peels are black, according to "Waste Not." "Once cool, peel the roasted bananas and freeze [them] in a zip-lock bag," the authors write. "They won't darken in the freezer, and they're perfect for smoothies and banana bread." Similarly, lay individual berries on a baking sheet or plate and freeze them overnight, uncovered. Once the berries are frozen, store them in resealable bags in the freezer. "You can easily pluck them out just a few at a time and put them straight in the bottom of your bowl before topping with hot oatmeal, or add to a smoothie for more texture."
- Select restaurants based on their food-waste policies. Does the chef at your favorite restaurant use whole vegetables? Does she make her own stocks from vegetable scraps or animal bones? Does he adopt a nose-to-tail philosophy when using animals? These practices (or the lack of them) can affect a diner's decision on where to eat, but they're particularly important to millennials, who are "increasingly value-driven," Reichenbach says.
- Get closer to the source of your food. Colicchio recalls how his grandparents, who lived through the Depression, would "fry bacon in the morning and save the grease." They were part of a generation that valued food, in part, because they were close to the people who grew or sold the products. They went to the butcher for meat. They visited produce stands for vegetables. But as the country became wealthier and created agricultural and manufacturing systems that could produce cheap and convenient products, Americans became increasingly disengaged from people all along the food chain.
"It's human potential that we're wasting because we don't know that person, so we don't value their work. That's something that I would encourage people to do: Go out there and know the person who is producing the food," Colicchio says.
"My wife jokes around that I have the soul of a Depression-era housewife because I tend to save stuff," he adds. "Partly it's because of my training as a chef."