Waste Not, Want Not

Cayman’s restaurants and grocery stores are getting creative to cut down on food waste.

Snapped-off green bean stems. Limp carrots. Watermelon rinds. Wilting leafy greens. If they sound destined for the bin, think again. These days, what was once deemed trash is being turned into treasure – nutritious juices, sauces, soups and broths.

It’s one way of cutting down on food waste, a hot-button issue in the industry. From farm to table, the amount of food that is lost or tossed is staggering.

Around one-third of all the food produced for human consumption ends up in the trash – an estimated 1.3 billion tons a year. It’s discarded in processing, transport, supermarkets and kitchens.

Not only is unused food a waste of money and resources (including land, energy, labor, capital and massive amounts of water), it impacts the environment as most ends up in landfills. Once there, the food breaks down to produce methane, a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change.

Many people don’t realize how much food they waste every single day – from leftovers to produce spoiling in the crisper. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a group that works to make the U.S. food system more efficient and less wasteful, says more than 40 percent of all food waste occurs in the home. That makes it the largest single contributor to food waste, and much of it is fresh produce. More fruit and vegetables are wasted than any other category; more than half go uneaten.

Around one-third of all the food produced for human consumption ends up in the trash – an estimated 1.3 billion tons a year.

The NRDC estimates that the average family of four spends about $1,500 a year on food they never eat. Another startling stat from the organization: “If we wasted just 15 percent less food, it would be enough to feed 25 million Americans.”

Indeed, at the same time food is being thrown away, people are going without. One in eight Americans, struggles to put enough food on the table. One in five children in the U.S. live in food insecure households, meaning they lack consistent access to enough food.

Cayman initiatives

Cutting food waste has become a priority globally, and there are numerous programs across the food supply chain to pare that down, including in Cayman.

Local restaurants and retailers on-island are addressing food waste in creative ways. Saucha Conscious Living, for example, uses the byproduct of its coconut milk – called coconut “trash” – to make macaroons and coconut flour. Jessie’s Juice Bar has come up with an inventive recipe for crackers and wraps using leftover juice pulp, while Bread & Chocolate uses its remnant pulp in its baked goods. Island Naturals works with a local farmer who picks up the kitchen’s food scraps to use for planting and so forth.

Local restaurants and retailers on-island are addressing food waste in creative ways.

Foster’s Food Fair IGA has introduced a campaign to educate consumers about food waste. There are tips on optimal ways to store food in the fridge (there may be some surprises). For example, eggs and dairy should be stored on the lower shelves in the fridge, where temperatures are the coldest.

“We’re also encouraging people to plan meals around products that are close to expiration, and to always rotate the old product in your cupboard to the front, and store the new ones in the back,” says Julian Foster, Foster’s Senior Marketing Manager. “The idea is that people will begin to shop smarter based on what their household requires, and that they’ll find ways to use products that are soon to expire so that less food is wasted. Food should be enjoyed, not wasted.”

Foster’s uses produce that is past its sell date, but still perfectly good to eat, in its salsas, smoothies, juices and daily deli preparations. It also collects scraps for farmers to use as feed for livestock.

Spiralized vegetable cores at wastED London

Other samples of local enterprises cutting waste: Hurley’s supermarket donates dented or damaged canned goods it can’t put on the shelf to local churches; farmers donate surplus greens and tomatoes to Meals on Wheels and the Lighthouse Restaurant in Breakers encourages staff to take home food leftover from its Sunday brunch – food that would end up being thrown away.

Cayman’s thriving locavore scene helps cut waste and reduce “food miles” – the distance food is transported from farm to plate. Buying close to home, rather than shipping long distances, means less packaging, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Supermarkets have come on board to feature locally grown produce and many restaurants are sourcing locally to add farm-fresh goodness on the menu. The Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, for example, champions buying local and sustainable practices.

Buying close to home, rather than shipping long distances, means less packaging, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

“We optimize the use of local ingredients and buy products on a daily basis,” says Jo Victoria Russell, the resort’s communications coordinator. “For instance, if one of our suppliers has a surplus of tomatoes, we buy the whole batch and use the tomatoes to make jams, coulis or other food products that we can store for future use.”

She says its menus are heavily influenced by what is available locally, and what is in season. “For our Boulangerie Brunch, our culinary team meets weekly to brainstorm creative ways we can use local and seasonal products. For instance, the tomato peak season is from November to February and mango from April to June. We make sure we take advantage of these seasonal ingredients as well as local peppers, eggplant, cucumber, pumpkin, sorrel, yucca, soursop, plantain and all kinds of leaves and herbs,” she explains. “We also have contact with local fishermen and get fresh, sustainable fish on a weekly basis.”

They’ve found creative ways to repurpose foods that might otherwise be discarded, such as using coffee grinds as fertilizer for an herb garden and using trimmings to make vegetable stock.

“There is so much value in re-purposing parts of produce,” says Russell. “We are true believers that every small action counts. It is part of our mission to be part of this growing movement to support local and sustainable food on-island.

“Buy ugly” movement

One push to cut food waste is selling so-called “ugly” produce. An increasing number of grocery stores and crop-sharing services in the U.S. have begun stocking and distributing fruits and vegetables once deemed unfit for sale based solely on appearance – not because they were damaged or rotten.

Fish and Chips at wastED London, using misshapen potatoes and unwanted fish heads and skin

Walmart, America’s largest grocer, has joined the “buy ugly” movement by selling less-than-pretty produce. The program “is a result of working with our suppliers to build the infrastructure and processes that create a new home for perfectly imperfect produce,” Shawn Baldwin, Walmart’s senior vice president for global food sourcing, produce and floral, wrote on the company’s blog. “Because ugly produce can occur unexpectedly in any growing season or crop, we want to have the systems in place to offer this type of produce whenever it may occur.”

The retail behemoth estimates that U.S. consumers throw away $29 billion worth of edible food each year.

Several factors lead to this waste. Some food may simply spoil before it’s sold or fail to meet standards set by the government for consumable goods sold in the U.S. Retailers also have guidelines for produce they are willing to shelve, which are often more rigid than government regulations.

For its part, the food industry has made efforts to eliminate some of this waste by selling misshapen produce as ingredients in other foods, or using fruit and vegetable byproducts to make other products. Baby-cut carrots, for example, were invented in 1986 to re-purpose full-size carrots that weren’t considered grocery-store caliber.

Fancy food scraps

Michelin three-star Italian chef Massimo Bottura is one of several high-profile figures putting their weight behind the movement. Best known for his restaurant Osteria Francescana, which is currently ranked number two in the world, a 2016 documentary named “Theater of Life” spotlighted how Bottura had spearheaded a gourmet re-imagining of the soup kitchen for homeless people in Milan and Rio de Janiero, where all dishes are made with surplus produce. The project has been aided by dozens more high-profile chefs, not least Alain Ducasse and Noma’s Rene Redzepi.

Michelin three-star Chef Massimo Bottura

Noted American chef Dan Barber has elevated trimmings and leftovers with his food waste project, wastED (emphasis on ED for education). The owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York showcases his ground-breaking approach to ingredients at his series of pop-up restaurants dedicated to food waste and re-use. He recently took his second pop-up across the Atlantic to the rooftop of Selfridges, an upscale department store in London.

There, Barber and his team came up with a range of inventive dishes created with overlooked ingredients. For example, they collected fresh vegetable pulp from local juice bars to create a meatless, char-grilled burger with a reddish, beet-filled heart. Scraps from the store’s salt beef counter became a “blood and bran” burrito, while Jamón ibérico drippings were whipped into a flavored butter.

“On some level, I think that working with waste is part of a cook’s DNA” – DAN BARBER

“On some level, I think that working with waste is part of a cook’s DNA,” says Barber. “We’re hardwired to look for culinary opportunity in what would otherwise be thrown away. My hope is that we can make flavor a part of the food waste conversation – to show how byproducts of the food chain can become celebrated ingredients in their own right. That’s how we can start to change the culture.”