The ‘Waste’ Food Industry for the Wealthy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
These juices and snacks are targeting your taste buds … and your conscience.
Inside a laundromat in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, earlier this year, Katie McKeown — the gritty chef of Hell’s Kitchen, season 13, fame — and her boyfriend, Tae Mickle, served 50-60 people her signature cocktail, the Plum Old-Fashioned. It combines bourbon with orange bitters — and a stock made from wonky plums and leftover parts of the fruit. They also served chicken-and-andouille gumbo, made in a way to ensure that food parts otherwise wasted were instead reused. They had sourced ugly and leftover groceries from local markets and restaurants. The food was served on reusable plates, and the menu was handwritten on reusable paper.
As proprietors of the Hang Up — a food and cocktail collective that ensures zero food waste — the two host pop-ups in laundromats, backyards, hookah bars and “whichever place agrees to let us host,” McKeown says. They’re flipping how socially conscious firms within the food industry have approached waste in recent years. And they’re not alone.
Instead of targeting “food deserts” — where affordable and healthy food is hard to get — with their excess produce, a growing band of startups and big retailers are now beginning to focus on better-off consumers who can choose what they want to eat. They’re hoping to make people aware of the problem of waste. At the same time, they’re turning what would otherwise have been wasted food into a major new business — packaging it as sleekly marketed juices, drinks, snacks and even wholesome meals targeted at an ecologically woke millennial generation worried about its carbon footprint.
[We want] to make people happy by serving them the best flavors made from scrap.
Katie McKeown, The Hang Up
San Francisco-based firm Good Use makes cold-pressed juices from the oddly shaped fruits and veggies often rejected at supermarkets. Los Angeles-based Pulp Pantry uses the pulp that remains from cold-pressed juices and turns that into snack bars. Forager in San Francisco turns pulp from cold-pressed juices into chips; ReGrained makes flour from the grain left behind while brewing beer; the Coffee Cherry Company extracts coffee waste that can be added to drinks and baked goods. Nationally in the U.S., 70 organizations are now selling food from what would have been waste, according to ReFED, an organization that tracks food waste. Most of them were launched in the past five years.
Across the Atlantic, supermarket chain Tesco has launched Waste Not, cold-pressed juices made from the odd-looking fruits and veggies often rejected by customers. U.K. startups OddBox and the Wonky Food Company are selling rejected fruits and vegetables from local suppliers. The startup products aren’t cheap — a 5-ounce bag of Forager chips costs $4 — though chains like Tesco are keeping prices affordable: A Waste Not juice costs $1.90. Yet this explosion of firms taking a new approach to food waste represents just the start of what’s needed, say experts.
“Food waste is really a system-wide problem,” says Andrea Spacht Collins, a sustainable food systems specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The boom of these food startups and companies is a fantastic start. … But we really need big, bold action around the system to make a dent.”
Globally, 24 percent of food is wasted, according to the World Resources Institute. Cutting that by half would mean we need to produce 1,314 trillion fewer kilocalories of food per year than at present. The problem’s particularly acute in the West.
The NRDC estimates that 40 percent of America’s food — responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 37 million cars — is wasted. That’s a larger climate footprint than in any country other than the U.S. and China. All told, $218 billion worth of food is trashed in the U.S. annually. Meanwhile, 1 in 8 Americans lacks a steady supply of food. The U.K. sends 90,000 tons of produce to landfills annually, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme.
In developing nations, much of the food waste occurs because of inadequate storage or access to markets, but in the U.S., the biggest challenge is behavior change, says Collins. “We need to shatter the inclination toward cosmetically beautiful fruits and vegetables.”
Chefs like McKeown are relying on more than just increased awareness. She wants “to make people happy by serving them the best flavors made from scrap.” Their major recent hits include the Corn Star (a cocktail that depends on corn cobs) and the Egg Roll (made with carrot tops and beet tops sourced from restaurants that don’t want them).
McKeown worries that big firms joining this growing industry might defeat the goal of reducing waste by using plastic bags, for instance. “How do you think only about food waste and not plastic pollution?” she asks. And Collins says we’ll need “policies to ensure reduction of food waste” rather than initiatives only by companies and individuals, in order to effectively address the problem.
But celebrity focus on the problem — Anthony Bourdain addressed food waste in the 2018 movie Wasted! The Story of Food Waste — could help press society toward change. And a 2017 study by Drexel University suggested that consumers nowadays have a growing appetite to pay more for food made of “upcycled” ingredients.
In the U.K., some companies are consciously supplying ugly produce to make employees aware of food waste. Purvai D., who moved to London from New Delhi in 2014, says juices and smoothies made of oddly shaped fruits are a part of her daily life now. Back home, her mother would pick the shiniest of fruits to make juice with. “Here, I consciously consume smoothies made of wonky fruits,” she says. “Let’s not judge our humble carrots for some extra brown spots.”