Imagine a world where food waste doesn’t exist. Now, imagine a world where the term “food waste” doesn’t exist, either. For years, Thomas McQuillan has not only been envisioning these changes– he’s been making them a reality. Thomas works for Baldor Specialty Foods, a company that distributes high-quality food products, acting as a liaison between local farmers and expert chefs. Since the company processes over a million pounds of fresh produce each week, they are typically left with about 150,000 pounds of what we commonly refer to as scraps—carrot peels, onion skins, tips of celery, the list goes on and on.
Rather than get rid of those scraps, Thomas and his team at Baldor have come up with a brilliant way to divert their produce from landfills, while radically challenging the way we view food. In the United States, 30-37% of everything that ends up in landfills is perfectly edible food. And when we say “perfectly edible food,” we’re not just talking about pristine-looking apples or unblemished broccoli. I’m talking about those carrot peels and onion skins. That’s right, not only are those so-called “scraps” edible, but it turns out they are packed with nutritional value. Plus, they’re actually pretty delicious.
Years ago, at his very first job at a farm stand, Thomas witnessed the complicated relationship we humans have with food. While many of us refuse to purchase an overripe tomato, for instance, some people realize that the most delicious sauces truly result from utilizing that “waste” product. Since then, Thomas has been asking some important questions: “Culturally, why do we cut the tip off of a carrot? It doesn’t really make sense—it’s edible, it’s as good a part of the carrot as any other part…and why are we peeling them in the first place? Maybe we need to be eating them.” It’s these types of questions that led Thomas to help Baldor become “zero organic waste to landfill” in November 2016. And with 150,000 pounds of extra food a week, that is no small feat.
“In order to start getting people to think about food as food,” he says, “we wanted to change the narrative.” That’s why the word “scraps” is not in Thomas’ vocabulary. At Baldor, they coined the word SparCs (“scraps” spelled backwards) to describe those carrot tips and onion peels. The initiative aims to inform people of the value of SparCs, and to convince people to be open- minded about using SparCs as edible food items. In Thomas’s experience, the best way to achieve this is by cooking some of the food products and giving his clients a taste test. From sweet potato peel au gratin; to pineapple, ginger, and turmeric tonic; to gluten-free croutons, he’s watched as skeptics who tried these fantastic dishes quickly realized how tasty sustainability can be.
Not to mention the amount of money that companies can save by valuing these products instead of throwing them away! Thomas actually possesses two job titles with Baldor—he oversees the entire company’s sustainability strategy, while also being in charge of food service sales to 3,000 institutions. While most people are surprised at the unusual combination of his responsibilities, he believes that economics and sustainability are inextricably linked. “No matter what your motivation is environmental, nutrition, economics—you should be motivated to do this,” Thomas said. And he believes that any other company determined enough to achieve zero organic waste can do so.
Thomas has been to several sustainability conferences where large corporations boast that they’ll reduce their waste by 30% or 50% in the next few decades. “That’s insane!” he exclaims. “There is too much chatter about the future—this is something we have to do right now.” So, what will you do to reduce food waste? First, think deeply about what you are tossing away. Learn to compost, or even cook with your own SparCs. Remove the term “food waste” fro your vocabulary altogether. Encourage your friends and family to do so, too. In order to make a significant difference in our sustainability pursuits, we must go beyond our comfort zones; we must change the cultural norms around food.
Good news! You can start by joining Change Food and food tech start-up, RISE, for a fundraising dinner celebrating sustainability – “RISE Up! Dine with Purpose” – at Rouge Tomate in Chelsea NYC on Monday, July 24, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets available on Eventbrite.
Andrea Abbate is passionate about combining her interests in food, the environment, writing, and research to create a more equitable food system. She is currently backpacking throughout South America. If you want to contact Andrea about her self-sustainable hostel dreams, email her at email@example.com.
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