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Glean your plate

My mother was a gleaner.

I didn’t know what she did had a name until reading it recently on the
US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website. They define it as food
recovery (for the needy) and they provide a hotline for
would-be-gleaners – “1-800-GLEAN-IT”. Their Gleaning Initiative has
even connected gleaners with big corporations like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Kraft, Marriott, Northwest Airlines, and Pizza Hut.

What my mother did wasn’t related to any movement, she just had trouble
watching food being thrown away, even by our grocery store. I’m not
sure if she resorted to dumpster diving- now popularized by the “urban foraging
of the freegan movement-, but somehow she gleaned our local Safeway of
all that bread, cheese, and lettuce they couldn’t sell because of a bit
of mold or a soggy leaf.

We learned at a young age that mold is natural to cheese (in fact the Mayo Clinic offers a guide on how to salvage cheese with mold
only the soft needs to be discarded) and that a casserole can hide many
imperfections- as can a burrito and anything with curry, etc.

My mother was such a creative cook- hiding aged cream cheese in lasagna
and yellowed broccoli in spaghetti sauce- that our weekly food waste
wasn’t much more than egg shells and banana peels (which landed in our
compost pile).

Advice from a top chef: eat your radish leaves

I’m not sure I would have recommended my mother’s recipes to anyone,
but this summer I met another gleaner who made me question whether my
poor childhood food memories are due not to my mother’s gleaning, but
to her cooking skills.

The gleaner in question has been named one of America’s top new chefs
by Food & Wine Magazine.  Before revealing his name, I want to
clarify that his supplies are all extremely fresh, instead he gleans by
using the parts of plants and animals that the rest of us consider
garbage- like peapods and radish or fennel tops.

Last June when I visited chef Tony Maws to shoot a video at his
Boston-area (Cambridge) restaurant- the Craigie Street Bistrot-, he
popped tat soy flowers into his mouth and explained that any cabbage flowers are edible though even his supplier- a local small farmer- had no idea.

“You might walk by this and only see what you’re familiar with, the
cabbage that’s growing out of the ground and not realize that there’s
other parts of the plant that might be hard to ship and therefore
that’s why you don’t see them in your grocery store. Because they’re
very very fragile and therefore somewhere along the line the market for
it has disappeared… I’ve got a woman in Belmont. She didn’t even
realize you could eat these until I started (motions putting them in
his mouth) walking along helping her pick one day and she said what are
you doing. And I said I’ll buy these from you.”

He also tries to use whole animals as much as possible so that he can
be sure nothing is wasted. He showed me the sausage he makes from those
less-than-prime lamb parts and while holding an entire quail, warned me
not to be fooled by its size. “Even this teeny little bird that weighs
12 ounces or less, nothing is going to go to waste on this bird” (the
bones become a soup starter and the head and feet make a great sauce).

Prince Charles, Oxford University and embodied energy

Now much of this might seem academic, given that most of us will
probably never purchase an entire pig, quail or lamb, but wasted food
is a big problem. In the US, it’s the 3rd largest component of
generated waste (after yard waste and corrugated boxes).

Ignoring the humanitarian aspect- 10% of the US population depends on a
significant portion of their meals from food recovery-, that waste is a
lot of “embodied energy”: all those inputs used to produce it like
fertilisers, pesticides, fossil fuel (for tractors and transport),
water for irrigation, etc.

Calculating just how much embodied energy is in our food is no simple
math, but it’s becoming increasingly more transparent. In the UK,
you’ve got Prince Charles, Oxford University (for supermarket chain
Tesco) and the British government (via the Carbon Trust) working on it
(more on this in my Footprint of smoothies story).

The Carbon Trust even has a carbon reduction label
pilot program so shoppers in the UK can now read that the carbon
footprint for a bag of Walkers potato chips is 75 grams or an Innocent
smoothie- mangoes and passion fruit flavor- has a CO2 count of 294
grams per quarter liter.

As those at Innocent describe it, this footprint covers “pretty much everything.
We’ve calculated all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with
growing the fruit, transporting the fruit, crushing and blending the
fruit, manufacturing the packaging, bottling the drinks, distributing
the drinks and keeping them cold in the shops.”

For something more quintessentially American, blogger Jamais Cascio actually calculated the carbon footprint of America’s hamburger habit.
Including inputs for raising the animals and growing the condiments,
plus the methane emissions from cows (burps & farts), and assuming
that all 300 million Americans eat the average burger consumption of 3
per week, Cascio concluded that our national habit is roughly equal to
the CO2 emissions of 100,000 SUVs.

Obviously some of our dietary footprint is unavoidable- while we could
all try to eat less meat (the carbon footprint of a carnivore is
significantly higher than that of a vegetarian), even tofu and
vegetables have their embodied energy-, but not all of our food is
being eaten.

15% of our food waste has never been opened

A big part of our edible footprint is being wasted. Timothy Jones, an
anthropologist from the University of Arizona in Tucson, spent nearly a
decade studying food waste for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and
found that most of us have no idea how much we waste.

The people in his studies reported throwing away less than 1% of their
food, but when he analyzed their garbage he found they were tossing 14% of food purchases. And 15% of that has never been opened and is still within its expiration date.

Obviously, we’re in denial about our waste. The problem, according to
Jones, is that we’ve lost touch with our food. Most of us are a
generation or two away from actually growing our own food (my mother
grew up on a farm, which might help explain her gleaning habits). So
for most of us who never see what work goes into planting and
harvesting our own food, we don’t give it the value it deserves.

Long hours and buying in bulk

Partly to blame are our long work hours. Jones discovered people often
buy fresh food, but when they return home tired from work, they opt for
a frozen meal instead and the fresh items later get tossed.

Our buying habits also put us at a disadvantage. Jones says Americans
tend to buy in bulk whereas Europeans buy in smaller quantities so they
can control their losses better.

He suggests three simple ways to significantly reduce our food waste:

  • Plan ahead: create menus and make up grocery lists accordingly.
  • Inventory: know what is in your refrigerator/pantry and when it needs to be used by.
  • Preserve aging food: many foods can be simply refrigerated or frozen to avoid passing their due date.

“Freezing keeps food safe indefinitely”

I was curious about his last point. I think most of us use the due
date, and even the sell by date, as the cutoff point for hitting the
bin. Take chicken for example. I checked the USDA website and it turns
out chicken luncheon meat in a sealed package can be eaten up to a week after it’s “sell by” date.

And we underestimate our freezers. According to the USDA, “freezing 0°
F (-18° C) keeps food safe indefinitely”. Of course, you can experience
quality loss if you let things sit in there too long, so the USDA
provides a Refrigerator & Freezer Storage Chart that includes recommended freezing times “for quality only”.

I was surprised that you can keep eggs in the refrigerator for 4 to 5
weeks (not that I haven’t done it, but I assume the USDA is
conservative with their estimates). And if you have eggs you haven’t
finished in that amount of time, you can remove the shells (I’m
assuming by putting them into Tupperware) and pop the raw yokes and
whites in the freezer for one year.

Banana peel hot chocolate

The more I consider the embodied energy in food, the more I have
trouble with what I have been discarding without thought. Take
broccoli, for example. I used to cut off much of the stalk- which I
just discovered has as many anti-oxidants as the flowers- and toss it.
But now I’m starting to cut it up and fry it in a stirfry and the
leaves as well (they have a lot of Vitamin A).

Yesterday I bought a bunch of carrots with the leaves still attached. I
had never even thought twice about them, but today I googled “carrot
leaves” and it seems I’m sitting on a goldmine. According to the Carrot
Museum, they’re eaten in Java
as well as in Afghanistan and India, where they’re used in soups and
stews. As explained by those at herbs2000.com, they’re a diuretic and a
natural remedy to counter cystitis and kidney stone formation or
diminish stones.

One use that particularly appealed to me as the parent of a sometimes gassy 7-month-old, carrot leaves can “relieve flatulence and gassy colic, and are a useful remedy for settling the digestion and upsets of the stomach”.

I was ready to assume banana peels are a lost cause, but a friend
reminded me of one of the signature drinks at Manhattan’s City Bakery:
banana peel hot chocolate. According to ABC news, while their chocolate
recipe is a trade secret, you can flavor your own brew by just cutting
up the banana peel and stewing it in the hot chocolate “so it becomes infused with the flavor of the banana peel“.

I could go on: citrus fruit peels can be zested
to use as flavoring (my grandmother did this for her special lemon
bread), just about anything can be made into a chutney- from orange to
gourd peels-, or be preserved. To make watermelon rind preserve,
you begin by trimming off “outer green skin and pink flesh, using only
greenish-white parts of rind” and end by packing “preserves into hot
sterilized jars, add enough syrup to cover, and seal”.

The lost art of preserving

I wrote out that last portion of recipe not so much because I expect
anyone to actually make watermelon rind preserve, but because I wonder
how many of us would even know how to follow a direction like
“preserves into hot sterilized jars”. The verb “preserves” is certainly
not in my culinary vocabulary.

Though go back one generation and it was a natural way to salvage
over-ripe produce. While my mother- the antithesis of Martha Stewart-
understood how to make jams and fruit leather (dried fruit rollups) out
of very mature apricots (when I grew up Silicon Valley still had some
very abundant orchards), I am of a generation that considers eschewing
frozen meals for a salad a culinary feat (Rachel Ray’s 30 minute meals
is the Food Network’s top show, or was when I worked in tv in NY).

I can understand why Timothy Jones thinks we’ve lost touch with food,
and he’s not alone among food academics. Last fall when I talked to
Worldwatch researcher Brian Halweil about eating in season, he told me
we’ve not only abandoned the simple technologies that helped us eat in
season- like greenhouses, hot walls and cold frames-, but our culinary
habits are also to blame.

He argues that we need to re-learn how to raise things and how to cook things.
“People like you and me, chefs, home cooks, have to learn how to cook
with what’s available. And very few of us can, very few of us preserve.
And it’s not really about going back to that entirely, but it’s about
being more creative with what’s available.”

A typical family’s food waste: $600/year

I don’t really expect anyone to start canning gourd peel chutney or
preserving watermelon rind, and it’s not just about saving the
environment, but I do think we might be better off if we got back in
touch with food, even if just a little bit.

Some of my greatest culinary memories involve helping my mom make fruit
leather: blending mushy apricots and pouring the mixture on cut up
black plastic (new garbage bags worked best) to watch it dry up in the
sun over the course of a couple of days and finally to eat something
that smelled like the sun. Or perhaps I’m just getting nostalgic.

For those more interested in the bottom line, there is another benefit
to confronting what we throw away. According to Timothy Jones, the
average family of four loses about $600 per year on wasted food.

Though to recoup that money, we may have to give up some of our freedom
of choice, or as Jones described his food relationship to the Discovery
Channel in 2004, “I don’t think about what do I want. I think about what needs to get eaten.” I swear my mother has said the exact same words.

* For more on food waste, we have a video on the carbon footprint of SuChin’s refrigerator.