Why the anti-food waste movement matters

Sometimes it seems that writing about food waste has become a full time job for me. This month, Saveur Magazine asked me to write up the leaders in the food waste movement who are making a difference. Well, that was easy.

In this month’s magazine, I give props to Isabel Soares, the Portuguese activist; Doug Rauch, founder of Daily Table; Claire Cummings, waste specialist for Bon Appetit Management Company; and Dana Gunders, who really started the whole movement with her 2011 food waste report for NRDC. Congrats to all!

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The good and bad of saving the ugly

A perfect peach?

With water scarce in California, peach farmer Mas Masumoto decided to try something different. This summer, he used between 20 percent and 30 percent less water to grow his Gold Dust peaches. The tactic produced an intensely flavored fruit, but one that was about 20 percent smaller than normal. His loyal retail outlets—stores like the progressive Berkeley Bowl—took them. But customers weren’t buying. After years accustomed to buying peaches as big as softballs, shoppers saw the smaller fruit as flawed or somehow unworthy.

Masumoto was hoping that a new trend sweeping the food world—you could call it “In Defense of Ugly Fruit”—would help in the marketplace. Activists who want to slash food waste are trumpeting the virtues of imperfect or “cosmetically challenged” fruits and vegetables—those that are typically thrown out before coming to market. Compass Group, one of the nation’s largest food service providers, and its subsidiary Bon Appetit Management Company, launched in 2014 Imperfectly Delicious, a program that salvages so-called seconds for use in its thousands of cafes. A new produce brand called Imperfect sells blemished produce at a discount in grocery stores and through its own CSA, while Hungry Harvest sells its ugly stuff through a CSA and donates a healthy meal to someone in need for every box it sells.

The campaigns seem like a win-win. As much as 40 percent of America’s food ends up in a landfill while one in six Americans occasionally go hungry. But for farmers, it’s a tricky proposition. If lumpy, small, pockmarked fruits and vegetables are, as we are told, perfectly good, should they really cost less? If the expectation is that they should, Masumoto will never get a fair price for his smaller peaches that are grown in a way that respects environmental limits.  “We live in a cheap food world, and this [the lack of customers buying his fruit] inadvertently perpetuates that,” says Masumoto.

Masumoto is not along. Of the half a dozen farmers I talked to in California, Maryland, New York and Washington, none could boast that they were making any real money on imperfect produce. Yet they were hesitant to talk openly about their concerns for fear they would look selfish or stingy. I could hardly blame them. It’s awkward to talk about money when the rationale to end food waste is feeding the hungry and environmental responsibility. Still, they wanted to know: Would the cause celebre of ugly fruit help make their farms more financially sustainable?

The answer is…sort of. Find out how in my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. And let me know what you think!

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A little dab will ‘nduja

PEOPLE EXPECT TO EAT well at my house; I’m a culinary-school grad. But I’m also a mom with a full-time job. And after a long day I can be as lazy as anyone. Which is why I’m never without ‘nduja.

The spreadable salami is my favorite cook’s cheat. In a hot pan, it melts into a piquant oil that adds oomph, complexity and a bit of fire to all kinds of savory foods, from tomato sauce to vinaigrette. At room temperature, it can be smeared on good bread and served alongside a salad as dinner, or layered on grilled cheese, even a burger. The result rarely fails to raise the pulse rate. If Joan Jett were an Italian, and a sausage, she’d be ‘nduja.

In my new story in the Wall Street Journal, we look at the history (it’s an Italian version of Andouille) and put together fantastic, fast recipes like an eye-opening breakfast sandwich and an amped up linguine with clams.

Have you tried it? Let me know what you think.

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Good news: Brooklyn still has a sense of humor

Saw these pictures at a run-down bodega this weekend. And yes, that one at the bottom does say “Upstate Farm Caught Hen Eggs.” Cracked me up.

update: Ben Grossman Cohen sent me this link with the backstory on these signs. http://t.co/cCcI8VxuTa

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Elizabeth Kolbert talks climate change

Photograph: Nicholas Whitman

If you want to understand climate change, there’s one name you need to know: Elizabeth Kolbert. A staff writer at the New Yorker, Kolbert’s three-part series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” won the National Magazine Award for Public Interest in 2006, and later was expanded into her definitive book on the subject, Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Kolbert’s writing lacks the alarmist tone so often found in environmental coverage but is more arresting for its clear, patient explanations of how serious the situation has become. In my new column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Kolbert and I discuss and farming’s role in global warming, California’s drought, and whether American exceptionalism is a stumbling block to progress.

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Historic drought. Historic opportunity?

On April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown stood in a meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Normally, the meadow would have been covered with five feet of snow. Normally, the governor would have needed cross-country skis to even get there. But this year, there was nothing but brown grass. The measured snowpack was the lowest in more than 60 years.

The scene was a dramatic illustration of just how bad the drought has gotten in California. (And, make no mistake, Gov. Brown capitalized on that, ordering cities and towns to slash their water use by 25 percent.) But the crisis does not affect only California residents. California produces 99 percent of almonds, 95 percent of celery, 94 percent of broccoli, 88 percent of avocados, 86 percent of cauliflower and 81 percent of carrots produced in the United States. The state’s Central Valley, just one percent of the land mass in the United States, produces 25 percent of the food we eat. As the writer Steven Johnson concludes: “California doesn’t have a water problem. We all do.”

The good news? Thanks to the drought, people have finally started talking seriously about what real change might look like. Does it make sense for Americans to depend on concentrated food production in only a couple of regions that are so vulnerable to water shortages? Should we be growing water-thirsty crops like lettuce in places like New York, where the population is dense and where we get about 40 inches of rain a year? How do we decide which crops to grow where?

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, I look at how and if California’s drought could be a catalyst for regional agriculture. As Mike Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University told me: “The key hallmark of climate change is that weather will be more uncertain and extreme weather will be more frequent,” Hamm says. “Under those circumstances, doesn’t it make sense to hedge our bets?”

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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