Opinion We’re thinking about food ‘waste’ all wrong

(Michelle Kondrich/The Washington Post)
6 min

Tamar Adler, a former professional cook, is the author of “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace,” “Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised” and, most recently, “The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z.”

Buzz about “food waste” has recently been everywhere. There’s the public awareness campaign to reduce food in landfills in Ohio. Kroger has a Zero Hunger Zero Waste pledge, Walmart a “50% food waste reduction goal” by 2030. In January, President Biden signed the Food Donation Improvement Act, expanding liability protection for food donors, to encourage donation of food that’s typically discarded. In February, the Zero Food Waste Act was introduced in Congress.

The statistics tell us why: 30 to 40 percent of the food the United States produces ends its life in landfills. Food waste accounts for as much as 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, of which the United States produces 11 percent. American households of four people throw out, on average, $120 worth of food each month.

As the author of two books on cooking leftovers, I’m ecstatic that the problem of unused food has been edging into the spotlight. But I worry we’re tackling it wrong.

Legislation and public awareness campaigns might lead to small improvements in the numbers. But more vitally: Americans need to collectively replace a preoccupation with “food waste” — which does not sound edible, never mind delicious — with a passion for food use. We need to change our approach from a moralistic one to a practical human one that treats edible ingredients as what they are: food.

Food becomes “waste” subjectively, and in that subjective becoming lies a world of culinary possibility. Until it is squandered, food is food. Food changes over time — as humans do. But one could say of food what the anthropologist Mary Douglas did of dirt: “There is no such thing as absolute dirt: It exists in the eye of the beholder.”

Whether food is “food” or “waste” is up to you. For most of history, the line between the edible and the inedible has been left incontrovertibly to “the eye of the beholder.” (One might more accurately say “the eye, nose, fingers and tongue of the beholder.”) We have used information attained by seeing and smelling and touching and tasting to decide whether food should be cooked or fed to the animals, or the soil.

This subjective observation has produced culinary treasures — beginning with yogurt and cheese and wine, whose discoveries depended on a willingness to appreciate what milk and grape juice became as they evolved.

Refried beans exist because someone long ago trusted herself to smash and reheat leftover cold beans in fat. Fried rice — like sinangag and chao fan and hundreds of other dishes — is a familiar pleasure because cold, hard rice wasn’t discarded when it finished being hot, fresh rice, but instead was met where it was.

I’ll never forget my first taste of ribollita, in a riverside restaurant in Florence, where, too late for lunch, I was pitied and served a bowl of it — perfectly thick and warm and nubby brown, topped with fresh olive oil. Years later, I learned how to make that famous soup, and that it relies on old ingredients: stale dry bread, broth left from cooking beans, a rind of Parmesan cheese.

By focusing on using food beyond the confines of our first imaginings, we’re granted access to a world of flavor — in soup that has tightened and melded overnight into a delicious sauce, or a dressing whose dregs improve a lunchtime sandwich. We also attain invaluable culinary intelligence, learning how flavor migrates from one ingredient to another, what happens to liquid and fat overnight, how acid and salt can soften what has hardened, how clever knife work can crisp what has sagged.

Plus, we save money on ingredients and time going to the store. And we keep food from landfills.

By shifting our focus from what to do with the food being wasted to how each of us will use what we have, we also leave space for the important food-systems thinking our times demand. When attention is paid to the diversion of food waste as a way of addressing hunger, it obscures the fact that — as researcher Austin Bryniarski has put it — hunger is a product of poverty.

No number of brown bananas or ugly vegetables sent to shelters or food banks can deal with that fact. This point is particularly poignant when one considers that more than three-quarters of workers at Kroger-owned supermarkets experience food insecurity — more than seven times the national average — while the Kroger chain is lauded for its food waste activism.

And while the food that people waste produces greenhouse gases, of greater concern is the over 25 percent of total greenhouse emissions that come from all food production, which increasingly is conducted through nitrogen-heavy, resource-intensive industrial systems that exploit their laborers, destroy topsoil and weave opaque supply chains controlled by a few stakeholders. With limited appetite and time for reversing climate change, the larger picture is the one that matters.

Of course, seeing evolving food as food will require trusting our senses, in the face of conflicting expiration and best-by dates — which are not actually expiration and best-by dates and have been debunked as irrelevant to food safety. During the last Congress, the Food Date Labeling Act aimed to federally regulate those labels, which vary widely state to state, and give agency back to eaters.

In the meantime, it’s essential to trust that we humans have intricate noses, evolved over millions of years for exactly the purpose of divining the edible from the inedible. We smell some things better than dogs do. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences showed that “disgust is an evolved human emotion that functions to limit infection.” Our gut responses to food are evolutionarily fine-tuned to help us distinguish between “food” and “waste.”

So yes, Americans should throw out less food. But a more direct, economical, pleasurable and honest route than obsessing over food waste is to use the food we have — to follow the examples of the thousands of ways frugal cooks from across the globe have done this for millennia. Who knows? The next discovery of refried beans, or chao fan, or ribollita might be just around the corner.