Posts Tagged ‘waste’

The Big Waste

Thursday, January 12th, 2012 by Wolfgang Vondey

This week, Food Network debuts its one-hour special, The Big Waste. In the show, popular ”chefs Bobby Flay, Michael Symon, Anne Burrell, and Alex Guarnaschelli tackle one of the most massive problems in food today – waste! Divided into two teams, with only 48 hours on the clock, they are challenged to create a multi course gourmet banquet worthy of their great reputations, but with a big twist; they can only use food that is on its way to the trash. The chefs’ hunt takes them from grocery aisles to produce farms, and orchard lines to garbage piles, as they attempt to source enough ingredients to feed a gathering crowd. Bobby and Michael square off against Anne and Alex, as they challenge their views of food waste and how and why it is created” (Official Description, Food Network). I watched the show, and so should you! It repeats on January 15 and 16 (see TV Listing). The show is right: waste is a huge problem, literally. But this post is not a blanket recommendation of Food Network or this particular show. It is a critical view. In all its accurate critique of the waste created by our society today, the show is rather silent in reflecting on Food Network’s own contributions to the problem.

Certainly, waste should be reduced. Actually, “waste” is not the proper term–we are talking about food here that has hardly any blemishes: potatoes with spots, peaches fallen of the tree, eggs that are too small or too big for the carton, chicken with broken wings, animal parts we find less appetizing, corn without husks, tomatoes with cracked skin, markings on snow peas. The list goes on and on. Would you have cooked with that food. Probably not. Would you have even found it? I do not think so. The former is a question of habit, the latter a question of distribution (driven by the former).

Surprisingly, the show laments the habit of wasting good food but says little about its own hand in creating that habit. After all, it is Food Network that has created a new generation of food-awareness, restaurant critics, cooking battles, iron chefs, fine dining, fast dining, and anything in between. But what about the habit? How many times have I seen a cooking show where food is cut up with immense waste. Many chefs cut food quick and dirty on the show, often in the interest of time. You just have to watch a behind-the-scenes show and you will learn that many meals are prepared several times, sometimes only in part, to account for special camera shots. And don’t forget those special shots have only one goal: to make the food look great! HD television demands HD food! You simply do not see a cracked tomato or a browned cauliflower or a less than perfect onion on Food Network. And add to that the frequent comments by chefs to “make sure you buy the good …” or “use only the best …”  Whatever it is, everything has to be perfect, unblemished, and ready for “presentation.” That, in a nutshell, is the Food Network culture. Oh yeah, I admit, I watch Food Network any day over shows that have no educational value or worse, that affront good taste. With food and drink, I generally feel safe, and I learn more about cooking (provided I actually go into the kitchen and do something with what I saw). But if Food Network adds shows with critical value, let’s see if they cannot start with themselves. The Big Waste will not go away quickly. One show is not going to cut it. Dear Food Network: If you want to make a difference, begin to reduce the waste in your own shows. Create a new food aesthetics! 

The issue of distribution is a different problem. There are few people who would call themselves “freegans”–you know, people who go “dumpster diving” in search for food fit for consumption. Personally, if I went to a dumpster at night, I would not be surprised to be told that that is illegal or at least inappropriate. Most people do not have the time to search through dumpsters, even if they wanted to. And just imagine the competition if only a dozen people went to the popular dumpster (think Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, Whole Foods). My question here is not about using food others throw away. Go for it! My concerns is on the other end of the distribution chain: what we actually find in the grocery stores, and how much we find there, should be a matter of concern for all of us. My local store, for example, regularly carries exotic foods. I see the food rot on the shelves. Last summer, another store added an entire shelf of spices; we counted 17 varieties of salt. The same store has potatoes rot in plastic bags and regularly showers its vegetables with water–even those that should be kept dry. Another store was selling the same bags of Clementines for the same price six weeks after Christmas. My point is that I don’t think most ordinary grocery store employees know much about food, nor do they care much about food (hey, there is another show in this, Food Network!). I drive 5 miles to a store if I want to talk to a person who knows how to handle their vegetables; 10 miles to a store with an expert on meat and fish. Once these experts leave, the quality of food goes down with them. So there I am again with the issue of training. I would like to see trained staff at our local stores that sells “seconds” or “blemished” food. But what distributor is going to sell it to the market? Who will advertise “blemished bananas”? How much can we charge for blemished food? Who will buy the food not fit for television? I think it begins with the way we care about our world and ourselves.

People are not going to buy that kind of food unless they are told it is good (not waste), unless they are shown that is tasteful, unless they start a new habit. The Big Waste made a good start! Bravo Food Network! Now let’s talk about the clean-up.