There was a time it was considered sinful to waste food. Mothers implored children to clean their plates in deference to the hungry children living on the other side of the world. Any food leftover from one meal was re-made into something else for the next. Viva la casserole! Food was something we valued.
Fast forward a couple of generations to a world of drive-through meals and frozen dinners, where food is apparently so easy to come by that as much as 40 percent winds up in the garbage. If this statistic disturbs you, take heart. Managing food waste has become a hot topic in sustainability circles. Forbes listed it as the number one food trend of 2013.
While much of the discussion around managing food waste focuses on recycling i.e., turning the organic material into energy and fertilizer, efforts to shore up our tossed edibles has also spurred a niche among foodies: waste cooking. Just Google the words “cooking with leftovers” and see how many blogs pop up. Cooking shows focused on creating culinary masterpieces from ingredients salvaged from the garbage have emerged as the latest sensation in the world of reality TV. Last year Food Network aired a cooking challenge where teams of five-star chefs competed against each other to see who could create the most amazing meal out of food headed for the dumpster. YouTube clips of the new Austrian reality show, Waste Cooking, went viral.
The idea of reclaiming food from the rubbish bin is not new. People identifying themselves as freegans have been doing it for decades. Dumpster diving for food that can be cooked up and shared has become so popular in fact, there are now Meetup groups devoted to the activity. Oftentimes freegans will donate what they can’t eat themselves to shelters or food banks.
Beyond those foraging for themselves−or for the amusement of television audiences−there are some people who have scaled the concept of waste cooking as a means to feed the hungry on an on-going basis. One of the early adopters of this idea is Robert Egger, who in 1989 founded DC Central Kitchen. Working in the food service industry, Egger was well aware of the egregious food waste in the restaurant business. He was also aware of the number of people living on the streets who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Capitalizing on the availability of free food and using it to feed the hungry struck Egger as an obvious way to address two chronic problems. He organized a system to collect unused comestibles from area restaurants, hotels and food markets, which he brought to a central kitchen and turned into meals for the homeless.
In the early days, Egger and his self-described “band of brothers” went out every night at 2 a.m. to collect leftover food from area caterers. They took whatever they could get and turned it into meals, often practicing a “seat of the pants” style of cooking. What sorts of things did they turn out back then? Salads were a popular menu item, recalls Egger. The dish’s versatility provided a great way to use a variety of foods, and people were more open to trying new things served in salad form. “We used to facetiously say people will eat anything if you can put ranch dressing on it,” said Egger.
Perhaps the most common type of food donation they saw in their “salad days” was bread. “We made everything you can imagine with bread,” said Egger. “Everybody wanted to give us bread…as the movement grew around the country, we had discussions about how you politely say no more bread.” Over time, Egger and his team became more discerning about prioritizing the types of dishes they produced, with a focus on offering meals that didn’t just quell the hunger but also provided high nutritional content. “It’s not just about getting food,” said Stephen Kendall, DC Central Kitchen’s Director of Procurement. “It’s about getting good food.”
Fortunately for the cooks at DC Central Kitchen, there is an abundance of healthy food available to them, including loads of unwanted potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, lettuce and tomatoes. Back at the Kitchen, teams of culinary students and volunteers use these ingredients to create hot meals, which are distributed to homeless shelters, group homes and other facilities across the region. Meals consist of a protein, a starch, a vegetable… and a salad. To make their food accessible to as many people as possible, they keep their menus fairly simple. “Dishes that you can see what the food is,” is how Lindsey Palmer, Director of Nutrition and Community Outreach, describes it. And nothing too spicy, though pantry shelves are notably stocked with liberal amounts of cayenne and chili powder.
From its humble beginnings, DC Central Kitchen has grown into a $10 million operation that runs like a well-oiled machine, distributing 5,000 meals a day. It also runs a catering service, which contracts to the DC school system to provide lunches. By developing professional relationships with wholesale distributors, farmers and large food venues, there is a bit more predictability over what they collect, though Kendall admits they still get thrown some curveballs. In December they received several pallets of fennel, which they used for soup. Recently they were given 1,000 pounds of whole salmon from a wholesaler whose customer had cancelled an order at the last minute. “That’s a lot of fish to prepare,” said Kendall.
One recent change at DC Central Kitchen took place earlier this year when Egger left the operation to launch a new venture on the West Coast. LA Kitchen will apply the same principle of reclaiming unsold food to feed the hungry but will target the senior community. Egger is particularly interested in the idea of food as medicine and plans to focus on vegetarian and vegan cuisine.
Drawing inspiration from Egger’s work is Kelvin Cheung, who took the humanitarian waste cooking concept across the Atlantic to establish FoodCycle in London. Similar to the early days of DC Central Kitchen, Cheung’s team fans out across the city to collect unsold food from supermarkets and other outlets, which it then uses to prepare meals for the low-income community. FoodCycle deviates from the DC model, however, by distributing the bounty it gleans across numerous “hubs” throughout the region, where volunteers prepare food in donated kitchen space and serve it up on site.
Since its founding in 2008, FoodCycle has launched 14 hubs in shelters and food kitchens across the UK, serving up over 40,000 meals. It also operates a self-sustaining restaurant called Pie in the Sky Community Cafe that is open to the public. Like the food prepared in the hubs, the café plans its meals around whatever ingredients are donated by food vendors, so the menu is always changing.
The types of offerings one can expect to find at a hub or the cafe are generally dishes that work well with a variable set of ingredients. Common dishes include soups, stews, curries and “bakes” or food pies. Fruit desserts like crumbles are also popular choices in the kitchen. “A crumble is perfect because you can chuck any fruit into it,” said Steven Hawkes, FoodCycle’s Communications and Fundraising Officer. Like their counterparts at DC Central Kitchen, FoodCycle chefs occasionally face challenges of what to make with the food they recover. Hawkes jokes that they haven’t figured out what to do with kiwis other than tossing them into a fruit salad.
One constant in FoodCycle’s meals is that they are all vegetarian, for reasons having to do with both nutritional value and safe food handling. Of course, it goes without saying that everything they make is delicious.
Images Courtesy of Waste Cooking, Susan Sedlazek/DC Central Kitchen, and Food Cycle