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To Waste Food Is to Waste Potential

Tom Colicchio on Cooking Our Way to Less Food Waste

Tom Colicchio

September 25, 2018

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Peaches and pits photo by Keirnan Monaghan and Theo Vamvounakis
Photo: Keirnan Monaghan and Theo Vamvounakis

In his foreword for our new cookbook, Tom Colicchio shares his hope that by reimagining what we think of as waste, we can tip the scales to a more just and more delicious future .

When I was growing up, cooking in our house in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was a family affair. My brothers and I ate food prepared by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all of whom were children of the Great Depression or immigrants, or both—people who had personally known hard times, even hunger. Thrift was a virtue little discussed and much practiced: heels of stale bread became breadcrumbs. Leftover veggies were tossed into a frittata (we called it an omelet). Last night’s meatloaf was the next day’s sandwich.

In restaurant parlance, thrift is called good management; bones are harvested for flavor, carrot tops go into stock. Profit margins are slender in our industry even in the best of times, so almost nothing of value gets thrown out. Shrewd husbandry and imaginative use of the “imperfect extra” can be the difference between keeping the lights on or not.

But for those of us who don’t work in restaurants or have a direct connection to a leaner past, the idea of this kind of careful waste management feels quaint at best, and onerous at worst, given the demands of our frenetic family and work lives. Who’s got time to make stock? I recycle, now I’m supposed to compost, too? We’ve come of age in an era of low-cost fast food and convenience meals, with many layers of processing and packaging between us and the human beings that cultivated the ingredients in them. It’s that distance, real and metaphorical, that make waste possible: throwing away half of a dollar meal is easier than tossing half the ragu your grandmother made from scratch, or half of a crop your family labored to grow.

Today, most of us see the role we play, as individuals, in safeguarding the environment. We recycle, and we make consumer decisions based on energy efficiency and carbon footprint, because we understand the collective impact of those choices on our swiftly warming planet.

But we do that while letting our leftovers grow fur in the fridge before tossing them. While crumpling the last two fingers of sandwich in our lunch bag and flipping vegetable scraps into a garbage pile destined for landfill, without connecting the dots: if food waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest producer of greenhouse gases. Twenty-five percent of all the freshwater in the U.S. is used to produce food that is wasted. The hidden costs of food waste jack up food costs across the board, which hits low-income
families the hardest. Forty percent of all the food produced in the U.S. gets thrown away in a nation where one in six people go hungry. In that light, those small moments of mindless waste have staggering consequences.

The good news is that each of us can help fix this. Scraps can be frozen until a later date and then tossed into a pot for stock. Bits and ends of lunch can be collected for compost. Just a fifteen percent reduction in food waste could save enough food to feed twenty-five million Americans annually. It’s heartening, too, to think of the generational impact on our children of learning thrift-by-choice. Kids who grow up scraping their plate into a compost bin will do so in their own households one day; for their kids, throwing away food scraps will feel the way that tossing a tin can into anything but the recycling bin feels to ours: an act from the dark ages, like smoking on airplanes, or hurling your picnic trash out a car window. These behaviors were normal when I was a kid. But norms change when we decide to live our lives with intent, and help others to do the same.

This book is for the eater with intent. It’s for the home cook who hopes to lean into this issue but needs ideas for how to pull it off, how to manage or transform that bit of “imperfect extra” that is the by-product of daily life. Change can be delicious, it can be fun, and it can become habit. And small habits, adopted by many, can tip a culture from indifference and neglect towards a saner, more just future in which we all can share. Thanks for being part of getting us there.

Our new cookbook, Waste Not: How to Get the Most from Your Food, published by Rizzoli,​ is on sale now.​ Order your copy!

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Tom Colicchio is the James Beard Award–winning chef and owner of Crafted Hospitality, executive producer and head judge of Top Chef, and leading food policy activist. Find him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.