Question: What weighs 70 billion pounds, is the single largest material clogging landfills and incinerators and emits a gas – methane – that packs 21 times the global-warming punch of carbon dioxide?
Answer: food. More specifically, food waste: food that was prepared but never eaten; parts of plants or animals that aren’t popular or deemed palatable; plain old kitchen scraps. Seventy billion pounds of it, every year, in the USA alone.
Another question, whose answer is perhaps even more sobering: How many Americans are estimated not to have enough to eat? The answer: 42 million.
While any one of us may feel a twinge of regret when forced to deep-six that tunafish sandwich that we left out on the counter overnight, or the gristle that we cut away from last night’s porterhouse, the problem of food waste is much more constant and evident among its primary producers: farmers and food-service people.
Sharon Burns-Leader is co-owner of Bread Alone, one of Woodstock’s great culinary success stories. For 35 years, she has seen every kind of baked good wind up in the company’s dumpsters. It’s the same story everywhere food is served: restaurateurs, bakers, butchers, even farmers can’t precisely target how much food they’ll need to meet customer demand. The inevitable result is food waste. “We always have to overproduce to satisfy our customers,” Burns-Leader said, “especially since we don’t use preservatives or extenders.”
Bread Alone and other businesses donate some of their excess produce to food pantries, but that doesn’t eliminate the problem. But folks such as Burns-Leader and other Woodstockers who wish to reduce food waste have recently found a way both to dramatize the problem and to make something different – even edible – about it: They’re calling it Wasted at Woodstock. It’s a meal that will kick off the Woodstock Farm Festival’s tenth season, a meal whose ingredients will be what food activists call “rescued food.”
And no, Burns-Leader is swift to caution, that doesn’t mean it will be an exercise in dumpster-diving. Wasted at Woodstock promises instead to be a culinary and educational delight – an event that was initiated about two years ago by Dan Barber’s Greenwich Village restaurant, Blue Hill. For three weeks in March of 2015, The New York Times reported, Barber created a pop-up called wastED, “where he and his cooks sell fish bones, bruised and misshapen vegetables, stale bread and other items not commonly thought of as food for $15 a plate.” The experience, the Times said, presented a creative challenge to the chefs and their customers alike. The same will hold true, with some variations, at Wasted at Woodstock.
Two chefs, Jesse Frederick, culinary manager at Bread Alone, and Josh Rajala, executive chef at the Bear Café, will answer the challenge of creating inviting dishes from food that will be “rescued” from restaurants, distributors and grocers in the area, including Bread Alone, Woodstock Meats, Adams Fairacre Farms, Sunfrost, Sunflower and Joshua’s. The chefs will be freezing, fermenting and drying various ingredients that usually wind up being thrown away: scraps, ends and not-so-perfect produce. You’ve heard of baby lettuce? Diners at the meal may find themselves enjoying what Burns-Leader called “ugly teenage greens”: veggies that weren’t harvested in their commercially desirable babyhood, but instead grew into their comparatively embittered teenagehood.
Wasted at Woodstock is part and parcel of the Farm Festival’s community-based DNA, Burns-Leader said. Of course there’ll be live music, provided by the Perry Beekman Trio. Weather permitting, there’ll be a plant identification walk in the woods behind the Bear complex, led by local arborist Vern Rist and forager and longtime Woodstock Film Festival committee member Rick Reilingh. Bring boots if you plan to attend the woods walk.
Food waste, Burns-Leader admits, is a huge problem. But the more people know about it and the more creatively they can deal with it, the better the chances of at least improving the situation.
The sit-down dinner will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, May 19 at the Peterson House (a/k/a the Commune Saloon). Tickets cost $85 and will benefit the Woodstock Farm Festival, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit. For additional information, visit www.wastedatwoodstock.org.