A heap of green plantain peels boiled into a stew. Pickled beef tongue and lamb brain served on toast. Vodka distilled from whey. Pork skin fried into a crispy snack known as chicharrón. These were just some of the treats on the menu at the recent Trashed & Wasted festival in Toronto, which demonstrated uses of food scraps typically deemed inedible in North American culture.
If some of those dishes sound a bit unappetizing, that’s because, as much as palates have expanded with increased access to food from other cultures, there’s still a gap in our understanding of how remnants can be turned into something tasty.
“People think we’re going to serve you garbage, but it’s a ‘food rescue’ festival,” says Brock Shepherd, a chef and organizer of the festival, which sought to raise the public’s awareness of food waste. “We don’t expect people to do these things literally. It’s just to show people there are other things you can do.”
A study by the University of Toronto in 2012 found that one in eight Canadian households, or approximately 1.6 million households, contend with food shortage. Yet, much of uneaten food can be traced back to individual consumers – not the processing or delivery stages.
Processing accounts for 20% of the food that’s wasted, while individuals’ share of the pie is 47%, according to Value Chain Management International Inc. (VCMI), a consulting firm that seeks to curb food waste. The rest is lost through such stages in the “food value chain” as farming and retail.
Part of the issue of food waste stems from the fact that the “vast majority” of individuals can afford to waste food, says Martin Gooch, CEO of VCMI.
And we do waste food. Every year, Canadians chuck an estimated $31 billion worth of food, according to a report from VCMI.
“You wouldn’t throw [thousands of dollars] in the garbage,” Gooch says, “but that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Food literacy is a prerequisite to understanding how, as individuals, people can reduce the amount they waste, according to Belinda Li and Tammara Soma, who work with Food Systems Lab at the University of Toronto. Li and Soma bring various stakeholders – policy-makers, food industry leaders, faith leaders and private citizens – together through a series of workshops on how to address the roots of food waste.
There are plenty of online resources offering ideas on how to make use of scraps and stale goods. Love Food Hate Waste (www.lovefoodhatewaste.ca), for example, houses a collection of “leftover” recipes.
Cooking with scraps that usually are discarded doesn’t necessarily yield dishes as exotic as those served up at Shepherd’s festival. Broccoli stalks, for example, which often are thrown out, can be chopped and tossed into a stir-fry or blended into a soup, Li says.
There are endless ideas for recipes, Shepherd adds, if you can find new life for items that have been sitting in your refrigerator or freezer.
Make a weekly ritual of doing a “fridge inventory,” he suggests. Defrost goods and plan a meal around what’s available. Soups, stews and casseroles often are Shepherd’s go-to meal plan for making use of these foods.
There also are little storage tweaks to prevent spoilage. For example, try setting your fridge to the coldest temperature possible and storing the most perishable produce in the lowest section.
Self-professed foodies delight in experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients, taking a “snout to tail” approach to meat products and salvaging “ugly” produce.
Planning meals in advance and buying less than what a recipe calls for, or only what you need for two or three meals, Soma and Li say, can help reduce waste.
More than you need
Two-for-one deals and other tempting discounts encourage consumers to buy more than they need, Gooch says: “If you’re bumping up against ‘best before’ dates, you’re buying too much food.”
With many people so removed from the food-production process, just tossing out a head of wilted lettuce without a second thought can be easy. But when you are connected to the way food is grown, Li says, you’re less likely to waste it.
Establishing a connection to a food source, whether by volunteering at a community garden or going on a weekend excursion to a nearby farm, can make you think twice about wasting food.
“A way to reduce food waste is to see how food is made,” Li says. “When people start seeing that, they’ll think, ‘Maybe I can [still] eat that, or I will buy less’.”