Wasted: Changing the World, One Head of Lettuce at a Time

Wasted- Changing the World, One Head of Lettuce at a Time-1

It’s not often that a documentary on a frequently overlooked global concern comes along and captivates audiences to the degree that Wasted: The Story of Food Waste does. From Executive Producer Anthony Bourdain, this film follows the trail of what we eat—or more to the point, don’t—from the expansive farms of the Midwest to the tables of inner cities and fine dining establishments the world over, taking care to evaluate every step, and misstep, of the process along the way.

American Organic Energy Recognized in Landmark Documentary

Bourdain, for all his comments in the opening sequence on his reluctance to be seen as any sort of advocate, leaves no doubt as to where he stands on the subject. As he remarked at a New York Times-sponsored speaker series, Times Talks, in October of 2017, “Go to any major chain supermarket and think about that tower of perfectly stacked, impeccable oranges or tomatoes, and understand that the supermarket by design has already figured and costed-out the fact—the immutable fact—that they will throw 30 percent in the garbage just so it will look cool. This is horrifying.”

If only grocery stores were the only culprits.

The incredible waste begins on the farms, where an average of 40% of food produced goes unused, and 90% of that winds up decaying in landfills across the globe. When questioned as to how long they think it takes a head of lettuce to decompose on average, several citizens guesstimate anywhere from three or four days up to six months. The answer? A staggering 25 years. For one head of lettuce. Multiply that by the millions of tons of food wasted daily by farms, restaurants, supermarkets and the average family and, well, the math speaks for itself.

While select nations like France, Italy and South Korea have taken considerable steps to reduce this unimaginable excess, others—such as the United States—have much further to go. The efforts begin, and end, with individual people striving to make a difference in their local communities, whether in the form of farmers finding uses for unharvested crops in providing feed for their livestock, or supermarkets donating unused produce to homeless shelters, food pantries and discount grocery chains that see no shame in making use of the less aesthetically appealing fruits and vegetables.

“What does a chef do? What does a cook do?” Bourdain asks. “A cook transforms food. They take something that’s ugly and tough, and by using skills and techniques, transform it into something wonderful.”

 

Of course, there is only so much that can be done to curb the problem of food waste up front. But this isn’t where the process ends. Many prominent chefs are taking a page out of Bourdain’s book and subscribing to this philosophy, finding creative ways to utilize all parts of the foods they source, even going so far as to seek out less mature produce to explore its potential flavor. As New York City chef Mario Batali, who appears in the film, noted, there is simply no substitute for trying new things. Per example, he likens serving “trash fish” like porgy to a rebranding of sorts, much like Chilean sea bass and uni have been mass marketed as delicacies, a far cry from their origins.

As Charles Vigliotti, co-founder of American Organic Energy—one of several cutting edge organizations referenced in the documentary for their revolutionary initiatives—explains, “Efforts to repurpose waste materials into clean, renewable energy and fertilizer—the good stuff—have the potential to ultimately lead to a net gain, better than zero.”

Together with his brother Arnold, Charles is spearheading the development of the first anaerobic digester facility in the New York metropolitan region, designed to transform 180,000 tons of organic food waste from supermarkets, restaurants and hospitals into enough energy to not only power the operation, but also provide fuel for the trucks that will pick up the leftovers. Estimates predict this digester will reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40,000 tons per year.    

It is individual operations such as these which, when multiplied across the globe, have the capacity to make a sizable difference in the way in which we—as a global society—grow, shop for and consume food. As Bourdain remarked in the closing segment of the film, “The fact is, we are in a position to do something. It will have a tangible beneficial effect on the planet. So it’s not a lot to ask, I think. And one can enjoy the smug, self-satisfaction of doing the right thing. How often do you get to do that?”

 

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