How would you define in your words what is food waste?
To me, food waste is the inefficient use of agricultural resources that manifests as the throwing away of prepared food and also as not using food to be composted.
When you worked in a restaurant, have you been confronted to situation where there is food waste?
In a really good well-run kitchen, you have mechanisms to avoid a lot of food waste that came out of traditional cooking techniques and styles ; you make stock with leftover vegetables and the bones or differents parts of the animals are re-use, for example in terrines.
In a kitchen that is higher-end you are actually more likely to use a lot of the trimmings for good purposes but in medium-priced kitchens, where they are depending on the industrial food distribution system to save money, meaning they are buying a lot of partially-made goods
they are not making their own stock. They are buying it so there is going to be a lot of waste, more than when it is prepared from fresh. They are not going to be recycling their trimmings into other dishes, they are just going to throw them out.
There is also a lot of food wasting in catering. Restaurants have the freedom to try to prove their process and they have a bottom line that depends on how much they sell so they are very much more conscientious about buying and wasting food that has not been sold.
On the contrary, in catering all the food is purchased up-front by contract so you end up with a lot of wasted food a lot of time in catered events. And it’s a huge part of the modern service industry. That can be cafeteria-style food, a lot of big companies have cafeteria that may or may not be good at wasting food. In any type of big events like a wedding or a business function there are tons of wasted food like usually between 5 and 10 % of the food is prepared and then not eaten, if not more. And of course, this is not always related necessarily with cooking.
What about groceries stores?
Groceries stores waste a lot of food in the USA. The system of dating the food, I mean putting date on the food, is not really a standardized process. It is much more based on the sense for the producers when their product is best to eat it. Certain things really do go bad like some yoghurt or some dairy products, eventually. Some other products don’t go bad, they don’t become unsafe, they just become less delicious. So the groceries stores don’t keep product on the shelves if it’s passed the day that is printed on it, based on the producer who choose what the date will be.
It’s complicated because producer isn’t necessarily financially responsible for the product not to be sold. Anything that is in a grocery store has been purchased, so there is no incentive for the producer to put a super accurate expiration date on it because, ultimately, the only feedback in this mechanism is that, if there product doesn’t sell on the time of the date comes up and the store throws it up they are going to be more hesitant to order much the next time so that is the feedback mechanism. The store won’t order as much from the producer next time.
But, on the other hand, that means there is no flexibility in term of extending the life of the food in that part of that process that that actually result in more food being by the end user. So there is a big culture of what is called dumpster-diving, where people go in the back of grocery stores and look in the dumpster for tons of free food, like muffins, breads, yoghurts, smoothies, everything. You can get everything you want in the vacuum of a grocery store. That is a big problem that people talk about, the system of expiration date and the psychological difference choosing words, when you say ‘best by’ or ‘expires on’ or ‘use by’, ‘freeze by’. This different choice could be standardized to increase efficient food consumption.
What about the end-consumer?
There is a culture of value-seeking in america, where culture has taught us to seek at the Best Deal, in a lot of circumstances, which manifest itself has giant plate of food for the lowest price possible. Lot of the time when the food get wasted, restaurant don’t care because they have already sold it to you. There is nobody who care in the all process, as long as everybody still make their money, nobody really care that half the plate of the food is going into the garbage can at the end of the night.
Americans also like bulk-shopping, which means buy a large amount of things at the grocery stores all in once. If you’re good at using those, it could be good but I’ve seen a lot of circumstances where people buy a big thing of something and then there is two third of it used and the last third of it throw away.
American culture is known for valuing quantity over quality, that doesn’t necessarily lead to an efficient food culture and it doesn't lead to good health obviously. People are consuming low quality products in large amount so that’s not good for them also. Americans have a much more cavalier, unconscientious not thinking about it type of approach to food or to using food effectively. When you have a stronger culture of local producer, farmer market, high quality meat and cheese, it’s going to be a little bit more expensive but you don’t sacrifice nutrition. If Americans spend the same amount of money on less food of higher quality, they wouldn’t be starving because of that. Culture is moving in that direction. Whole foods didn’t exist 20 years ago and now it’s huge. There is a culture shift.
Could you mention people or stakeholders who contribute to this cultural shift?
Even if the are criticized sometime as a company, Whole Food has really jump-started the food consciousness about ‘low-carbon-footprint” food. They don’t put it in this terms, because when you say carbon footprint, that can be a polemic because people in America there is a lot of people who don’t believe that using carbon is causing Climate Change. So Whole Foods doesn’t advertise their product necessarily as ‘low-carbon-footprint” but they do promote local products a lot.
Living in California, maybe or particularly, expose to this issues. Also Whole Foods, past year, launch a whole new rating system for products that incorporate a whole groups of factors. It’s not just “Organic” or “Not Organic” anymore. They incorporate different factors like where this food come from? How much energy did it take to produce, the labor cost, the money the workers are earning, etc. So Whole food is a big mover in that direction.
Since the 90's it’s been a big increase in american food cuisine. It’s a little bit like England. England use to have a really really bad food reputation and now they have a lot of really great high quality restaurants and they have a food culture now that is different that it was before. America is a little bit the same. There is a lot of TV that happen around food, and all that is to say this TV personalities that are more and more and more in front of the consumers, a lot of this people are very aware of the issue behind food, some of them have work in restaurant so they know implicitly about what at stake with food and cost.
What about food cost for the end consumer?
It’s true that poor communities still depend largely on fast-food for everyday nutrition. In many communities, people don’t go the cheap grocery stores and a lot of the time people don’t cook at all which sounds crazy and make no economic sense. But people love fast food. It would be cheaper for them to buy 50 pounds of rice and 50 pounds of chicken and then freeze some of it and make a stew and eat that for a week but people in America like to feeling fancy. They don’t like feeling constrained by their own circumstances. In a current election, we have a potential candidate call Bernie Sanders, who exposed very socialist-type of ideas. So Socialism has been in the news a lot. I saw a quote buy a guy name Aldous Huxley, an author, and I think he said that in the 50's or 60's something like: Socialism are never take enough in America because all Americans view themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. So that is what I am talking about. People in America often don’t like feeling constrained by their own circumstances.
Also vegetable in general are very expensive. It is actually cheaper to buy fast-food than it is to buy fresh pepper and fresh corn. That is absolute truth. Fresh produce is very expensive for a lot of people in this country, especially if you go to places that are not urban or connected. It will be more expensive because it will take longer. Whereas you can get a hamburger for 1.89 dollar at McDonald and almost the same price for one red pepper. Do I buy a red pepper because I’ve heard that could be good for me or do I buy a delicious hamburger that is going to fill me a little bit more?
Even if you try buy a lot of rice and chicken and make stew and cook large amount of food for you and your family, people don’t like that image of themselves as being forced to be economic. It’s definitively a part of american culture where being frugal is not always something that people view as positive and that contribute to food waste and food culture in general.
Do you think that if cooking was more related to appreciated values like friendship, family, autonomy or even creativity it could be seen differently?
Yes. And there is really exciting things that goes on a local level at elementary schools and middle school. Aven on the National spectrum, years ago when Michelle Obama became the first Lady the all time Barack Obama being a President, her biggest project has been food and nutrition. More and more they introduce gardening in elementary schools and that promotes community and friendship and creativity and autonomy. And there are nothing negative to say about this program, they work very well. Perhaps that is an optimistic thing that it’s changing.
Of course we have a very unique situation being in San Francisco Bay Area. Same would probably be true in Chicago and New-York, all the cities are being pretty into local food culture but certainly the Bay Area is known for being particularly progressive about nature and food things. So communities sources agriculture is becoming a bigger and bigger part of a wider American culture.
Basically anywhere you live you can get a CSA bucks. A CSA is when there is a huge group of farms and they form a syndicate, and then the syndicate will directly distribute individual boxes of produce every week to people house on their front doors. CSA it’s a big thing, everybody I know got a CSA box. It’s great it’s a great system. You deliver stuff, you’re not sure what is going to come every week end and that forces you to use it. You don’t pay as much as you would otherwise because it’s direct from the farmers and it’s all local so you don’t pay for a lot of transportation.
I also have a friend work in an organisation called Phat Beats. It’s a community sourced agriculture where you can get a box delivered from them but they also do small business incubators. People may have recently get out of jail can become involved in this organization and serve their community and it provides structures and context because coming out of jail in this country is a very very big problem for everybody who has to do it because there is very few system in place to help you transition from being in prison from being in the real world again. Relating the experience my friend has told me, that it works very well because there is normally a lot of animosity between people returning to society and people who are in the society. There is a lot of community activity that I would say become a national phenomenon every major city has a community sourced agriculture system this days. When I growing up I don’t remember that existing at all.
Form the various example you’ve mentioned there is an idea of commitment and responsibility in food. At a domestic scale what happen in house, do people have a different behavior at home?
I get complicated to with the amount people have to dedicated to being more involved in food. Partly it’s why the community sourced agriculture is successful: because they avoid the necessity to go to the store so in a way you’re saving time by participating in a community sourced agriculture program. In terms of being engaged in food time is a major problem for people.
Certainly when you have kids, I’ve been told that having kids can be very challenging with their food. I know in France eating at school is part of the deal, when you go to school you got food but it wasn’t always the case in America. A lot of time you have to make your own food and bring it maybe things are getting better. But unfortunately we don’t have a good food system for our students. It’s well know but it’s still shocking how bad the food is in many schools in America: very poor quality, almost no nutrition.There are national standards that say that you need to have vegetables but ketchup and french fries count as vegetables and that is because of the industrial food business industries that has done a lot over the years to affect policy and funding because they like sending tons and tons of frozen shitty products to tons and tons and tons of schools. They make a lot of money on that so they don’t school to get on fresh food. On a national and state level the big business have much more control.
So it’s up to individual school district in America to come up with a news budget that allow them to spend more on certains amounts of food. The amount of money provide by the state or by federal government is very limited and tided, usually tided, to industrial food supply. So in America, there is a lot of things are managed on a local level which can be good or bad, it means that school have flexibility but it also means that the general standard of service provided by the state often end up being very low. The type of standard and regulation that they have in France are nationwide and that doesn’t exist here so it up to individual school district. There is a lot of place that dont have the money to do that and they eat very bad food and their brain rot.
Do you think children are more aware about food waste now?
It probably depends but the direct advantages of gardening program for children is that they grow the food and they prepare it and eat it. Simply putting children in contact with the food preparation process make them aware of where different parts of the plant go. When you harvest a broccoli, you realize there are big leaves and the little florette is just one part of it and that you can use lot of the plant for lot of different things. And, literally, lots of kids have never seen a plant growing before. There is a lot of stories about children who before entering in a gardening program had literally never seen a plant growth, they had no idea that a potato grows in the ground. A potato! Everyone know what a potato is! Maybe we should not eat so much potato but still this children has no idea where potato came from, not idea at all. I think simply putting children in contact with the process of growing food make it more appealing the link they gonna have with food in the future.
For a personal perspective, I’ve always like to see the way things work. And when you see the way things works you have a better appreciation for using them.
At the beginning of this conversation you also said that compost was very important… Can you tell me more about this? Why?
Compost is so easy, so necessary and so useful and there is still so many municipalities that do not have composting programs. Not everybody want to have a big box of garbage in their garage… One of the great thing we have living in the Bay Area is that we have municipal composting so you just throw all plants into a ban and they turn into soil and you can go in the city every year and get free dirt.
So it’s a really great system. There is no reason not to do it. Simply from a cost perspective some people don’t do it. In a restaurant, in the middle of nowhere, they are not going to take their compost at the end of the day and take it by end to some place. It’s not going to happen unless it is a trash bin that is green and where you put it all in and they are coming to get it . It’s really successful and it’s so easy it baffles me and I am very confused now when I am in a town and there is no green waste.
There is a lot of chemical values in that materials and if it’s already local it can be reused in a local way it’s so easy and beneficial. Otherwise if you put green waste in a landfill with no oxygen it just putrefies and all the agricultural values are gone. It just sits near a plastic bottle for the next thousands years and don’t do anybody good. Depending how good you are in your practice there will always be some green waste so there is no reason not to compost it really.