One-third of all the food produced each year for human consumption is never eaten. That adds up to about 1.3 billion tons of waste per year. That unappetizing fact is the inspiration for a new documentary, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which was released on Oct. 13 in theaters and on demand.
In addition to stories from star chefs such as Dan Barber and Mario Batali, the documentary explores the problem of food waste in America, as well as worldwide policies and possible systemic solutions in U.S. schools and grocery stores.
Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with the film’s host and renowned chef Anthony Bourdain.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On getting involved with the documentary
I don’t like the idea of being an advocate. I don’t like to be certain of anything, or present myself as certain of anything, or adhering to any orthodox view on anything. I’m a doubter by nature. But this is an issue that goes fundamentally against my instincts as a longtime working cook and chef, where we were taught from the very beginning that one just does not and cannot and must not waste food.
I thought about how people struggle for food every day in so many places and how much they make with so little, very proudly and generously. How delicious food can be even in places where they have so little to work with. How important those principles and techniques are to even the classic French and Italian gastronomies that I grew up with and love. So that kind of informed my decision to jump into this thing with both feet.
On what people can do to limit food waste
It begins with a sense of how we value the things we eat. It begins with just starting to pay attention to how much food you’re buying, how much you are actually using, what you are doing with it. Simply by thinking about your home cooking in a way that professional chefs think about restaurant food, meaning, when you order food for the evening — because profit margins are so narrow in the restaurant business — the chef has always had to think, ‘What happens if I don’t sell all the chicken? What will I do with the leftovers? How will I make something delicious that I can sell that people will want and desire the next day?’ If you think about food when you shop in that way, and about all of the parts of proteins and vegetables that we don’t currently use, that are in fact quite delicious — in many cases more delicious than the things we attach artificial value to — that’s a start.
And then demand more of our retailers. It is shocking that we expect our chain supermarkets to have towers of perfect-looking, highly perishable produce. They put a lot of that produce on the shelf deliberately to look abundant, and for no other reason. They know that in order to maintain this appearance of endless abundance, they’re gonna have to throw out a significant portion of it. We don’t need that, we shouldn’t want it and we shouldn’t tolerate it.
On eating different parts of animals
Foods that we never valued even 20 years ago are now the dishes of the moment. I remember when I started cooking in the early ’70s, bluefin tuna would be sold for cat food. Octopus was a garbage fish, a trash fish … beef cheeks, pork belly. These are hot menu items now. In many cases, in order to eat the food — the ingredients and the traditional dishes that the poor used to have to eat in this country — you have to go to a hipster restaurant in Brooklyn and pay $32 for a plate. So this is not that much of a stretch. It’s really a matter of marketing and inspiring people, and in a lot of ways, it’s up to chefs and food leaders to convince people with a beautiful and delicious argument that this is what food can be.
On possible U.S. laws that regulate food waste
In South Korea, you are taxed or penalized. They monitor how much usable waste you’re generating from your home, and you get a bill at the end of the month if you’re being particularly wasteful. Animal protein, particularly fish and beef, I don’t think these are ever going to get less expensive or more plentiful. So, it is inevitable, if we don’t get our act together, that sooner or later in the face of dwindling resources and supplies, that there will be some sort of regulation. And that’s something that Americans fundamentally hate, understandably. Hopefully we’ll never reach that point. The way forward is to eat better, more delicious food — to enjoy cooking and eating it more, not chaw away mindlessly at this seemingly endless supply of flavorless abundance.
On the value of kids understanding where food comes from
I have noticed in my travels, I think anyone who works in a farming community, anyone who lives close to or is involved in the production of food — whether they’re fishing, farming, raising beef, whatever — they’re less likely to waste, because they’ve seen it up close, how much work goes into it, what’s involved. So I think even limited experience as a child seeing where food comes from and what’s involved, this is surely a good thing.
This interview aired on Oct. 10 on Here & Now, a public radio show from NPR and WBUR in Boston.