The University of Michigan has served hundreds of guests at its popular food waste dinners.

The University of Michigan has served hundreds of guests at its popular food waste dinners.

Photo provided by Susan Thwing, University of Michigan communications


Root to stem: How cooks can avoid food waste this harvest season

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published August 29, 2019

 According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, close to 40% of food  in America is wasted because it’s undesirable looking. Hungry Harvest, which has a metro Detroit  service location, “rescues” perfectly edible produce from being tossed out.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, close to 40% of food in America is wasted because it’s undesirable looking. Hungry Harvest, which has a metro Detroit service location, “rescues” perfectly edible produce from being tossed out.

Photo provided by Hungry Harvest

Photo provided by Hungry Harvest

We’ve all done it: thrown out that cucumber or head of lettuce that sat, forgotten, at the back of the refrigerator until it was past its prime. 

A single cucumber sure doesn’t seem like much — maybe a 50-cent loss? 

But if you add up all the cucumbers tossed out because they went bad in all the refrigerators across the country, and you include other wasted produce in there too, the result is pretty startling. 

“We estimate we waste billions of pounds of produce a year, for really silly reasons,” said Tim Parrott, director of brand marketing for Hungry Harvest. “If it’s the wrong color, the wrong shape, or just doesn’t meet these arbitrary specs from grocers, it gets sent back to the wholesalers.”

Parrott said he’s seen instances where entire pallets of produce were rejected from stores because the product was stacked slightly askew. And if the wholesaler can’t pass the product on to someone else, it heads to a landfill. 

“This food is perfectly healthy and delicious, and we’re dedicated to not seeing it go to waste,” Parrott said. “Forty percent of food (in homes) goes to waste.”

Hungry Harvest, which launched in metro Detroit last summer, offers a subscription box of produce sent straight to customers’ doors every week, month, or whenever they like. The boxes are packed with fruits and veggies of their choosing, the only difference is the food was “rescued” from being tossed away because it looks a little funky.

“Usually, if they (a retailer or restaurant) can afford it, they might donate that food to a local soup kitchen. If not, it goes into a landfill. Sometimes, farmers won’t even harvest that product because they know it won’t sell. They just till it back into the ground to be composted,” Parrott said. “We create a market for that produce. We pay a fair price to bring that product to our packing facility and create a variety of boxes that we deliver to homes using local drivers.”

In the kitchens of the University of Michigan, campus executive chef Frank Turchan oversees the task of cooking up 27,000 meals a day. With that much food coming in, he said he’s seen plenty of food waste go out too. 

“I would estimate we create thousands of pounds of waste, just from scraps,” Turchan said of food prep byproducts like potato peels and carrot greens. “Quite a bit of that weight is going into compost, but it’s still thousands of pounds of food.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the amount of food Americans waste is around 220 pounds per person, per year. That equates to a loss of around $162 billion. 

To show folks exactly how much food is being wasted in typical kitchens, Turchan’s culinary team has hosted a few food waste dinners, where the tasty high-end recipes are all created from scraps of other dishes.  

“Root to stem is something we’ve been talking a lot about,” he said. “We take mushroom stems and grind them and add beans to make a vegan ‘meatball.’ And we take the rinds of watermelons and pickle it to use as garnish. It not only preserves them, but it brings out the flavor of the fruit.”

And in the best-case scenarios, there wouldn’t be any scraps to reuse, Turchan explained.

“Just by stopping peeling potatoes and carrots, we’ve saved so much. We just clean the produce really, really well. But we leave them with the peels on and the tops on the carrots. Carrot tops look like parsley and taste like carrots, (so) why wouldn’t you use it? And there are so many nutrients in that peel.”

Parrott is definitely a fan of not creating any food waste, and he explained that another element of Hungry Harvest’s mission is to educate consumers how to store produce properly and use the fruits and veggies to their full advantage.

“You can freeze almost anything, so if something is about to turn, we recommend blanching it and putting it in the freezer to use when you’re ready,” he said. “When it’s really about to (expire), turn it into a stock or a soup — something hearty and easy. We’re all about minimal preparation.”

Parrott also suggested that families skim their recipe box before they toss undesirable produce.

“For instance, on our website we have some tips for corn. It’s something that’s so simple, but often overlooked. It’s one of those things that, sometimes, you think ‘I couldn’t possibly eat it again,’ so we’re really focused on trying to offer different ways to use produce in our recipe library. That way, when you’ve had it a million times, you can see it with new eyes instead of tossing it away.”

Call Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at (586) 498-1095.