The Facets of Food Waste: Q&A With Eve Turow Paul
In Hotel F&B’s December 2017 issue, we spoke with Eve Turow Paul, noted author, food enthusiast, and Millennial expert about how Gen Y chooses hotels. Reducing food waste is another of Turow Paul’s passions; in fact, she appeared in the 2017 documentary Wasted: The Story of Food Waste.
While food waste is a target topic for the entire hotel industry in 2018 (which we covered in our January/February issue) we asked Turow Paul her thoughts on how the larger, often interconnected world of foodservice, grocery stores, farmers, and individual consumers can help tackle the problem and make a collective impact.
Hotel F&B: Why is food waste a hot topic these days?
Turow Paul: I think people are finally coming to terms with it. First of all, about 40% of all food produced in the United States goes to waste. Meanwhile, we have 42 million Americans that are on food stamps that don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Also, scientific research has now shown that mitigating food waste is the number three most effective action we can take to combat global climate change. So much of our food is just being thrown into landfills and going through something called anaerobic digestion, which means it’s not exposed to any oxygen and it’s therefore releasing methane into the atmosphere. So people talk about cars and cows releasing gasses into the atmosphere, but food waste is actually worse.
On top of that, another reason food waste has come into the conversation recently is, we’ll have to feed nine billion people by 2050, and there’s an urgency to figure out how that’s going to happen. Some may say we need to grow more food, but in reality we already grow enough food to feed nine billion people, we’re just throwing almost half of it away.
I work with a lot of farmers who tune out the moment I mention climate change, but when I tell them a lot of what they grow and sell gets thrown away, along with resources and labor they used to produce those products, they’ll say, “Oh yeah. That doesn’t seem right.”
Finally, I believe young people today are focused on where inefficiencies are within any industry, in a way that past generations maybe haven’t. Where is there waste? That can be a waste of time, waste of money, or a waste of resources, like food. They want to know how they can fix that.
Hotel F&B: What are the foods people waste the most?
Turow Paul: Fruits and vegetables. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to only sell the head of cauliflower or the head of broccoli, and not the leaves. If you actually look at the cauliflower plant about 60% of the biomass is the leaves, and it turns out you can roast them, you can eat them raw, and they’re delicious and nutritious. So who decided we should be cutting off those leaves in the field to decompose instead of eating them?
I also think that as people become more interested in, and devoted to food, they’re realizing most of that 40% we throw out is a missed opportunity for something tasty. Many cultures around the world’s think food waste is ridiculous. The U.S. is a country with a plethora of options, but most cultures around the world don’t waste food because they can’t. You look at the culinary history of Korea, Japan, and Ethiopia, for example, and they turn every single bit of what they have into something delicious. We’ve culturally become lazy by deciding to only eat certain parts of vegetables or animals, or by refusing to buy “ugly” produce, and thinking there are no consequences.
People in the U.S. are finally catching up to the rest of the world when it comes to innards and offal. They’re some of most nutritious and delicious parts of an animal, and we’ve traditionally thrown those parts away, or shipped them to other countries that eat them, or turned them into pet food. There’s a cultural shift now where people are encouraged to cook innards and offal at home, and chefs are making it sexy enough to try when you eat in their restaurants.
Hotel F&B: How does the hospitality industry contribute to food waste?
Turow Paul: There’s immense waste happening at the hotel level, primarily because customers want lots of options on their buffets, and they never want those options to look sparse. Consequently, hotels have become accustomed to refilling trays and piling food high. The hospitality industry needs to come together and say, “What’s a new format where we can present food in visually appealing ways, where we make guests feel as though they have all the options, but also reduce the amount of waste we have at the end of service?”
This could mean smaller vessels for buffets, but a deeper dive would be a cost-benefit analysis to see how much extra product is being purchased in order to make a buffet look overly abundant, versus perhaps buying less food, and hiring a cook to prepare that food in small batches in front of the guest.
Hotel F&B: What other industries are major contributors to food waste?
Turow Paul: Anywhere food is being sold or served in mass amounts. Among the biggest offenders are grocery stores through not selling “ugly” produce, and their sell-by date system. Sell-by dates pretty much mean nothing. It’s all marketing so the grocery store will feel incentivized to get you to buy more of a certain product even though it can still be perfectly fine past the date stamped on the package. It’s something we as consumers should be paying closer attention to. When someone looks in their fridge and a product is past its sell-by date, they usually toss it, and most of the time that product is still good to use.
This has led to something called Freeganism, which isn’t a terribly new concept, but it’s received more attention lately. Freegans are people who eat out of dumpsters, but that doesn’t mean they’re eating a rotten banana, for example, it means they’re going to the grocery store frequently, going through the dumpsters, and hauling what they deem usable, like sell-by date items that are still good, back to their home or a central location. I was in Portland a few years ago and I learned of a woman who collected items from grocery store dumpsters, and she did it so often that now the grocery stores just send it to her house. So her front porch has become a free pantry for anyone in Portland. So Freegans are folks trying to rescue this food, but it can be complicated, because grocery stores don’t want the general public to know how much food they’re actually throwing away.
If you look at food waste from a government policy standpoint, I would hope at some point there’s a tax levied for companies that waste food. That’s what they have in Korea and it’s been very effective, so there’s every reason to believe it would be effective here in the States too.
If you’re buying food in excess and will eventually throw much of it away, you’re putting a burden on the municipal system in order to pick that waste up and haul it away, and you’re using public space to create bigger landfills. You should be taxed for that. It goes along the same lines as carbon taxes. If you’re wasting anything in mass amounts and it’s going to damage to our environment, you should pay a financial price for that.
Hotel F&B: Who are the leaders in combating food waste from a foodservice standpoint?
Turow Paul: Food pantries would be one. Each serves hundreds of people every day, but they waste almost nothing—they’re an example of how it’s done right. College campuses are also leading the way because young people today are very aware of the environmental, social, and financial impact of food waste, so they’re pushing their college campuses to make changes and be efficient. It ends up saving those colleges money in the end, while students end up with more nutritious options to eat because previously discarded parts of fruits and vegetables, for example, are being utilized, so it’s win-win all around.
There are also those in the restaurant industry like Dan Barber, who was the first well-known chef to take food waste from the concept of garbage to a culinary opportunity. He opened the pop-up WastED in New York City and later in London, and turned his restaurant Blue Hill into a fine dining restaurant that only serves wasted products, like pineapple cores, mango peels, skate wings, fish bones, and more. He’s the person that came out and said, “Hey, all those juice bars are throwing away the fiber and nutrients after juicing, and you can take that pulp and turn it into an amazing veggie burger.”
Then there are companies juicing with scraps like watermelon rinds, or using “ugly” produce that grocery stores won’t buy, or companies making whole-grain snack bars using leftover grain from the beer brewing process, to mention just a few examples. Obviously, whatever you’re selling needs to taste good, but if people think your product is doing something positive for the planet as well, that’s absolutely added value.
At the end of the day, young people feel as though they make a bigger difference in the world by choosing where they spend their money. They understand the influence of their dollar, and today they’re spending their money on brands they believe share in their own personal value system. This is a generation aware of the environment, aware of human rights, and looking to brands that share in that value system, so I think it’s an enormous marketing and branding opportunity for companies, but it can’t just be a storyline—there needs to be authentic action behind the words.
Hotel F&B: What are some ways individual consumers can help reduce food waste?
Turow Paul: When you’re at a buffet, only put what you’re going to eat on your plate. If you need to go back and get more that’s fine, but try not to waste what’s on your plate. That’s also how you can help the hospitality industry reduce food waste, because you’re setting parameters for how much food they should make.
When it comes to shopping for your own home, meal planning makes a huge difference, so you’re only buying for what you need during the week. If it’s possible, shop every day or every other day, so you’re only shopping for what you know you’ll be eating. Also, buy local produce in season. It’s more nutritious, it tastes better, and it naturally has a longer shelf life.
As for sell-by dates, ignore them. Smell it first. If it doesn’t smell good, throw it out, and preferably toss it into a compost bin instead of your regular trash. There’s a number of cities that have municipal compost, and I have a composter in my backyard. I use that in my garden, and you can fill it with your coffee grounds, egg shells, fruit and vegetable waste, and more.
Overall, I’m hopeful a more conscious mindset becomes ingrained in households moving forward, because the average family is throwing away about $1,600 a year on wasted food. For most American families, that’s a big chunk of change they really could use.