“Waste not, want not” was a constant refrain at the dinner table when I was a little girl. Of course, a good old guilt trip was also employed, “Clean your plate. There are starving children in Africa.”
Our family subscribed to the National Geographic magazine, and we watched “NOVA” on PBS and “60 Minutes” together weekly, so from an early age I saw reports of famine and war. Photos of flies on the faces of children with swollen bellies made an indelible imprint on my soul.
It’s funny how social convention cycles back around after several decades. Now that I’m the age of my grandmother when I used to hang out and watch her in the kitchen, I’m amused that it’s now fashionable to have a compost bin on your countertop. Back then, it was a little rack with yellow plastic “caddy bags” that my grandmother used to collect the food scraps. Each week, she would bury the contents around her prized gardenia bush.
That queasy feeling from a tummy over-filled by rich Southern cuisine is a distinctly first world problem. Food is everywhere in America. Hunger is an abstraction in a country where obesity is a decades-old, major public heath epidemic. Ironically, the same Americans (including me) who are desperate to lose twenty pounds of body fat also waste 20 pounds of food per person every single month, according to the World Resources Institute.
Food is not our issue. It’s an American pastime. There’s nothing abstract, however, about the fact of hunger around the world. What if we flipped the old script: “We want naught, so let’s waste not.” And what how do we do that?
As a single woman, I eat out at restaurants a lot. One reason is because I hate how much food I waste due to spoilage. After more than thirty years of adulthood, I still haven’t cracked the code of how to cook for one. Being a loft dweller, I don’t have a prized gardenia bush to nurture with my food scraps, so they go down the sink disposal and into the municipal sewage system. This just can’t be good.
Tonight in Atlanta, seven top chefs are challenging themselves to make their best food with the least waste. The Cocktails and Castoffs event is a fundraiser for a wonderful organization called Development in Gardening (DIG) that helps impoverished villages in eight African countries become self-sustaining and significantly healthier by cultivating community gardens.
I asked DIG co-founder Sarah Koch what food waste in America has to do with hunger in far flung places like Senegal or Kenya. “When we see that we are all connected through food systems we start to see how what we eat here affects what others eat everywhere,” said Koch. “If we, for example, waste food in the US, we are, in many respects, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions which hastens climate change and makes it more difficult for small holder farmers to predictably grow their livelihoods. When a family's entire crop is destroyed due to unexpected drought or flooding it may be the difference of having food for the year or nothing.”
It turns out, Koch’s point is not just an esoteric butterfly effect. American food garbage is actually effecting the global climate. Every year our 70 billion pounds of food waste goes in to landfills, and it breaks down into methane gas which has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. So, our mommas were right, we do need to clean our plates because our trash is literally causing drought and famine.
Yet, that truly is easier said than done. It requires us all to figure out how to turn food trash into yummy stuff we will actually eat. Koch introduced me to James Beard Foundation Best Chef Finalist Steven Satterfield who has made the issue of food waste a personal and professional mission. Atlanta-based Satterfield participated in the DIG Cocktails and Castoffs event last year. “I think when you are a home consumer and you’re purchasing all of this food, if you don’t use it all you’ve wasted your money, and you wasted the food and it’s sad,” said Satterfield.
Yes, it is sadly quite expensive, but when we watch all of the fancy chefs like Satterfield on TV, and we try to imitate them at home, we trim the stems and skins and greens. I asked him how he accounts for that. He told me it’s about getting back to some basics that our grandparents used. Satterfield said that in his own restaurants he challenges his staff to use every single scrap for soup stocks or juices, even condiments.
His flagship restaurant Miller Union isn’t exactly a smoothie bar, so how does he use the juices, I wondered? He described how once he noticed a lot of kale stems were going to waste. He decided to see how much juice the team could get out of them, and they stumbled upon what has become a very popular appetizer, Kale French Toast with Chicken Liver Moose and Apple Jelly. “We buy a lot of chicken from local farmers, so we started saving the livers, and it was fall so we were having a lot of apple preparations. I asked everyone to save the peels and cores of the apples,” explained Satterfield. “We actually made money out of trash.”
This year, another slate of top chefs is lined up to challenge each other and teach DIG donors how to turn their food trash into culinary treasures. Ticket holders will get to taste gourmet fare and signature cocktails by a curated roster of food gods, Linton Hopkins, Angus Brown, Asha Gomez, Kevin Clark, Savannah Sasser, Kamal Grant, and Cocktail Courier Tiffanie Barriere. It’s the kind of line up that usually costs hundreds of dollars at major food and wine festivals. Tickets to the DIG event are only $75.00 or $120.00 for two. They even have a discount for a car load, five tickets for only $250.00
This is the third year for the DIG Cocktails and Castoffs off event which raises money to provide the seeds, tools, supplies and agricultural support for African villagers to build their community gardens. Diners will also have a chance to shop the pop-up African market with authentic handmade crafts and art from the eight countries across the continent that DIG serves.
“Everybody no matter where they are born, regardless of circumstances, deserves to have the fundamental right to food that nourishes our bodies, soul, communities, and planet,” said Sarah Koch “Each year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. The first step to address food security for vulnerable populations is understanding the food systems and how they are connected locally and globally.”