Waste Not Want Not: A conversation about food waste

Had the time come for a big reveal, or was it better to let our guests eat their dumpster dinner in blissful ignorance? My husband and I whispered anxiously in the kitchen trying to decide as our guests sat down for Thanksgiving dinner. To serve with our store-bought meat, we’d prepared a myriad of dishes including mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted squash, salad, and a “vegducken” – which despite my best attempts ended up as a pan of roasted vegetables – all made at least in part from dumpster produce.

Three days earlier, we had gone for our first dumpster dive. Under the cover of darkness, we’d left our home in Berkeley, CA around 10:00 PM with two experienced friends to see what stores were throwing out. When I peered into my first dumpster, I was disappointed. It was filled with the orange peel remnants of fresh squeezed orange juice and rotting lettuce. But as I began to dig just a little bit (gloves are highly recommended!), I started pulling out potatoes. One after another that looked just like the ones I would buy from the store. Then I found some apples and eggplant and grew incredulous at the waste right before my eyes. In the three dumpsters we searched through that night, we recovered more than 50 potatoes, bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, asparagus, bananas, apples galore, way more bagels than we could eat filling garbage bags and much more. We got home with a few cardboard boxes full of our treasures and gave it all a good wash. This was our inaugural dumpster dive and we were in awe, but to our veteran friends, this was just another attempt to put the tiniest dent into the amount of perfectly edible food wasted.


The recovered food from my first dumpster dive after a quick wash.

I’d heard the numbers before: up to 40% of food is wasted in the United States1, while about 20% of homes with children are food insecure2. But seeing the problem right before my eyes changed the game for me. When the opportunity to help organize an event on the Berkeley campus about food waste arose, I jumped in with both feet. Metaphorically. Not like with the dumpster.

We arranged for four stellar panelists, each tackling the food waste issue in unique ways, to come together to talk with Berkeley graduate students and post-doctoral researchers about their visions for creating solutions to the problem of waste.

The Panelists:

Chef Charles Phan, owner and Executive Chef of The Slanted Door, an acclaimed San Francisco restaurant, sees waste all around him – from packaging to food scraps. He ensures that every unusable piece of organic matter from his restaurant – from leftover scraps on a diner’s plate (although after eating there, I assume this is a rare occurrence) to lettuce rinds – is correctly composted. The compost is then taken away with the scraps from other restaurants and hotels and made into high quality compost, which is distributed and used to grow the next generation of crops.

Chef Phan’s philosophy was complimented by Dr. Ruihong Zhang, a professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis, as well as Chief Technology Advisor and Inventor at CleanWorld. Dr. Zhang developed breakthrough technology to engineer the UC Davis Renewable Energy Anaerobic Digester. Inside the biodigester, anaerobic microbes feast on organic waste and convert it into clean energy which feeds into the campus electrical grid. CleanWorld has engineered two additional biodigesters which are helping to fuel the city of Sacramento and divert thousands of tons of organic waste from the landfill.

Dana Frasz is the founder and director of Food Shift, a Bay Area non-profit. At Food Shift, Dana is building opportunities and infrastructure within communities to deal with food waste. Food Shift recently raised enough money to house a kitchen at the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC). The APC provides housing, work-force training, and academic support for formerly homeless families. The APC kitchen will be staffed by residents and make food products exclusively from food that would have been wasted – whether it’s veggie burgers from the pulp of a smoothie/juice shop, tomato sauces from past-ripe tomatoes, or a myriad of other delicious edibles.

Evan Hazelott, an “ugly produce enthusiast” at Imperfect Produce, rounded out our panel. He will do anything to get “cosmetically challenged” produce onto your doorstep instead of into the dumpster. Lots of produce is discarded before making it to the grocery store, some for very minor reasons such as an apple that is too oblong. At Imperfect Produce, they buy these fruits and veggies from the farmer and deliver them in Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) boxes to Bay Area doorsteps. In my experience with my own Imperfect box, the most common cosmetic issues include slight scarring or being misshapen. But often times, I have to look online at my order receipt to see what was “wrong” with the food – there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with it.

What next? Identifying problems and discussing solutions

The event moderator, Kara Wentworth (Ph.D. candidate in Communication and Science Studies at UC San Diego), began by asking the panelists about their paths into the food waste realm and the major challenges they had encountered. We then enjoyed a long question and answer style discussion with the panelists. A few themes came through to me, which I’ve summarized below.

At the farm and grocery store:

What if you don’t live in the area serviced by Imperfect Produce? How can you help get misshapen food out of the dumpster and into our bellies? Start by showing your grocer that you don’t mind a few scars on your fruits and veggies. Instead of digging through the apple aisle to find the prettiest ones, try your chances on the ugliest one you can find. Leaving the scarred pieces, or ones with a small bruise to be the only ones left at the end of the day sends your grocer a message that you don’t value this food as much as prettier pieces.

Charles Phan took us out of the store and back to the farm, reminding us of the difficult decisions our farmers make regarding what and how much to grow. A great growing season may yield a higher harvest than the farmer has contracted to sell. Charles pointed out that there are many products that can be made and preserved from these surpluses (eg, sauces from tomatoes) if the infrastructure and willingness existed to adapt processing based on supply. Queue Food Shift, and other projects like the Alameda Point Collaborative Kitchen, that are working to create jobs employing people to do just that.

Infrastructure: Is food worth more or less than an empty soda can?

Dana was quick to point out that while volunteer-based organizations do really amazing work, we need to make food recovery economically viable. Transferring surplus food to locations where needed cannot rely solely on volunteers showing up in mini-vans or SUVs to take it to the local food kitchen. Rather, we can and should build infrastructure around food recovery. “If we value our food like we value a glass bottle, we’ll establish a recycling system for food, like we have for plastics, cans, etc.,” she pointed out. Grocers pay for garbage trucks to come pick up their trash – why not pay for trucks to pick up their unwanted, but still safe, food? Is this economically viable? In a pilot study and collaboration between Food Shift and Bay Area grocery chain Andronico’s, it cost less money for Andronico’s to pay for their aging or imperfect items to be redistributed than it did to throw them in the dumpster and pay the additional garbage fees. Many stores do not donate their excess food, fearing that donating older produce or goods at or past their date labels will make people sick and/or make them legally vulnerable. This leads to two great questions of policy and law: the meaning of date labels, and the legal liability of food donors.

Policy: Can I eat or donate food past its “best by” or “sell by” date?

As the food waste discussion grows, advocates and policy-makers are taking a close look at expiration, “best by,” and “sell by” dates. Even John Oliver weighed in from his HBO show Last Week Tonight. There is no national policy on what these dates mean, and it leads to a lot of confusion and chucking out items past their printed dates. Charles Phan added that our best tools for detecting the safeness of food are our noses and tongues. “If it’s bad, you can always spit it back out.” Since then, I have boldly tasted my long “expired” milk and been surprised to find it tasty and refreshing (although I also tasted some curdled milk, spit it out, and lived to tell the tale). In fact, food date labels are not regulated by the government (except labels for infant formula), and instead are left to the manufacturers. In California, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, has proposed AB2725 to make California the first state in the nation to require food to have one of two labels with clear meanings: “best if used by” dates to indicate best quality, but not safety, and “expires on” dates which would be used only for highly perishable foods, such as unpasteurized cheeses. Making a few clear and simple regulations for labeling food will clear up a lot of confusion and help consumers make better decisions. Helpful guides for storing and handling food items also help. I’ve been using this one from savethefood.com.

With date labels more clear, grocers may have an easier time understanding what they should safely donate. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was passed in 1996 to encourage food donation by minimizing legal liability of the donor if the recipient falls ill. This law has fallen somewhat into obscurity though, and so, fearing a lawsuit in our deeply litigious society, many stores cite fear of legal retribution when sending food to the landfill.

In the home:

Another thing that surprised me is that, of the 40% of food that is wasted, 40% of that is wasted in the home (let me do the math for you – that means that 16% of all food is wasted in our homes). That’s a lot, but who hasn’t looked at the rotting items in the fridge and scrunched up their nose as they toss it out? This moment usually comes for me in the form of leftovers I can’t really bring myself to finish or veggies I meant to cook with, if only late nights in lab didn’t make stopping for a burrito on the way home seem so appealing.

Evan (Imperfect Produce) mentioned that a little planning ahead and responsible consumption can help with waste in the home. Simply being aware of what you have in the fridge before you go to the grocery store, and buying items you have a plan for, will help. Another tip is the “first in first out” system. If you liked the food well enough to cook it or bring it into your home in the first place, go ahead and heat up those leftovers or roast that week-old cauliflower. And don’t forget to enjoy the economic benefit of no longer throwing up to 1/4 of your groceries into the trash can1.

The end of the line: I have some rotten food. Now what?

This growing national conversation will hopefully begin to yield a decrease in food waste. But what should be done with the organic materials we just cannot save? Composting is hugely important, and the development of technologies such as the biodigester is an innovative step taking compost to the next level. Not only does it create compost for the next generation of crops, but it also takes the methane gas released by the microbes that break down the material and uses it to provide power instead of adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. Dr. Zhang is hopeful that the current generation of young adults will pick up the gauntlet and continue to think and invent, reinvigorating the field of waste management to pave the way for an environmentally sustainable future.

The Big Reveal:

So, did we tell our friends and family where their dinner had come from? We did! And their reaction? Well…how would you feel?

Becky Mackelprang

Becky is a Ph.D. candidate in Plant Biology at UC Berkeley studying plant pathology. She is passionate about food security and science communication.

  1. Gunders,Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, NRDC, 2012
  2. Coleman-Jensen, M. P. Rabbitt, C. Gregory, A. Singh, Household Food Security in the United States in 2014. Economic Research Report Number 194, United States Department of Agriculture, 2015


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