Don't be a waster
We throw out the equivalent of a third of our weekly shop every week, but is a trash banquet the answer to our food waste problem?
Imagine if you came home with your groceries and split them into three piles on your kitchen table," says Dee Laffan, food writer and Chair of Dublin Slow Food. "Now imagine putting the first pile directly into the bin." Who would be mad enough to do that? Erm, most of us, it turns out, given that the average Irish household bins a whopping one third of the food they buy.
According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, if just a quarter of the 1.3 billion tonnes of food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
The statistics can be overwhelming. And when you consider the waste incurred by supermarkets with their unsold wonky carrots or hospitals with their untouched meals, it's tempting to interpret our own household habits as having minimal impact.
Besides, we Irish have made great strides in terms of our landfill waste reduction. Multiple retailers and processors are working with Irish food distribution organisations such as Food Cloud and Bia Food Initiative. Elsewhere, France has banned supermarkets from binning unsold food, and the world's best chef Massimo Bottura has run large scale soup kitchens to re-use surplus food from Rio's Olympics and Milan's Expo. Surely, then, we're all moving in the right direction?
Perhaps. But the average household discards €700 worth of food every year, some of us up to €1,000. Even if you shirk the personal responsibility that comes with wasting food that is so scarce in less advantaged parts of the world, and that contributes to climate change through the energy used to produce it and the emission caused from the landfill dumping of it, it's foolhardy to ignore the personal cost of our bad habits.
One simple way to re-pocket that money is to change how we think about the food we normally bin - and find ways to eat it instead.
That was the challenge that the team from Ireland's largest urban farm at Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Co Dublin gave themselves ahead of next weekend's sustainability themed Festival of Food (September, 9-11, airfield.ie). Their Food Rescue Team have transformed unwanted surplus food into the makings of a multi-course feast, which will be served up at tonight's Trash Bash dinner.
"We want to inspire people to think differently about their relationship with the food they consume," says Airfield's CEO Grainne Kelliher. "We're getting people to push the boundaries of what they consider food waste."
Their menu starts with a delicious pesto made from carrot tops and turnip tops, continues with lots of fermented and preserved foods, and finishes with a fruit crumble topped with end-of-day scones and brown bread that might have ordinarily been binned.
The challenge has opened the team's eyes to the small changes that they can make in their kitchen, she says. "We'll definitely be more creative with bin-destined food in the future."
Airfield's Food Rescue Team includes Limerick-based food writer Valerie O'Connor, a self-taught expert on fermentation and author of 'Val's Kitchen', which features lots of basic fermentation recipes. "It's such a simple process," she says, "it costs very little and doesn't require any specialist equipment."
O'Connor came to fermentation for personal health reasons, but one of the bonuses has been discovering a great way to use up surplus vegetables.
That half a head of cauliflower or broccoli that sits in the fridge getting more tired by the day? "Just wash them, pack them into a clean jar, add water and salt and leave it at room temperature, opening once a day to let the gasses out," O'Connor says. "They taste nicer when they're fermented and are great for snacks, or for heating up to serve with some meat if you don't want the fuss of preparing fresh vegetables every time."
She's amazed by the results you can achieve with everyday vegetables, such as turnip. "I hate turnip but if you grate it, add salt and leave it to ferment, it tastes amazing: sweet and juicy but with a crunch."
She's looking forward to tucking into the fermented carrots and parsnips that they prepared for the Trash Bash. "It's amazing what happens to the flavour: you can really taste the pepperiness of the parsnip."
O'Connor also swears by her trusty Nutribullet for preventing food waste at home. "They're great for making green smoothies: you can put in broccoli stems, half a cucumber, wilting salad leaves or bruised fruit."
Blackening bananas can be added to smoothies, or peeled, frozen and then churned in a food processor with some peanut butter into an instant vegan ice cream: churn for a minute and mix peanut butter.
And as for those pesky salad leaves wilting in the back of the fridge? O'Connor suggests adding them to smoothies, pasta sauces or stir-fries, while Dee Laffan suggests making a surprisingly delicious lettuce soup, maybe thickened with some leftover cauliflower.
You could base that soup on a stock produced from vegetable trimmings, although Laffan suggests investing in a vegetable brush to avoid the unnecessary peeling of vegetables such as potatoes.
"The most wasted vegetable in Ireland is the potato and that largely comes down to peeling them," she says, something she points out is "ironic, given our history".
We may live in a disposable culture today, but we can still learn a lot from our not-so-distant past, when frugality was a natural way of life.
TIPS FOR REDUCING FOOD WASTE
• Check cupboards and fridge before making a shopping list
• Avoid special offers on perishable goods, or consider freezing, fermenting or preserving
• Use stock control systems in your fridge and cupboards, placing items that need to be used first at the front of the shelf
• Store leftover food in see-through tupperware to avoid the pitfall of out of sight, out of mind
• Use websites like lovefoodhatewaste.com and StopWaste.ie for clever storage tips