Tristram Stuart has 24 hours to produce a restaurant meal for 50 people—to plan a menu, gather food, then welcome guests to a venue in a city not his own. Complicating what sounds like a reality-show contest is a singular rule: Nearly all the ingredients must be sourced from farms and vendors intending to throw them out.
After racing back to New York City from a New Jersey farm where he gleaned 75 pounds of crookneck squash deemed by the farmers too crooked to sell, Stuart bolts from a car creeping through traffic and darts into a Greenwich Village bakery. Tall and blond, with a posh English accent, he launches into his ten-second spiel: “I run an organization that campaigns against food waste, and I’m pulling together a feast tomorrow made with food that won’t be sold or donated to charity. Do you have any bread that we could use?” The bakery doesn’t, but the clerk hands him two broken chocolate-chip cookies as consolation.
Stuart flings himself into the car. His next stop: the Union Square farmers market, where he spies a chef wrapping fish in squares of brioche dough, then trimming them into half circles. “Can I have your corners?” Stuart asks, with a meant-to-be-charming smile. The chef, uncharmed, declines. He’s going to make use of this dough himself. Undaunted, Stuart sails on through the market, delivering his pitch and eventually procuring discarded beet greens, wheatgrass, and apples.
Eighteen hours later scores of chefs, food-recovery experts, and activists talk shop over chef Celia Lam’s squash tempura, turnip and tofu dumplings, and spiralized zucchini noodles. Stuart himself had cooked very little, but he had, without a single formal meeting, ensorcelled a half dozen people to devise a menu, gather ingredients, and then prep, cook, serve, and clean up a meal for little more than the chance to be associated with one of the most compelling figures in the international fight against food waste.
Across cultures, food waste goes against the moral grain. After all, nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we squander enough food—globally, 2.9 trillion pounds a year—to feed every one of them more than twice over. Where’s all that food—about a third of the planet’s production—going? In developing nations much is lost postharvest for lack of adequate storage facilities, good roads, and refrigeration. In comparison, developed nations waste more food farther down the supply chain, when retailers order, serve, or display too much and when consumers ignore leftovers in the back of the fridge or toss perishables before they’ve expired.
Wasting food takes an environmental toll as well. Producing food that no one eats—whether sausages or snickerdoodles—also squanders the water, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, fuel, and land needed to grow it. The quantities aren’t trivial. Globally a year’s production of uneaten food guzzles as much water as the entire annual flow of the Volga, Europe’s most voluminous river. Growing the 133 billion pounds of food that retailers and consumers discard in the United States annually slurps the equivalent of more than 70 times the amount of oil lost in the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to American Wastelandauthor Jonathan Bloom. These staggering numbers don’t even include the losses from farms, fishing vessels, and slaughterhouses. 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. On a planet of finite resources, with the expectation of at least two billion more residents by 2050, this profligacy, Stuart argues in his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, is obscene.
Others have been making similar arguments for years, but reducing food waste has become a matter of international urgency. Some U.S. schools, where children dump up to 40 percent of their lunches into the trash, are setting up sharing tables, letting students serve themselves portions they know they’ll eat, allotting more time for lunch, and scheduling it after recess—all proven methods of boosting consumption. Countless businesses, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and cafeterias, have stepped forward to combat waste by quantifying how much edible food isn’t consumed, optimizing their purchasing, shrinking portion sizes, and beefing up efforts to move excess to charities. Stuart himself has made a specialty of investigating conditions farther up the supply chain, where supermarket standards and ordering practices lead to massive, but mostly hidden, dumps of edible food.
Fifty miles north of Lima, Peru, in the farming town of Huaral, Stuart sips a glass of freshly squeezed satsuma juice with Luis Garibaldi, whose Fundo Maria Luisa is the largest grower of mandarins in the country. Pitched forward in his seat under a poolside pergola, Stuart asks: How much do you export? How much is rejected? For what reason? And what happens to those discards? Seventy percent of his crop, Garibaldi says, is exported to the European Union and North America. But 30 percent won’t be the right size, color, or sweetness, or it might have blemishes, scars, scratches, sunburn, fungus, or spiders. To local markets most of these rejects go, netting Garibaldi just one-third the price of the exports.
Stuart works through a ladder of queries that lead to a general thesis: Supermarkets’ cosmetic standards are crazily exacting—until supply shrinks, at which point they crumble like a chocolate lattice.