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Climate On The Menu

Would you eat landfill? Or cattle feed? How about industrial food waste? What would it take for you to sit down for a meal of scraps? A pair of top chefs may have the secret ingredient: telling a story that creates a real, emotional connection between what’s on our plates and the world in which we live.

Sam Kass, a food analyst and former White House chef and Let’s Move Executive Director under the Obamas, and Dan Barber, an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and best-selling author, brought this knowledge to the table in designing a lunch made entirely of food waste. The meal was meant to “showcase the power and potential of food to impact issues of climate and sustainability, central to any strategy,” according to Kass.

Food, agriculture and climate change are on the agenda at COP21 in Paris this week; the same things were on the menu for this lunch before world leaders at the United Nations this fall. Personal lifestyle choices, such as diet, play a role in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, however Kass and Barber made clear that the issue of food waste is a systemic one.

The American diet is defined by waste.

Barber’s interest lies in the “disastrous” state of the overall diet and American obsession with animal protein-centric plates. He said that Americans are unique in their frequency of meat-heavy meals, but that this could soon change, as the phenomena is being exported to the rest of the world by example and media. Barber sees nothing wrong with a steak, but the Earth cannot support such a construct for daily diets. That type of proliferation, he says, is dangerous to public and planetary health.

“Every culture outside America has evolved based on capturing waste because they had no choice,” he said. “One hundred years ago, you couldn’t hold a waste dinner; it would be impossible to host a waste lunch for world leaders. Waste was soaked up in the daily diet.”

Barber elaborated that, in Japan, buckwheat is used to break up disease cycles in rice cultivation and also turned into soba noodles for people to eat, whereas in the United States, it is a mere cover-crop, waste that is neither seen nor utilized. The chefs are trying to draw attention to the economic loss, environmental destruction and health hazards associated with such a waste crisis, as well as the need for prompt, coordinated action on a mass scale.

We let ourselves off too easy in saving ugly fruits and vegetables.

“Of the 90 million acres of land in corn and soybean rotation, 99.9% is never eaten by us,” Barber said, lamenting the ecologic health disaster of monoculture and sheer quantity of those dominant crops that end up as biofuel or cattle feed. “That is 90 million acres of potential farm land that could be converted to crops that we could eat directly.”

Proper crop rotation of grains and vegetables also enhances soil health, proving invaluable in carbon sequestration. Soil is one of the great greenhouse gas catchers, only able to trap carbon or retain nitrogen when healthy. “We have taken a natural asset and turned it into a polluter because of our diet,” Barber stated.

Conversations about food waste on the household or restaurant level are worthwhile, but these broader systemic elements must be taken into account in order to reach the larger goal: a world where we cannot even make a meal out of waste.

Kass named corn as one of the “deeply inefficient ways to nourish ourselves.” The bulk of corn produced in the United States goes to feeding cows that become burgers, which are consumed at a “beyond unsustainable” rate. Twenty-eight percent of the world’s farmland produces food that is never consumed and one-third of food produced globally is wasted, a statistic that rises to 40% in the United States. The global economy could save $300 billion a year in wasted food, while also helping the over one billion people currently suffering from hunger.

Food waste is not, in fact, “waste,” rather it is wasted by humans and the production process.

“Waste connotates food that is not good. This is perfectly edible, if not downright delicious and incredible,” said Kass during the UN meal, adding that when food which is good enough to eat ends up in landfill, it releases methane gas that further contribute to climate change. Kass and Barber sought to make these messages resonate—on a plate.

Consider this standard lunch menu reinvented using food waste, a concept first pioneered by Barber when he reopened his famed New York City hotspot Blue Hill as a waste restaurant in 2014, revived with Kass at this fall’s United Nations lunch, and the basis of more planned high profile meals to come.

Start with a “landfill salad” made with vegetable scraps (unwanted stalks and leaves salvaged from waste streams of large scale producers), rejected apples and pears, and chickpea water (what you mindlessly discard from the can). Craving a burger and fries? Try the off-grade veggie patty (below commercial quality standards) with repurposed buns (made with spent grain from brewing byproduct), bruised beet ketchup, pickled cucumber scraps (the ends of cucumbers, removed by the industry for uniform slices), and cow corn (a crop that never feeds humans directly, but still represents 99% of the 90+ million acres of corn grown in the US). For dessert, go with a cocoa husk custard (utilizing the skins of cocoa beans discarded when making chocolate) and nut press cake (byproducts of nut oil production).

“What Dan is doing at Stone Barns is the model around what sustainability really needs to look like, in terms of relationship to plant and human health in a way that’s delicious,” said Kass, lauding his collaborator’s leadership and highlighting the ability of engaged chefs to affect change through their medium of choice. While neither Kass nor Barber can name any one company that has figured out the whole picture of a sustainable approach to food, real transformation is occurring industry-wide.

Sustainability is becoming profitable and that’s really important for the longevity of these efforts and longterm success.

Ongoing high level collaboration, like that which occurred at the United Nations lunch and is now underway at COP21, help to elevate the role of food in political negotiations and drive climate-smart policies. Such momentum and progress at the international scale is undeniably meaningful. Kass, a former White House insider, called for the active involvement of all stakeholders to bring about much-needed reform with a sense of urgency.

While encouraged by the “confluence and convergence” around business, policymakers, and the health of humans and the planet, Kass remains realistic.

“None of this is easy. It’s gonna take years and years,” he said. Now that the dialogue has begun and world leaders are paying attention, it is up to citizens to continue voicing concerns, offering support, and challenging politicians and corporations to commit to binding agreements in relation to COP21 and beyond.

The next challenge: to rebrand food waste with the same success that marketing geniuses have rebranded used cars as certified pre-owned.

Written for and originally published on Fusion/Univision, after interviews with White House Chef Sam Kass and Blue Hill's Dan Barber on food, waste, climate and serving meals made from scraps to world leaders at the UN, COP21 in Paris, and beyond.


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