Food waste is one of our most urgent global challenges. At the same time as people suffer due to lack of food, our landfills are filling up with food waste, releasing harmful gasses which contribute to climate change.
According to Change for Climate, “Wasted food that ends up in the garbage, and ultimately the landfill, produces methane—a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s estimated that 7% of greenhouse gases produced globally are due to preventable food waste.” Food waste represents economic losses, lack of justice for those who don’t have access to enough food to eat, and contributes to climate change.
The good news is, we can all make simple changes with massive positive benefits for this issue.
Abbe Stern is a Food Waste Advocate and expert. My goal in interviewing her is to learn about this important issue, and get some actionable tips to reduce food waste in our daily lives.
Tell us about yourself, Abbe Stern
I’m a food waste fighting enthusiast with a background in radical hospitality and a passion for fixing broken systems.
I have recently accepted a new position with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I am now the Food Pharmacy Manager for the hospital’s Healthy Weight Food Pharmacy and Food Pharmacy 2.0 program. I will be working directly with patients/the community to combat food insecurity.
How do you unwind?
My main extracurriculars consist of throwing darts, hot yoga, and beekeeping. Throwing darts is my way of staying social and quenching my competitive nature in my 30’s, yoga helps me stay fit while maintaining my mental health and practicing mindfulness, and beekeeping is my personal way of keeping our food systems thriving while taking care of the planet. Bees are also very stinking cute.
What is your passion project?
I’m an avid volunteer with a local, nonprofit called Sanctuary Farm. Sanctuary Farm’s sole purpose is to create a healthy, sustainable food system for an incredibly impoverished corner of Philadelphia. They grow produce that gets directly distributed back to the community where it is grown, and the community members are involved in choosing what is grown. The goal of this organization is to eliminate a food desert, and to eventually hand over the ownership of the farm to the community. Typically when bags of food are donated from an organization/food bank, 40% of that food is thrown away because people either don’t know what it is, don’t like it, or don’t know how to use it. When people are given choice and autonomy about what they can eat, food is not wasted. The model of Sanctuary Farm is a massive part of solving this problem, and volunteering with them makes me feel like I’m working towards creating better systems.
Tell us about Too Good To Go App
Too Good To Go is a revolutionary app that gives food businesses the power to repurpose their leftovers with the touch of a button, all while making back their lost food cost. I launched the Philadelphia market for Too Good To Go back in February of 2021, and have worked with restaurants and other food businesses (grocers, caterers, etc) to keep their delicious foods out of the trash. Local users can discover when a restaurant has leftover food on our app, purchase it at a discounted price, and collect it from the restaurant during their designated pickup window. It’s a wonderful way for people to get a great deal on delicious food, help restaurants be zero waste, and save the planet.
How about Fooding Forward?
Fooding Forward is the nonprofit that I formed in 2018 while working at the Rittenhouse Hotel. I noticed food being thrown away unnecessarily and I wanted to take action. I started collecting the leftover food from the hotel and bringing it to shelters, and slowly started working with neighboring restaurants as well. I then started working directly with the food businesses to help them rework their standard operating procedures so that they could rescue their own excess independently, and connected them with recipients who could use their specific excess. However, Fooding Forward stopped operating officially once COVID hit and all the restaurants shut down.
What’s the problem with food waste – why should everyone care about it?
Food waste is a completely preventable problem that is entirely man-made, and stopping it will be a huge player in slowing down the effects of global warming. Our current food systems are completely broken and lead to waste, and unless we all decide to stop participating in these systems, or create systemic change to move us out of them, we will destroy our planet.
How did you get interested in the issue of food waste?
I have had two “ah-ha” moments:
- When I was in college I participated in a volunteer day where we went to a local food bank to sort and pack boxes. At the end of the work shift we had a lecture from the professor about our food distribution systems and he said “There is enough food on the planet to feed everyone – the problem is distribution”. I remember sitting in my seat feeling stunned that people are starving because our systems are faulty, not because we don’t have the resources.
- When I was working at the Rittenhouse Hotel I was walking through the banquet kitchens one day and saw a trash can filled with bread rolls. I had a mini-meltdown in front of the mountain of bread and asked the surrounding banquet staff why they threw away all of this bread? Every answer I got was extremely valid: “Barely anyone at the event was eating bread”, “we have nowhere to store them”, “we’re getting in another shipment of rolls tonight for our next event”. I realized they truly had no other option for that bread, and that this was the system they were given and needed to follow. I then told them to not throw away leftover bread from events moving forward, and to instead put it on my desk and I would figure out what to do with it. That is how Fooding Forward was born.
How do Jewish values intersect with the issue of food waste – in general, and for you personally?
Tzedakah. Being raised Jewish, giving to others was always framed to me as something that you do. It is part of your spiritual life. It is part of a just society. When I describe to people the concept of Tzedakah, I emphasize how Jews see charity as justice, righteousness, what you’re supposed to do. It is part of our community. Knowing that looking after and supporting our neighbors is part of our society, the concept of food waste – throwing away a much needed resource that took time and energy to source, that could be used to aid our neighbor – is deplorable.
What is the difference between industrial/commercial vs domestic food waste?
The key difference is planning versus the unplanned. In industrial/commercial spaces waste is typically planned and budgeted, whereas in the home it’s an unplanned side-effect.
Large corporations like Nestle and Whole Foods build the concept of waste into their everyday systems so that it is part of their norm. It is typically cheaper for large corporations to throw away their excess than repurpose it, so we have created systems that accept and assist that reality. Whole Foods may need 100 pounds of apples, so they will purchase 167 pounds of apples knowing that 40% of those apples (67 pounds) won’t make it to the shelf. This is considered “normal” and “acceptable”.
In the home, waste typically happens because a plan went astray or something got in the way of a plan. No one goes to the store needing 6 apples, picks out 10 apples and thinks “Great, I’ll plan to throw 4 of these away at the end of the week”. That would be considered wasteful, irresponsible, and nonsensical.
What keeps people from doing a better job with domestic food waste?
We all get complacent with our everyday norms. Similarly to corporations, we as individuals allow ourselves a certain parameter of acceptable food waste. We’ve become conditioned to seeing a bag of brown, soggy greens in our vegetable drawer. We assume we’re never going to use the last of that can of tomato paste. We know that the leftover takeout container is never going to be opened again and will be tossed right out on the next trash day, and all of that is perfectly acceptable.
If something happens over and over and over again it must be “normal”, and there’s no point in trying to change something that you can’t “control”.
Advise us on simple actions we can all take at home!
3 actions for complete beginners
- PLAN – PLAN – PLAN
- Meal prep: Prep meals or ingredients needed for meals when you have the time. I personally don’t do a “full” meal prep as I don’t like eating the same things day in and day out, and I prefer eating freshly made food, but I will prepare certain ingredients that take time to make. For example, I love sauteed chinese broccoli with garlic, but to make that I need to blanch the greens before sauteing them in garlic. This step takes about 10 minutes, but will deter me from cooking if I only have the energy to microwave a bowl. If I have a whole container of garlicky sauteed greens ready to go in my fridge, I’ll scoop some out, throw it over some rice with a freshly scrambled egg, and I’ve got a delicious, fresh meal that took 2 minutes. I’m not sure if it’s a visual thing or what, but I’m more likely to try and use up prepared foods that are about to go bad in my fridge than a sole ingredient that’s about to go bad in my fridge.
- Grocery lists: You can’t meal prep if you don’t have the right ingredients for the meal. Planning ahead of a grocery trip is imperative so that you get everything that you need, but more importantly so that you don’t over-buy. In some cases it’s impossible not to buy more of a niche ingredient than you need (cough cough, tomato paste), and that’s when you turn to your freezer…
- Your freezer is your friend
- Freeze. Everything. (except fresh veg) Have leftover tomato paste in the can after using 1 tablespoon for a recipe? Take the remainder of the can, divide it amongst ice cube trays, and freeze. Next time you need it, you will have a perfect portion of frozen paste that can be thrown into sauces or stews. Have leftover pizza slices at the end of the night (that for some reason you wouldn’t eat immediately)? Wrap them in foil and put them in the freezer for when you need that slice of snack. Prepping a big dinner for the family? Save all of your vegetable scraps, throw them in a freezer bag and save for a hearty vegetable stock.
- Get weird
- When you can’t plan ahead and you don’t have frozen slices in your freezer, get weird. For example, I had 5-6 small purple potatoes sitting on my counter that began to wrinkle and sprout new sprouts. I thought I would slice them up and roast them, but when I started to peel them I realized parts of the potatoes had to be cut away and tossed because they were either too dry or too mushy. Once I cleaned them I had about 2-3 small potatoes, barely enough for a side dish. I knew I needed to use them but didn’t know what to make, so I started poking around my fridge for other close-to-death ingredients. I found an onion that had green fireworks poking out the top, some scallions that were browning on the sides, and a squash that had been living with me for many moons. As I started pulling out all these random ingredients and putting them on my counter I realized I had the ingredients for a hash. I diced up the potatoes, squash and onion, sauteed them with some basic seasoning, fried up an egg to a-top the veggie mound, and finished it with slices of scallion (after I pulled off the brown layers). It was delicious and satisfying, and helped me repurpose all of my almost-lost veggie soldiers.
3 actions for people who want to take things to the next level
- Make everything yourself
- Want a pie? Make a pie crust, cut some apples (use the whole apple, discard only the seeds and stem), dress it up, and bake. Want chicken soup? Buy a chicken (or get your bag of saved bones from the freezer), boil it, grab your bag of saved veggie scraps from the freezer, and soup it up. When you make food from scratch you see every component that goes into that dish, which not only gives you more control over what goes into that meal, but helps you understand what it took to make that food. When you make something from scratch I can almost guarantee that you won’t be throwing away leftovers after you see what it took to produce it.
- Grow everything yourself
- I do understand that this one is much more difficult and not exactly realistic, but hear me out. Whether you have a sunny windowsill or a large backyard, you have some capacity to grow some aspect of your food yourself. When you grow your own food and see the life cycle take place, a true connection grows between you and your food. You connect and sympathize with your food, you see it as a true living, breathing thing that’s nourishing you and keeping you alive. Similarly to preparing your own food, you are so much more reluctant to throw away food that you grew yourself.
- Be an ambassador
- If you’re already growing your food, making your meals, saving/composting/repurposing your scraps, help out a neighbor who might not be as savvy or have as many resources as you. If you’re bringing your scraps to a compost site or farm, ask your neighbors if you can do the same for them. If you’re growing your own food and have excess after a harvest, ask your neighbors if they would like some. Better yet, ask them if they have items they would like to receive to maybe grow the following season. If you have random ingredient odds and ends and choose to repurpose them into a fantastic meal, share what you did to inspire others to do the same. Start community/support groups in your area to promote crowdsourcing and growing the movement.
If you’re only going to make one change, do this:
Please shop locally. If you can’t plan ahead, freeze items, cook for yourself, or grow your own food, at least put your money towards businesses that are trying to change our broken systems as opposed to adding to them. Shop local farmer’s markets, seek out food co-ops, and purchase from local vendors. Shopping locally cuts out so much of the waste that is otherwise priced-in to our broken food systems.
Are there ways to reduce waste when eating out?
No matter where you are, there is always a way to reduce food waste.
- Share dishes as a table as opposed to ordering individually
- Eat the items that are less likely to hold up as leftovers first, and save items that will easily be able to be reheated for second.
- When placing your order, ask the server if they think you ordered the appropriate amount of food, or if you may have over-ordered.
- If you have food left, always, always ask for a doggy bag.
What simple tools do you recommend for reducing food waste at home?
- Freezer bags
- Ice cube trays
What are your favorite tips or ‘hacks’ for reducing / using food waste?
- Storing your apples and potatoes together – the apples keep the potatoes from sprouting.
- Wrapping the vine of bananas so they’re not exposed to air and will stay yellow longer
- Wrapping stale bread in a damp paper towel and heating it in the microwave for a few seconds.
- Old milk can be made into ricotta.
What are your favorite zero-waste recipes
- Old milk being made into ricotta
- Using leftover vegetables to make a hash
- Leftover meat grease – pick your green vegetable of choice, smash some garlic, throw the garlic into the leftover fat, sautee for 30 seconds, add the greens and saute until done.
Abbe’s recommended reading on food waste:
I’m currently reading this book, which takes a deep dive into food charities and why the United States is so reliant on NGOs to feed people. The book explores how food donations started as a means to capture excess food from farms and use it to feed people. But that system wasn’t working for people or our waste streams, and didn’t solve the problems of food waste or hungry people. This book is mostly about our broken food systems and how the waste that comes from them is supposed to be our answer to feeding the disadvantaged, which is proven to only keep us in our broken systems rather than providing a solution.
This is a beautiful cookbook written by an outstanding woman that focuses on recipes centered around reinventing leftovers. Julia will give you a recipe, and then a second recipe for the leftovers from the first recipe.
Website for more support and info about reducing food waste:
The NRDC’s Food Matters campaign has so many tools that individuals, groups, and cities can use to reduce their food waste.
This is truly one of my favorite movies of all time and speaks more to bees and our farming systems, but is such an important film about how we need to fix our broken systems (which are precisely what lead to waste). This documentary shows you the life of an industrial honeybee and how we pollinate our food, and how our food is a reflection of the choices we make as consumers. Due to the choices we make as consumers, our food systems have an overwhelming amount of waste. If we change how we purchase food, our waste will change, too.
What surprised you most about what Abbe shared?
For me, interviewing Abbe was an eye-opening experience. I learned so much, particularly shocking was the way that food waste is already built into our food systems, rather than an unfortunate by-product. What did you learn? Please share your own tips in the comments – how do you reduce food waste in your own home?
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