A farm-to-kitchen approach towards eliminating food waste
There is an inherent irony to America’s food waste epidemic: As millions of households live below the poverty line, struggling to put food on the table, nearly 40% of all edible food goes uneaten. That’s approximately $165 billion each year put to waste, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. So while tossing dinner scraps may seem harmless, the reality behind each spoiled vegetable and discarded fruit stem tells a much grimmer backstory — one exposing the face of our food industry today.
Over the past few years, the topic of food waste has gone mainstream, largely due to the critical implications of emerging research. In February, a report by the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) estimated that 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases are produced when food is taken to landfills. But the environmental issue is compounded by the economic loss. By 2030, as the middle class is projected to expand throughout the developing world, the cost of food waste could balloon to $600 billion yearly, according to the report.
For Dan Barber, a chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the problem is not only how we dispose of our food, but also, the way we create it in the first place.
“You can’t address the issue of food waste in America without talking about our system of food production,” Barber said. “Just think about the fact that 99% of the 90 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. does not go to feeding people directly. How much more wasteful can you get?”
Barber is a well-known crusader of the “whole farm” approach. Rather than relying on the most desired ingredients to cook, he prefers forgotten and auxiliary produce, crafting the menus at Blue Hill to read like road maps of the neighboring farms: What you eat is what they have.
Such a relationship is the backbone of sustainable agriculture. It is also what makes Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a non-profit farm and educational center in New York’s Hudson Valley, an invaluable resource for Barber. Roughly 70% of what is grown and cultivated at Stone Barn ends up in the kitchen of Blue Hill. According to Jack Algiere, the farm director in charge of the growing operations at Stone Barns, the partnership is mutually beneficial.
“Our CSA is a perfect example of how farmers across the country are communicating directly with their consumers,” Algiere said. “We look at the ecological and social impact of our farming — the big picture.”
Crop rotation, drip irrigation and composting are just a few of the sustainable efforts that Stone Barns implements on site. To Algiere, these practices are not only essential to maintaining the health of the land, but they are crucial for reshaping the way we produce and consume food today. “From an idealist perspective, we can show how to make sustainable agriculture work economically,” he added.
If Stone Barns is a picture of anything, it isn’t waste. Sheep graze throughout the sprawling pasture, while geese, turkeys and pigs patiently wait for their turn on the farm. An animal rotation like this preserves the soil, protecting against the need for pesticides and herbicides, which have become the calling card of the American industrial farmland. Unlike large-scale agriculture, Stone Barns operates as a symphony of parts in support of one another.
And by working closely with Blue Hill, almost nothing is wasted.
“Bones, offal, vegetable cores, leftovers — we have to find a place for these things in our cooking because it doesn’t make sense — ecologically or economically — to throw them away,” Barber said.
Last month, Barber introduced garbage to the New York City food scene through the highly publicized pop-up, “wastED.” Housed inside Blue Hill in the West Village, the event prized leftovers and food scraps, giving restaurant-goers the chance to embrace waste in every dish. Juice pulp cheeseburgers made an appearance, as did skate wing cartilage and a side of foam made out of chickpea water.
In the past, Barber has referred to the “take more, sell more, waste more” mentality of the American food system. WastED was the opposite of this idea, directing its mission toward “creating something delicious out of the ignored or un-coveted,” according to its website.
Ideas like wastED and Blue Hill’s partnership with Stone Barns redefine the concept of farm-to-table sustainability, calling into question just how far our food can go. And since eating local does not necessarily mean conserving consciously, Barber and Algiere are working to refine our agriculture from the ground up. That means less waste and more taste — an idea that Barber believes can be “replicated on any scale and adapted to any location.”
“My goal as a chef is not to point fingers or admonish consumers for being wasteful,” he continued. “It’s to find solutions through good cooking.”
Photographer Nils Ericson spent the day on the grounds of Stone Barns and Blue Hill, documenting the interconnected effort it takes to save more and waste less along each link of the food chain.