• Tamanna Mohapatra

MOLD- Perspectives on Food Waste

Updated: Apr 11

In 2019, I read an article in Columbia University's magazine titled, "Must-Reading for Woke Foodies". Yep, I was one and so I had to read it. I learned about LinYee Yuan ’02CC (02CC means Lin was a 2002 graduate of Columbia College) and her efforts at understanding the food waste landscape. Below is my recap of her 3rd issue of the MOLD magazine dedicated to food waste. I bought this issue in early 2020 but took the whole year to read through.. maybe, blame the pandemic?! or maybe I should thank the pandemic? Who knows when I would have got to it otherwise.

I have summarized each piece I read. The articles gave me a chance to learn about people doing interesting work all tied to food. Eating food, either for pleasure or survival and sometimes both, is something we all humans have in common. With that thought, I hope you enjoy, savor and relish these pieces as much as I did.


Closing the Loop: Lauren Yarmuth (IDEO)

How might we design for circularity? All food grows in soil. Soil represents a circular system. Growing food should also be circular and not have commercialization of the food as the endpoint. There is interconnectivity that should be recognized, amongst food waste, nutrients, people, and systems.


Pathways for Waste: David Zilber (NOMA restaurant)

His take on helping reduce food waste is to learn how to use all parts of a vegetable or meat. Fermenting is one such technique he touts and thus calls himself a 'Fermenter.'

His question for himself and all of us is- "If you cook it, will they eat it?" Two interesting examples mentioned in his piece were about using leftovers from bread to make ale and another about a coffee company that would sell its used grounds to a perfume factory, so they could extract any remaining aromas. Come to think of it, sometimes I do enjoy the smell of coffee more than the taste.


Fatberg: Natsai Audrey Chieza & Mike Thompson (Artists)

Fatbergs are an art piece as well as colossal objects formed from domestic and industrial cooking fat disposed of down drains, which congeals and eventually cause blockages. Now, I can't not think of a fatberg every time I pour even a few teaspoons of oil down my drain. As per these two artists, the fatberg challenges our perceptions of waste by re-contextualizing it in a new place and asking what new relationships can we hope to begin. The great example they give is looking at a weed and understanding a weed is just a plant out of place.


Designing for systems, not symptoms: Max Elder (Future Food Lab)

He quotes, "If efficiency is a hallmark of good design, then the global food system is a failure since as much as one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted every year." I would add to the above statement the word- STILL.

Some key perspectives from this piece were

1. What we waste matters more than how much. For example, the cost of wasting animal-based products vs. plant-based.

2. There is not one single problem to food waste which leads to the corollary good news-many problems are solved when you solve food waste. Some of them are- hunger, GHG emissions from rotting food, wastage of water, land, and, animal lives.

3. Prioritize by understanding the problem in depth. Put more effort into solving the bigger problems. His stance is, "animal-based waste is much more resource-intensive than plant-based waste, so saving those ugly fruits and vegetables ought to be a lower priority." My opinion is that there are enough people and resources to tackle problems at all levels.

4. Upcycle food waste: When we see waste as just a problem, we limit our thinking and approach to solving it. At Saltwater Brewery in Delray Beach, Florida, brewers are turning spent barley and hops into eco-friendly six-pack holders. Converting food waste into biofuels is another great upcycling example.

The art of eating well; the power of the meal: Massimo Bottura (Chef)

He believes (and I agree) that good food touches the soul. In his opinion, a recipe is a solution to a problem. His solution and his contribution to the problem of excess food was to create a culture project which had 3 aspects to it- provide hospitality in a beautiful setting & use up excess food. He helped create a community kitchen called Food for the Soul under the rightful assumption that chefs have the power of taking excess but ordinary ingredients to create extraordinary dishes.


Parasitic Ethics of Food Waste: Daisy Tam (Scholar/Professor)

Her take on food is that we all feed off the labor of others. Food is wasted in an urban setting because the system is not designed to maximize the circulation of food to delay obsolescence and accommodate surplus. In our urban food systems, there are interdependencies at various levels such as urban/rural, distributor/producer, retailer/consumer, NGOs/government. Understanding, accepting, and using these interdependencies to our advantage would alleviate food waste. We all feed off the labor of others; in other words para/sitos: the being that eats alongside. In the end, food is everybody's need and thus food waste is everybody's problem.


Feeding America: Maura Shea (Food Waste expert)

In our generation, 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure. From working for Feeding America for many years, her biggest learnings were that food donation has to include both perishables (fruits and vegetables) as well as non-perishables (boxed pasta and canned veggies). This not only limits the stress on giving out food that can go bad quickly but also is less stressful for the people who will use the food. Planning and cooking healthy with fresh produce can be a challenge. It's not just about donating the food, it's also about making sure it fulfills its purpose which is to provide a better understanding of how to use and the nourishing potential of the food donated.


Material Futures: Marta Giraltdunjo (Design Researcher)

Working in design, Maria's perspective is that food waste can get a second life as raw material which is better than being thrown away. An example of that is an art project led by Marlène Huissoud. Some other examples include-


Fuel your day and city too with bio-bean: Adrianna Krasniansky (Food Strategist)

An astounding fact- Cities produce about a billion pounds of trash each year with 9 million of that being coffee waste. It is also the single largest source by mass. What is one to do? According to this piece, "In our coffee trash, there is a treasure: because coffee beans are only processed to extract taste, the remaining grounds retain valuable chemical compounds." This is just one example of looking for treasure hiding in our current system. Perhaps there is more for those who seek.


Fighting Food Waste with Food Waste: Ariel Lauren (Food editor)

Apeel sounds like a product right from my dreams. (Yes, I do dream of solving food waste like Beth used to dream her chess moves :-)) It's a plant-based coating developed by Apeel Sciences. The idea is to use food (semi-permeable coating) to preserve other food by extending their shelflife. The vision is to replace the entire cold chain from field to plate. They are trying out their vision in Africa with the help of the Gates Foundation. Wishing them all the luck in the world.


Plentiful- Designing dignity into the charitable food system: Martelle Esposito (Public Health expert)

As we know by now, 'food donation' is a two-way street. We are giving food to people in need but they are also helping us by using food that would otherwise go waste. Hence, the idea behind the food app, Plentiful, is to make this charity be just that; a better experience for those picking up the food by seeing what's available and reserving it. The added benefit is they can collect useful data on what food is more popular when is food in demand, etc. thus improving the whole experience for all involved. Currently, plentiful is available at 600+ pantries.


Can architecture help fight Food Waste?

Everyone's heard the story of food going to waste. How do we change the narrative, especially the ending? A novel thought proposed in this article is to change the questions we ask from "how to produce more food to feed us all?" to "how to waste less food with the same outcome in mind- feeding us all?" Architecture may have something to contribute to this discussion. One idea is to build walkable communities that cultivate conscious consumerism; if we go and buy food, cook and eat, and then repeat; we will have less food with us at home that goes waste. Another idea is to promote communal kitchens where people can share food resources as well as have personal interactions.


Community Fridge: Nicola Twilley (Food writer)

The concept behind a community fridge is to make sharing food resources more local, more about the share vs. about who's sharing or taking the food. Making it easy for both parties to participate in the give and take. It's been pretty successful all over Europe, such as Solidarity Fridge and Foodsharing.de.

Last year because of the pandemic, community fridges became quite popular in the USA as well. The bottom line is that despite the various governance issues, building and maintaining a community-owned shared resource is a powerful movement in saving food. To learn more check out the documentary Taste the Waste.


Designing Soil: Sue Pierre (Ecologist)

The article speaks about the importance of soil. The example they speak of is Detroit Dirt; cofounded by Pashon Murray. Detroit Dirt collects food waste from partners like Blue Cross Blue Shield and GM and collects manure from the Detroit Zoo to create nutrient-rich compost. Besides having grown in popularity, composting is also very essential. A layer of compost helps replace the topsoil, which is now a day being lost at an alarming rate. The added benefit of using compost is that fertilizer usage can be reduced since compost already had microbial amendments. "The more fertilizer the better" is a common misconception that companies like the ARK1 Smart farm project are trying to teach by practicing better agricultural techniques including soil management.


Fridges of the Future: Johnny Drain (Food Scientist)

What is the refrigerator? A technology that both helps save food from going to waste (cold storage) as well as encourages food waste (we buy, store and forget, repeat). Could relooking at the fridge help us prevent food waste? Johnny Drain thinks yes. Imagine a fridge that alerts you of expiring food; not based on (mis)labels but based on the chemistry of the food. Refrigerators, since the 1950s have been a one-size, fits-all box. Consider the ‘microbial home’ by Philips Design, a concept home design that adopts a systemic approach of connecting machines into a cyclical system of input and output that minimizes waste. Another interesting off-grid refrigerator technology described was a clay pot cooler.

A great and fun site to follow to learn better refrigerator storage techniques is Save Food from the Fridge.


I love thinking about food waste and devising strategies to tackle it at all levels. I believe it's one of the easiest, most encompassing, and participatory ways to combat climate change. I hope you felt inspired to do something about your food waste print after reading this. If you are already doing your fair bit, perhaps it's time to spread the word and get others to do the same. Thank you for reading and thank you for not wasting our precious food.




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