What's the thing about compost?



Food for thought

USDA statistics estimate that we waste 30 to 40% of the food we purchase in the United States. Some of the most common causes are neglect (forgetting or overlooking the cucumbers in the back of the crisper drawer), over buying (it's easy to do when faced with the staggering array of produce at the farmers market), or an irresistible deal (discount stores offer unbeatable prices for large volume, causing us to over-purchase in order to save money!). Stand in line at a grocery store and look in the carts of customers waiting to check out; it appears that we as a culture have a propensity to purchase more from the perishable or "must use" category than we can actually consume before it enters the "must discard" category. Simple math suggests that 130 million people could be fed with what we throw away.

I witnessed this dilemma over and over throughout the years I worked in and operated restaurants. Preparing food from scratch creates a tremendous quantity of by-product--broccoli leaves and stems, fish and meat scraps, citrus peels. But those useable scraps can be repurposed with limited time and labor to become something else: vegetable stems and peelings are the base for vegetable stock; chard stems are delicious when cooked until soft; salmon bellies become elegant hors d’ oeuvres after they're smoked; lamb scraps make sausage; the ends of zucchini and broccoli stems can be pureed for soup; beet greens are perfect for sautéing; and parmesan cheese rinds enrich a soup like you can't believe. When you oversee food preparation in a large commercial kitchen, most of the product is intended to reach the customer, but there's also lots of perfectly good food that can be extracted from what's leftover, before it becomes compost. (It's worth noting that the option to compost is only available to food service establishments in locations where recycling services are set up to retrieve compostable waste within a metropolitan area.) 

I am writing this on a rare snow day in Portland. Bins for glass, recyclable packaging (plastic, cardboard and paper), food waste and garbage are lined up along the curb. waiting to be emptied by the various trucks that may or may not come down my icy street on this bitter cold day. What will happen if the food compost has to sit another week before it's taken away? Will it become food for the neighborhood raccoons, crows and occasional coyote? I am thankful for services that assist us with keeping order in our households, trucking our food compost away from the city where it will decompose and be used again, to enhance and enrich the soil. Though the compost is processed 20 miles west of the city, the distinctive odor of decomposing food fills the air during the warmer months of the year, much to the displeasure of close-by residents. Some refer back to medieval times, when the royalty of inner townships sent their trash to the peasants in the countryside, in order to protect themselves from the odors. All these centuries later, we face a similar conundrum: finding a middle ground that ensures that composting programs decrease the garbage we put in landfills and enhance the soil to which they are returned, without offending some segment of the population. There's no easy answer. 

Portland chefs insist that food waste is decreasing. The cost of food is constantly rising, providing an incentive to restaurant owners to stay focused on using as much of every product as possible. The approach in food service is from the point of view that all of the food that enters the kitchen (and is purchased at that point) must be paid for again, after it reaches the customer's plate. Chefs are motivated to keep food waste at or below twenty percent, zero being the goal, of course. The savvy chef realizes that part of the job is to write menus and create outlets and opportunities for all of that food (money spent) that will translate back into sales. If the approach is successful, ideally the restaurant will be successful too.

When I was an apprentice, the chef would periodically remind the cooks of his post World War II European training. His chef would dump out the contents of the kitchen garbage bins, and have the apprentices sort through the food scraps to be absolutely sure that nothing in the mix that could be used again. There were days during my apprenticeship (which took place before city compost service) when the garbage can remained empty, reminding the chef (Portland circa 1982) of his post war awareness, which emphasized practicing conservation in the kitchen. Food scarcity isn't just an issue for less advantaged populations in our country; there are many reasons to bring back this mode of operation.

Next time you're shopping for food, pause at the register before you get in line to check out. Take a close look at the contents of your cart and think about what you can do without. Consider the items in your basket, including the packaging. Now, follow them through their intended use, all the way to the recycling and compost bins. Calculate the waste factor. Try to move the needle closer to zero. It's no small challenge, to be sure, but when savings can be realized and the carbon footprint lessened, a little less can mean so much more.