From avocado drinks to repurposed lard: Using creativity and culture change to tackle Philly food waste
Nearly 20 percent of people in Philadelphia are food insecure. We visited the researchers, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs changing this by rethinking food waste.
PHILADELPHIA—Sheetal Bahirat was making a big batch of guacamole when she realized her leftover avocado seeds were food waste.
Creating something “that has never existed before”<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDY1OTk4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDQwNDA3NX0.CDp5a6q48bTI3oFfVkj_CrtGuf_cEimoehXqp5oRaJ8/img.jpg?width=980" id="be991" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="031f342bc6a60d3f784882fb94e57519" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Out of the lab, into the streets<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDY2MDAyOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI2MDQ5N30.AyL5QbJNmTkuTkZm75qUDxOpP_t6lyiNFvXhLTw9hGc/img.jpg?width=980" id="96332" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3ef5c679a995a00cec4659afb68a7733" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Liability and logistics<p> Ehlers has looked to Philadelphia food recovery nonprofit <a href="https://www.philabundance.org/" target="_blank">Philabundance</a> for inspiration. As a 30-year-old nonprofit, it has food recovery down to a science, and has partnered with the Food Lab to produce upcycled foods. The organization distributes about 25 million pounds of food every year, Kait Bowdler, director of sustainability at Philabundance, told EHN. </p><p> The nonprofit recovers food from a variety of sources, including farms, grocery stores, and factory distributors. </p><p> Food waste is everywhere, at all parts of the supply chain: Households contribute about 40 percent of food waste, while the other 60 percent comes from suppliers such as restaurants, grocers, food service companies, and farms. </p><p> Why don't more people on the supply side donate food? The number one concern is liability, said Bowdler. Food suppliers often worry they will be held accountable if, after they donate food, it goes bad or is found to harbor unseen illness-causing bacteria. </p><p> But they're protected by the <a href="https://www.feedingamerica.org/about-us/partners/become-a-product-partner/food-partners" target="_blank">Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act</a>. This act, passed in 1996, protects donors and food recovery companies working with "apparently wholesome food" – that is, unspoiled food that meets standards for quality and labeling and is donated with good intentions. </p><p> "We have to help promote that act because so [few] people really know about it," Bowdler said. </p><p> Another obstacle to donation is that restaurant owners may view it as costly, said Harry Hayman, owner/operator of five restaurants in Philadelphia. He suggested restaurants use spare containers from food deliveries to donate food. "It takes the same amount of effort to scrape food into a container as it does to scrape it into a trashcan," he told EHN. He also mentioned that restaurants can get <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/food-donation-federal-tax-deduction-guide-201803.pdf" target="_blank">tax deductions for donating food</a>. </p><p> An additional challenge, both for donators and food rescue organizations, is logistics, said Bowdler. "The food out there, what is it, where is it, what time of day is it available? Do we have the right size truck or car? Is it too costly? Would it take hours and volunteers to clean it off of a field? Or is it at lots of tiny restaurants all across the city?" she said. </p><p> Philabundance has partnered with grocery stores and chains like Starbucks, but they're also working on getting donations from restaurants. The nonprofit relies on volunteers to help pick up and repackage food products. </p><p> Once food is donated, it needs to be matched with someone who needs it. "We have the donors, we have the agencies, but making sure we actually just connect the food is the biggest thing… it's about having the right food at the right time," Bowdler said, adding that recently a senior center contacted Philabundance about donating their extra meals, which was helpful for another senior housing complex in need of food. </p>
“People eat with their eyes”<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDY2MDA4Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDM1ODY5N30.jHGDJafc5_Nv8HBnqjU-xaM1_Vhm0Xadbs7VP1V6_8k/img.jpg?width=980" id="47e67" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d87ec69e8801fd676eda75a5f56aac6e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Reduced-sodium soft pretzels bake in an industrial oven at Drexel University's Food Lab. (Credit: Emily Makowski)<p>A key part of reducing food waste is changing a culture of excess. Customers play a big role in restaurant food waste.</p> <p>"Unfortunately, from my experience, the prime driver is people not finishing their meal," Michael Oraschewsky of TBJ Gourmet, a company known for its bacon-flavored jam, told EHN at TBJ Gourmet's processing facility in Downingtown, PA (Oraschewsky, as CEO, even goes by Chief Executive Boar in keeping with the bacon theme). </p> <p>He admits that restaurants often bulk up portions to appeal to customers, even if customers don't eat all the food. "You're selling the time that they're in the seat, and you do that by putting more food on a plate to make it look bigger, so you can charge more money," he said.</p> <p>Hayman agrees. "People eat with their eyes," he said. </p> <p>Still, there is a lot of work to be done to improve efficiency in restaurants and food production companies. "We're not doing anywhere near enough. When I say we, it's certainly humanity, but specifically the restaurant space," said Hayman. He recently helped establish the Feed Philly Coalition, a nonprofit which serves donated food to the city's food-insecure population. </p> <p>Oraschewsky is also looking for ways to reduce food waste at TBJ Gourmet. The company initially started making jam from leftover bacon pieces because of cost-efficiency, not food waste reduction. "I wasn't really looking to save the world when we did it. We realized we fell into that, and it's going to be a focus going forward," he said. </p> <p>The company donates part of the proceeds of its spiced tomato jam to Philabundance, and is working with the Food Lab to find uses for bacon lard, which is produced as a byproduct of making bacon jam.</p><p>Bowdler believes grocery stores also need to focus on sustainability. "Right now, stores have to have a massive stockpile," she said. "I think we have to create a different culture that understands why a store may probably have more in the back or didn't display it. Or that sometimes it's okay if they don't have everything we need at all times."</p> <p>These beliefs were echoed by members of the Food Lab. "It's because of the society and the culture that we live in, especially in a consumer-heavy capitalist society, people just buy and buy and buy," said Cecilia Cirne, a student in the lab who just finished her sophomore year. </p>