As sirens wailed and pigeons wheeled, thousands of people in Union Square on Tuesday feasted on a lunch of tasty ratatouille; a dollop of pickled peppers, carrots, apples, pear and celery; and a wedge of torte made of vegetable trimmings mixed with 1,010 eggs.
But this was much more than a free lunch. All of the food was either surplus from wholesalers or farms, or had cosmetic imperfections, such as nicks and gnarls, that grocers won’t tolerate.
Known as Feeding the 5,000, this New York City event was organized by Feedback, a British nonprofit that campaigns against food waste by presenting boisterous eat-ins sourced entirely from food that would otherwise have gone to waste.
As the local chefs who’d prepared the meals mingled among the crowd, a steady stream of businesspeople, neighborhood residents, students, and the homeless accepted pre-filled compostable bowls from volunteers. They ate, standing, as they listened to speakers and watched culinary demonstrations. (Through the food rescue nonprofit City Harvest, Feedback delivered an additional 5,000 meals to local food banks and soup kitchens.)
On a banner-draped stage, Adam Kay, from the restaurant Blue Hill, flipped burgers made from beet-juice pulp while his colleague Michelle Biscieglia stirred cocktails of whey, a byproduct of cheese making. Evan Hanczor, of Egg, stirred minced lamb hearts into leek fettuccine, and the Drexel Food Lab offered a primer on creating a confection made of overripe frozen bananas and honey. “It’s very sweet,” says a young woman who sampled the puree.
The menu incorporated several thousand pounds of potatoes, onions, eggplants, carrots, spinach, and more.
But that tonnage was a mere trickle compared with the massive rivers of food waste generated across the nation – some 63 million tons a year, up to forty percent of what is grown or produced. Globally, more than a third of all food – some 1.3 billion tons – is lost or wasted between farms and forks, accounting for $940 billion in annual economic losses. Meanwhile, 805 million people are chronically undernourished.
Wasting food also squanders all the resources it took to grow or produce that sustenance – from fresh water, to oil, chemicals, land, and labor. And the combined carbon dioxide emissions from food that is harvested, processed, packaged, and distributed – but never eaten – surpasses 3.3 billion metric tons. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S., according to the United Nations.
Last year, the U.N., the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced goals of halving food waste by 2030, and earlier this year thirty heads of companies, government ministers, and executives with foundations, research groups and charities coalesced, under the name Champions 12.3, to work towards the same end point.
“We’ve got a critical mass of organizations pushing for change now,” says Dominika Jarosz, Feeding the 5000’s global campaigns manager. “For years these groups have been working on disparate issues, but food waste connects them all. Everyone wants to fix this problem.”
Partnering with more than 40 organizations and chefs, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, Feedback is -- through feasts like today’s Union Square event -- not only raising awareness of how tasty discards can be in the right hands, but also highlighting four specific industry-directed solutions. “We’re calling for meaningful reform of date labels,” Jarosz says, referring to confusion over “best by,” “use by,” and “sell by” labels that spur consumers to purge good food. “We’re calling for supermarkets to relax their cosmetic standards, to measure and report precisely how much food they waste, and for far more donation of healthy surplus food.”
While many organizations now focus on waste at the consumer level – which is where most food is lost in western nations – Feedback toils to cut losses higher up the food chain. The group has called for an end to unfair trading practices, such as last-minute order cancellations and retrospective amendments to contracts, which cause farmers to plow under or trash huge quantities of fruit and vegetables.
Buoyed by ordinary citizens outraged by waste, Feedback convinced the giant British retailer Tesco to switch from snipping both the tops and tails of green beans to snipping just the tops – slashing waste by an estimated thirty percent. Feedback is pressuring supermarkets in the European Union and the U.S. to purchase farmers’ entire crops: if grocers can’t sell that much, they should help growers find other outlets -- companies that freeze fruit and vegetables, for example, or squeeze juice, or prepare ready-to-eat meals.
“Supermarkets must recognize that it's no longer acceptable to discard food in dumpsters and cause farmers to waste crops while people go hungry,” says Tristram Stuart, Feedback’s founder.
Since 2009, Feedback has presented more than 30 Feeding the 5,000 events, mostly in Europe. An event is scheduled for May 18 in Washington, D.C., with other events in the Hudson River Valley and in Denver expected to be announced soon. Learn more at www.feedbackglobal.org.