Behind the Plate

BEHIND THE PLATE: TRISTRAM STUART

July 25, 2016
Photo credit: Erik Nordlund

Photo credit: Erik Nordlund


Tristram Stuart, Founder of Feedback and Toast Ale, has been passionate about food waste from an early age. His Ted Talk: The global food waste scandal has been viewed over a million times, and his environmental work has had an impact in dozens of countries worldwide—both Tristram’s words and actions speak loud and clear.

You have been passionate about food waste since you were 15—you bought pigs and fed them using the scraps from your local grocery and bakery. What about this experience made you realize that food waste is such a significant issue?
I realized that most of the food I was giving to my pigs was in fact fit for human consumption. It was not just scraps like vegetable peelings—it was perfectly fresh, surplus meals from my school cafeteria, bread from the local bakery, and even supermarket products taken off the shelf for stock rotation reasons rather than because the food was no longer good. So I ate it with my pigs. I was environmentally aware. I knew that deforestation, mostly to turn virgin forests into farmland for food production, threatens humanity and many other species with extinction—risking catastrophe. The idea that we were throwing away good food was maddening and yet the solution was so simple—eat it.

In 2009 you founded Feedback to help combat the global food waste crisis. Please tell us about Feedback.
Feedback attacks food waste at every level of the food supply chain, from farm to consumer. We use the principles of the food waste pyramid, a hierarchy of strategies that prioritizes waste reduction and elimination. If food surplus is unavoidable, it must be kept in the food supply chain through charitable redistribution, upcycling food to a new product, or, if not fit for human consumption, using it to feed livestock. Only after all those options are exhausted should we turn to compost and anaerobic digestion.

Feedback has three core campaigns. Feeding the 5000 raises awareness and galvanizes public action to reduce food waste and use surplus better. The Gleaning Network keeps farm-level food surplus within the food system, and our investigative work looks at causes of food waste on farms in food-exporting countries. The Pig Idea is campaigning to change legislation that prevents catering surplus being fed to livestock. Feedback has also set up the Food Surplus Entrepreneurs Network which helps innovators find new ways, or popularize old ones, to use surplus food.

What is Feeding the 5000, and how did it come about?
The first Feeding the 5000, in London in 2009, was meant to be a one-off event. We decided we would make an attention-grabbing statement about food waste by feeding over 5000 people with ingredients that would have otherwise gone to waste. But it created new, powerful coalitions with concrete actions to fight food waste. It was too powerful a tool to do just once. So we set up Feedback, with Feeding the 5000 as our flagship campaign. Feeding the 5000 has now been replicated in over 30 major cities in every continent except Antarctica.

Food waste statistics are staggering—over $218 billion spent growing, transporting and disposing of wasted food; and 63 million tons of food wasted annually. But many individuals are unaware. What needs to be done to get the word out about this significant global issue?
The media, including social media, can have an incredibly powerful impact. We need to get everyone talking about the financial, environmental and social costs of food production and waste. Initiatives like Foodstand are a great example.

What are some #NoFoodWaste practices that you incorporate into your daily life?
I am a freegan, or ‘dumpster-diver’ as it’s also known. Freeganism—eating food that otherwise would be thrown away—is a double attack on our insanely inefficient and wasteful food system. Firstly, it reduces demand for extra food production whilst reducing waste. Secondly, it is a delicious protest that raises awareness about the simplicity of the solution—we just need to eat what we produce.

Do you think that food waste is the largest issue currently surrounding our food system?
The largest issue facing our food system is demand-driven deforestation. It explodes my mind to acknowledge the fact that we are turning eons-old bastions of biodiversity and cultural diversity, hyper-effective climate change buffers, deep reservoirs of water and invaluable natural capital into farmland to produce food that is later discarded. Reducing food waste is just one bullet that we need to use to stop this.

We do not need to dramatically increase food production worldwide, despite the conventional wisdom that says we do. Population growth is slowing down. The real driver of the projections showing increased demand for food is that as people’s incomes increase, so does their demand for meat and dairy. So another bullet in our arsenal must be to move towards a more plant-intensive diet.

What I like about fighting food waste is that not only does it help us fight deforestation and climate change, it also changes people’s consciousness that we can win this fight. Sometimes the fight seems hopeless, but something about food waste makes folks rethink our food habits. Once you have people onboard with the idea that we don’t need to cut down virgin forests to produce food that we’re just going to throw away anyway, they may be more receptive to the idea that the ultimate problem is actually the deforestation itself.

Food issues have barely made it into the race for President. If the future President were to consider food waste solutions, how should they be addressed?
Use the USDA and FDA to standardize confusing expiration date labels so that consumers aren’t throwing away food needlessly. A study in the UK estimated that date label confusion drives 20% of avoidable consumer food waste. Encourage supermarkets to be transparent about their in-store and supply chain waste. Encourage all supermarkets—and cafeterias and stadiums and music festivals and restaurants—to connect with food redistributors to make use of their surplus. Use the USDA and FDA to standardize across all states one set of rules for using surplus food to safely and sustainably feed livestock. And finally, tax food waste.

If you could get the general population to change one aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
Buy, grow or forage more plants and eat them while they are deliciously fresh, or preserve, or give to others to eat.

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How do you define good food?
I love food that tastes amazing and has a story. I recently cooked a stew of road-kill deer, foraged mushrooms, waste-fed pork, and homegrown vegetables. That particular meal had basically zero impact in terms of driving demand for food—it was “off-grid” if you will. There was something about the taste of the stew that made it special even if I had not told you the stories of the ingredients, but the story was eye opening for many of the people I cooked it for.

What’s one of your first (and most memorable) interactions with food?
That first food ‘waste’ meal I shared with my pigs was beautiful fresh bread from my local baker. For me it is symbolic of the food waste problem, and so perhaps kismet that I recently established Toast Ale—a beer made with surplus bread from sandwich manufacturers that would otherwise have been wasted, that gives all profits to Feedback.

Date labeling laws are key to food waste prevention. We understand bills were recently introduced to standardize these laws—are we at a potential turning point in food waste prevention?
Expiration date label standardization is a no-brainer. It’s ridiculous that different companies use different labels to mean the same thing, or use the same wording to mean different things, depending on the context. Of course consumers are confused into throwing away good food unnecessarily. So expiration date label standardization is very low-hanging fruit in the fight against food waste. We hope that a win on this issue will create momentum to fight for food waste reduction across other fronts, too.

Donation is a key food waste recovery tactic. Why is it so hard to donate food?
Cold-chain logistics can be an issue, although this complication is why we advocate for pre-established links between those with surplus and those who can redistribute it. But sometimes supermarkets or other companies with surplus food don’t have the direct incentive to manage the logistics of setting up the connection in the first place. It is our job as campaigners and consumers to make sure they have the incentive to donate food. We can create that incentive in the form of public relations. We should shun supermarkets and restaurant chains who have not connected with food redistribution organizations, and we should celebrate those that are going above and beyond to make sure that 100% of their surplus is used.

What are some of the most astonishing items you’ve found wasted behind grocery stores during your “bin inspections”?
Fresh sushi. It’s resource-intensive to produce, either involving the fishing of wild stocks or the use of resource-intensive fish farms, and sometimes involving the use of refrigerated air-freight. Yet there’s a lot of sushi behind grocery stores.

What is your favorite meal to prepare?
Anything that involves surplus, foraged or homegrown ingredients that can be shared with friends and family.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
I’m writer who has become a campaigner. I first wrote The Bloodless Revolution in 2006, followed by Waste: Uncovering the global food scandal in 2009 (which led me to organize the first Feeding the 5000 and set up Feedback). I would like to write another book.

What’s always in your fridge? What do you use it for / how do you use it?
The problem with fridges is that they hide food away where we forget about it, like a tomb where food is left to rot. I’m much keener on preserving food in Kilner or Mason jars where the autumn harvest is bottled away—plums, cherries, quinces, apples, pears, tomatoes all in a colorful array, stacked shelves—reminding you to eat them up throughout the year.

Your good food wish?
That we value to the food we produce and stop wasting it.

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