Mention the concept of food waste, and for many people, it's likely to conjure images of rotting fruit and vegetables or stale meals unfit for consumption.
But a lot of the food that gets tossed out in America — some $162 billion worth each year, enough to fill 44 skyscrapers — is fresh, nutritious and downright delicious: think plump eggplants, bright yellow squashes, giant, vibrant-orange carrots with a crisp bite. The kind of beautiful produce that would be perfectly at home in, say, this giant vegetable paella made by celebrity chef José Andrés and his team.
That 7-foot-wide platter of paella (actually, two of them) was served up Wednesday as part of Feeding the 5000, a giant, open-air free lunch for 5,000 people staged in an outdoor plaza in Washington, D.C.
Attendees also lined up for a ladle full of slightly spicy vegetarian curry, which, along with the paella, was made with some 2,000 pounds of food rescued from a destiny in the landfill.
The event, organized by Feedback together with partners including the USDA, the EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, was designed to raise awareness about all the food waste that results from inefficiencies in the system and consumer behavior — and give people a tasty incentive to do something about it.
"People are really waking up to the scale of the problem and the fact that the solutions are obvious, practical, delicious, nutritious — it just simply means celebrating and enjoying all of the foods that we are currently wasting but shouldn't be," says Tristram Stuart, the founder of Feedback, which is based in the U.K. All told, organizers say they served more than 6,500 meals.
Stuart began staging these outdoor feasts in 2009. In the years since, they've been held in concert with local partners in cities from London to Athens to Warsaw to Sydney, Australia, and beyond. Wednesday's was the 36th so far and the second one this month in the U.S., where interest in food waste has exploded recently.
"I have never been to a country where I've felt that there's going to be such rapid and deep changes on the issue of food waste as I've had that feeling in the U.S. over the last 18 to 24 months. It's been really incredible, the level of energy," Stuart says.
It took a small brigade of volunteers to prep and chop all the rescued veg that went into the meal. The produce was donated by wholesalers, local farms and groups like Hungry Harvest, an enterprise that sells subscription boxes of so-called ugly fruit and vegetables at a discount — and helps feed the hungry in the process.
Food gets wasted for many reasons: On the farm, for example, a two-pronged carrot or hail-dented apples might get cast off because they fail to meet industry beauty standards. Bagged lettuce can get discarded while still fresh because of hurdles related to shipping time. In the home, consumers often purchase more than they can eat, so food goes bad before it ends up on dinner plates. And often, good food gets thrown out because of confusion surrounding "sell-by" dates. (Coinciding with Wednesday's events, House and Senate lawmakers introduced a bill that would create the first federal rules for the date labels used on food.)
Most of the produce used for Wednesday's feast was rejected for cosmetic reasons. Grocery stores like to market unblemished beauties, but "nature didn't get that memo," says Mike Curtin, CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, which procured and prepared the meal. The group has been using food that would otherwise be wasted to feed the hungry for nearly three decades.
"We want people to think, 'Wow, this is really good. Maybe I should think next time before throwing something away. Or maybe I should get more creative in the kitchen,' " Curtin says.
Curries like the one served up Wednesday are a staple in DCCK's repertoire; they can easily accommodate various veggies. And because everything is chopped up small, who cares what it looked like to begin with, says Amy Bachman, DCCK's procurement manager. "In a curry, they're fine. It's really amazing to be able to salvage it when you realize it could end up in a dumpster, and that's so sad."
The irony is that most of the stuff the chefs were working with was actually pretty gorgeous to my eyes — a minor scar here or there, but nothing most home gardeners wouldn't be proud to grow.
Events like Feeding the 5000 are "always a helpful reminder and always inspiring," says D.C.-based chef and restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn, of Top Chef fame. He showed up Tuesday as a volunteer. "I'm just one of the peelers. They used to call me el pelador back in the day!"
In his Miami restaurant, he says, he now serves a veggie burger made with farro mixed with the pulp left over from the juice bar. "It's a full-waste veggie burger that people are ordering like crazy now," he says.
Food waste is the single biggest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills — and a major source of the powerful greenhouse gas methane. The U.S. has set a goal of cutting food waste by 50 percent by 2030, in line with a similar benchmark from the United Nations. The Ad Council recently released a TV campaign highlighting the issue.
And the Rockefeller Foundation has given Feedback a $500,000 grant to help spread the word. Stuart says the money will help pay for more events to put the issue in the public eye, as well as fund the group's investigations into where waste occurs throughout the food chain. The U.K. supermarket giant Tesco recently announced it would no longer require its Kenyan suppliers to top and tail their green beans to fit standardized packaging. An earlier Feedback probe had revealed this practice resulted in at least 30 percent of each bean going to waste on average.
Zia Khan of the Rockefeller Foundation likens the issue to littering. Fifty years ago, it was common to see people boot their trash out the car window. But now, he says, try doing it — "it just feels really weird. And that's our goal with this effort. We want to make it really weird and unusual and wasteful for people not to pay attention to this problem."