Friday, July 12, 2013

Waste not

For the past few weeks, I've been taking a course on food system sustainability from Coursera. Even though I fancy myself a knowledgeable eco-foodie person, I've learned I have more to learn about the environmental impact of feeding 6 billion humans.

This past week's topic was food waste. I've been mindful of this problem to some extent ever since my childhood when my mother harangued me about cleaning my plate out of respect for all the starving children in India. Now as a mother worrying about the college tuition bills, I'd rather not be scraping leftovers into the compost bin, so I've been trying to avoid cooking anything new until the previous thing is gone.

The lessons on food waste gave me a deeper understanding of the problem and the negative impacts beyond hunger and household economy. We read a Swedish study and this recent working paper published by the World Resources Institute. Some highlights:

* By weight, an estimated one-third of all food intended for human consumption never makes it into human stomachs. When converted into calories, this is about 24 percent of all food produced.

* In poor countries, food loss is the major problem. This is food that spoils, spills or undergoes an unintended reduction in quality before it reaches the consumer. Loss occurs closer to the farm due to limitations in infrastructure, storage, packaging or distribution.

* In richer countries, food waste is the bigger concern. Waste refers to food that is of good quality but does not get consumed because it is discarded, either before or after it has spoiled. This includes groceries purchased and thrown away, partially-eaten restaurant meals and expired foods removed from store shelves.

* Food waste at the consumption stage costs an annual average of $1,600 for a family of four in the United States.

* The food waste tally does not include overconsumption of calories, which would no doubt make the statistics even worse.

From a climate and environmental perspective, food lost or wasted represents a needless use of land, water, fertilizers, transportation and other impacts of food production. And food rotting in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

The working paper has many recommendations for reducing loss and waste at every point in the chain, and it highlights some schemes that have been successful. One innovative solution to tackle cafeteria waste came from Grand Valley State University in Michigan. From the report:
By eliminating trays, GVSU officials hoped to reduce the amount of food waste at its cafeterias, as well as reduce energy and water use associated with washing trays. Under this system, students could return to the cafeteria to take more food as desired, but were limited on each trip to the amount of food they could carry on a plate in their hands. ... After a successful pilot, GVSU permanently adopted the trayless system in the fall of 2007. The university found that after going trayless, the university was throwing away almost 13 metric tons of food less than in previous years―about 25 kg per person annually―and was conserving 117,000 liters of water per year. The system was also economically beneficial, saving the university about US$79,000 per year compared to a system using trays.
I encourage those who are interested in learning about food loss and waste to read or scan the working paper for more information. Among the resources recommended by the authors of the study, the one likely most helpful to the consumer is the initiative at Think.Eat.Save. From there I found a link to an extremely informative Australian website with many tips of reducing waste.

Restaurants can be challenging because so many serve large portions. How do we square our efforts to not overeat (Weight Watchers urges its members to quit the clean plate club) with a goal of not wasting food? Some things I've tried:

* If I know I won't eat something, I can ask the server to leave it off the plate. I don't always remember this. The other day I ordered a wrap, which came with tortilla chips, and I didn't want the chips. I offered them to my daughter, who didn't want them either, so in the end, I wrapped them in a paper napkin and brought them home, where my husband ate them later because he's like a vacuum for those things.

* When I plan to go out for dinner, I bring a lidded container from home for leftovers. This helps me avoid the restaurant's disposable take-out container. Often I'll pack away half of the meal before I even touch it. This will be lunch the next day, or when my son is home from college, a late-night snack for him.

* Unplanned meals away still often result in a disposable container. I'm thinking of investing in a collapsible container that I can keep in my bag.

As for my kitchen, I have a personal initiative this summer to minimize the edible materials that go into our compost pile. We're in the season of abundance with overflowing produce boxes from Meadowlark Farm, and I don't want to waste any of this goodness. I've always been pretty good about using the prime part of every item, but I've never managed to make use of every edible part. For example, when the beets come attached to their greens, sometimes I've let the greens wilt in the fridge. And usually, the carrot tops go directly into the compost pile.

But this summer I'm reaching new levels of culinary efficiency! I can best illustrate this with last week's fennel.

This is the fennel as it came out of the box:

In previous summers, I trimmed away the stalks and fronds and used only the bulb. Sometimes I might toss the fronds on the grill as a flavoring agent, but usually all but the white bulb went into the compost.

Last week, with the help of Deborah Madison's most excellent cooking guide Vegetable Literacy (if you don't have this yet, I urge you to get it), I managed to extract the nutrients from all parts of the plant before any trimmings went to compost. I made a fennel tea from some of the fronds (steep a handful of fronds in a cup or two of boiling water), a grilled fennel frond pesto from the rest, and a stock from the stalks (chop stalks and an onion and simmer in water). I used the stock in a soup I've been making every time I get fennel, the exceptionally delicious Chickpea, Tomato and Bread Soup from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty (another cookbook I highly recommend).

Fennel separated into parts

Fennel stock simmering (the purple things are kohlrabi stalks)

Strained fennel stock

Chickpea, tomato and bread soup

The adapted recipe:

1 large onion, sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced
about 1/4 cup olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled, cut lengthways in half and sliced
3 celery stalks, sliced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup white wine
one 14-oz can diced tomatoes (I use Muir Glen roasted)
1 tbsp chopped oregano
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
2 tsp sugar
4.5 cups fennel stock
salt and pepper to taste
2 large slices stale sourdough bread
2.5 cups cooked chickpeas
4 tbsp pesto (basil, fennel fronds, or carrot top)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Sauté the onion and fennel in a little oil on medium heat for about 4 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and continue cooking for another 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and let it bubble away for another minute.
Ready to serve

Add the canned tomatoes with their juices, the herbs, sugar, fennel stock and some salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, break the bread into rough chunks, toss with 2 tablespoons of oil and some salt and scatter in a sheet pan. Bake for about 10 minutes, until thoroughly dry.

About 10 minutes before serving, place the chickpeas in a bowl and crush them a little with a potato masher. Add them to the soup and simmer for another 5 minutes. Add the toasted bread, stir well and cook for another 5 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Spoon some pesto in the center, drizzle with olive oil and finish with freshly shredded basil if you have some.

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