11/15/2010 08:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: Wasted in America

Chef and Zen priest Edward Espe Brown says we should treat our food like our eyesight -- as something both precious and personal. We don't. According to a recent study, we toss, uneaten, a quarter to half of all food produced in this country. This is wrong every day of the week but especially today, America Recycles Day.

This is a time of economic hardship for all of us, and hunger for more of us than you might realize. Thirty-seven million Americans rely on Feeding America, the national network of food banks. Wasting what we have is an insult to people who have to choose between eating or paying the rent. It is also an insult to the people who work hard (often for low wages) to produce our food.

We waste food in our homes, buying more than we need, so we end up throwing out fresh produce when -- or well after -- it starts to fade. We're quick to flip out over the latest E.coli breakout and demand greater government oversight for food safety but meanwhile, some of us have science projects growing in our fridges.

Waste is not green, guys. And it's not sustainable. Most of us don't compost, so the waste goes into landfill and sits there producing methane, further contributing to climate change.

If you think you're guilty, imagine the waste that happens in your favorite restaurants. Multiply that by 500. By 5,000. Think of the mountain of landfill when you multiply that waste by 55 million -- roughly the number of meals a food service company like Sodexo serves in a day.

We've got to do better, both on a grand scale and small one. The desire is there, believes Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving -- not wasting -- America's culinary heritage and its future. "People want to do more," Davis says and so last month, the Beard Foundation and the Sustainable Food Laboratory hosted the industry symposium The System on Our Plates.

Underwritten by groups including the Pew Charitable Trusts, The System on Our Plates included Sam Kass, who cooks for the Obamas, divine chef Eric Ripert and the likes of guys from Ruby Tuesdays and food service companies like Sysco and Sodexo. The goal, says Davis, was "sit down together and start the conversation" about how we all make sustainability central. People talked. And more importantly, people listened. The dialogue made everyone realize that whether you're responsible for feeding millions or just feeding yourself, "we are all part of one food system."

A Beard Foundation chef survey reveals though your average Joe is interested in how our food is sourced, we're less conscious of the energy and resources -- and waste -- that goes into producing food. Well, that makes sense -- we don't understand or appreciate it at home, either. So where does the change start? With the government? With food system overhaul? Nah. It begins with you.

Pay attention. Are you a repeat offender, buying fresh fruit every week that goes uneaten? Buy less. Enjoy more. Use what you have. Mindfulness works on the yoga mat, in food service and in your kitchen. Be mindful of and grateful for the food you have. Maybe the earth takes note of such things. Food companies do.

Whether it's buying into the food fad du jour or creating farmers markets that allow greater access to better food for all, "it all comes from consumer demand," says Davis. "One decision impacts the other. You create the catalyst for change. Sodexo serves 55 million meals a day. If one of them included an organic tomato, it would change the universe. It's like the meatless movement -- one simple thing you can do has such a big impact."

Turns out Edward Espe Brown's concept of valuing yourself and what you eat is more than just a Buddhist concept. As White House chef Sam Kass said at The System on our Plates, the key to sustainability is to develop a relationship with your food.

Autumnal Chard With Beets and Beet Greens

I like this recipe because it's earthy, autumnal, comes together quickly and allows no waste. It features this season's star -- beets -- all of 'em from root to leafy greens. What, you were going to toss them out?

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 bunch chard
1 bunch beets, root and greens
1 pinch red pepper flakes
2 oranges, juice and zest
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
sea salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400.

Chop beet roots off from the greens. Rinse them and wrap them tightly in foil.
Place on baking sheet and roast for 1 hour.

Remove beets from oven and allow to cool. You may do this bit a day ahead and store the beets wrapped and chilled in the refrigerator.

Wash beets greens and chard well, rinsing away any grit.

Chop beet and chard greens fine. Beet and chard stems may be chopped small too. Otherwise compost them or save them to make vegetable stock.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pepper flakes. When they start to sizzle, add greens by the handful. Add the stems, too, if you're using.

Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, or until greens wilt.

Grate in orange zest. Stir in orange juice.

Add cranberries and mix together gently.

Place greens and cranberries in a bowl or serving platter.

Toast walnuts at 400 degrees for 8 minutes, or until brown and fragrant.

Meanwhile, unwrap beets. The skins should slip away easily. Dice beets and scatter atop greens.

Top with walnuts.

Nice by itself for a lightish lunch or pair with a whole grain for a main course.

Serves 6.