The frugal cook: hidden food waste

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and editor Malou Herkes talks about fighting food waste in the supply chain—and saving yourself some pennies in the process

When we think about food waste, we might think about the leftovers on our restaurant plate or the bread we throw out at home. But what about the waste that happens far before it gets to our shopping bags? The chicken carcasses and fish heads; the carrot tops and ‘wonky’ vegetables that, in the name of strict supermarket standards or so-called convenience, have been deemed unworthy of our kitchens.

These norms have shaped how we expect food to arrive in our baskets and, in turn, how we cook. But if we had a choice, would it always be this way? Until recently, few people knew that supermarkets rejected tonnes of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables based purely on their aesthetic. This produce was deemed too small or misshapen to meet consumer demand. When journalists began to uncover the magnitude of all this edible produce ending up in landfill, supermarkets started trialling cheaper, ‘ugly’ vegetables and people, of course, started buying them.

This is a salient example of how disjointed our food supply chains have become—a disconnect between producer and shopper that has allowed for tonnes of food waste that is damaging not only for farmers’ livelihoods, but for the environment too. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), if global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, second only to China and the USA.

Reap real change
If we want to shop in a way that is less wasteful, it’s time we educate ourselves on how we do that at every level of the supply chain, not just at home. Whether it’s consciously buying and cooking wonky vegetables or unloved and often discarded meat cuts, choosing whole fish, or buying vegetables with their green tops attached, it’s in creating demand for otherwise wasted ingredients and supporting the producers who are already supplying them that we reap real change—not to mention save ourselves a quid or two in the process, as it’s these cuts and crops that tend to be the most economical.

I recently learned that my fishmonger routinely throws away bin-loads of fish bones and heads after he’s filleted the day’s catch, and that it costs him a fortune to incinerate the waste. I asked for a kilo of bones he had leftover that day and he gave them to me for free, along with advice when making stock to wash away any blood with them (it makes it bitter) and to remember to avoid the bones of oily fish (they turn it rancid). They promptly became a flavoursome—and very frugal—fish soup.

The beauty of shopping directly from the person who grew, caught, reared, butchered or filleted our food is the ability to take advantage of their expertise—to ask them questions and show them there’s a market for the products they’d otherwise bin. Borough Market is blessed with fishmongers, butchers and vegetable farmers who sell fish heads and offal, chicken carcasses and vegetables of all shapes and sizes. Shopping more directly from our local producers and helping to shorten supply chains is at least a start in reducing the monumental food waste that is a product of our disjointed food system; a way to reconnect the dots between where our food actually comes from, and the people who cook and eat it.