Kylie Kwong on food waste and how we can curb it
Author | Kylie Kwong
There’s something very sad about the fact that Australians throw out 4 million tonnes of food every year – especially when hundreds of millions of people around the world go to bed hungry or are starving for the most basic of foods.
Wasting food is also a waste of money, and it really damages the environment.
These days there seems to be a real disconnect between the food we buy and the impact that it has on the environment when we throw it away. When you throw out food, you’re also throwing out all of the resources, fuel and energy that were used to get that food to your plate.
We never used to do this and I believe it’s something that needs to change. We need to go back to the way our grandmothers bought and managed their food supplies. They couldn’t afford to waste food – in these tougher economic times, we can really learn something from their more prudent approach to food.
More than 4 million tonnes of food a year are being wasted, possibly 20% of all food that we buy.
If you were to go the supermarket and buy 5 bags of groceries, then come home and throw one of them straight in the bin, people would think there was something wrong with you. But it’s not far short of what we’re doing now. About 20% of the food we buy is being thrown away.
As a country, we have forgotten how to plan for the food we buy and cook. We’re not planning ahead enough and as a result we often buy food that we never eat. In our busy, manic modern day lives, we have lost the practice of mindfulness and we have become increasingly disconnected to the earth, the soil, to nature. We seem to be everywhere except in the very moment and thus make purchases, eratically and frivolously.
In my opinion, conventional food is too cheap. When we purchase the majority of our food stuffs from the supermarket we mostly purchase food in packets or boxes. In most cases the food in these packets does not even resemble the ingredient which it is promoting.
We have forgotten the true value and beauty of real food, alive food; a perfectly ripe tomato that is in season, the flavour and texture of a free-range, hormone and antibiotic free chicken, the delicious texture and flavour of an organic banana or apple. I really believe that if we valued fresh food produce more, therefore valuing our primary producers more and promoting a sense of community, we would definitely waste less food.
We need to be more mindful, respectful and ‘care’ more about where our food comes from, and about those who grew or caught it. When we embrace this attitude, we value life a lot more deeply and life becomes so much more meaningful and substantial. Huge quantities of food are often left to linger in our fridges and cupboards, unused and slowly going off. When we do use it, we use too much and even then we don’t use the leftovers. It’s an approach to food that would shock older generations who placed a far bigger value on each morsel of the food that they bought.
Although the Chinese in China do not hold the romantic view of food as we Westerners do, I have to say that I have always admired the way they use every single part of the beast, fish, plant etc. There is very little food waste on the Chinese menu.
As someone who loves and works with food, I take whatever steps I can personally to curb waste.
In our restaurant, we only serve local, organic or biodynamically grown food and wine. If we buy more food than we need, then we lose money. As a business, buying more food than we need doesn’t make financial sense. We purchase small amounts of food produce every day, rather than large amounts every few days. This way we can ensure that we are offering the freshest produce available and it also allows us to keep a much tighter rein on the daily food costs. We use every inch of the ingredient in our cooking, placing scraps of ginger, chicken bones etc in our stocks.
I think as a restaurateur you need to be very creative and open with your menu, so if you have something leftover from one night you need to be able to turn it into something magical the next day. If your food produce is the freshest, best quality to begin with, then it will last several days anyway.
I purchase all of my produce from Eliot Rickards of Whole Foods House (Woollahra and Danks St, Alexandria, Sydney). He is a passionate advocate of the sustainable food movement, and cares so much. Being around like minded people truly energises and inspires me, and you realise that such topics as ‘food waste’ do not have to be a dull, boring conversation or subject, but in actual fact, can turn into something quite fun and creative.
Eliot and I discuss the virtues of composting and worm farming etc! We just need to change our attitude in and around it and learn how important human connection to Mother Nature is. It is the most vital lesson we need to embrace.
Regarding curbing food waste in my home, it’s the same. With the rising cost of living and petrol prices going through the roof, I only buy the food that I need to get me through the week ahead. By planning like this, I save money on food and that’s money that can be spent elsewhere.
Australians spend about $5 billion a year on food that they buy and don’t eat, so there’s lots of potential for each and every one of us to save a lot of money.
There are some simple solutions everyone can utilise to stop wasting food.
When it comes to food shopping, planning for the week ahead and writing a shopping list is essential if you’re going to buy only what you need. My other key rule is to buy fresh food as I need it and I never go food shopping when I’m hungry. When you do, you only end up buying more than you need.
In my home, I keep a close eye on what’s in my fridge, freezer and pantry so I use up things before their ‘use by’ dates. As most people know, you should never eat eggs past their ‘best before’ date, but many other foods can be eaten after their ‘best before’ date. Common sense and a good sniff should give you an idea if it’s edible or not. If in doubt, you can always throw it in a soup and freeze it. That will make your ingredients go a lot further.
Leftovers are the original recycling. We should be delving into the back of our refrigerators and being more inventive, making delicious meals of leftovers, like people of less affluent eras did.
There’s an old saying that cooking with leftover food is the most original form of recycling. If you cook too much or have leftover food at the end of a meal, putting it in Tupperware and freezing it will save it for another day. Something this simple, will also save you money on buying new ingredients for a future meal.
If you have leftover food in the fridge or vegetables or fruit that need using, become a bit more inventive in how you use them up. Vegetables that need using up are great for soups, bananas that are going brown make great tasting smoothies. Eggs make the perfect, fulfilling meal, so toss some old herbs or onions or vegetables into the whisked up egg mix and make a delicious savoury omelette.
When it comes to food, bringing back old values such as moderation and thrift won’t just save you money. It will also makes a real difference to the environment. In today’s world, there has come to be a real disconnect between the food we buy and the impact it has on the environment when we waste it. We need to change that.
I love Michael Pollan’s simple yet powerful advice in his latest book ‘In Defence of Food’ – ‘don’t eat anything your grandmother would not recognise ‘ – in other words, eat ‘real’ food, not processed food.
Throwing away food rotting in landfill is bad for our environment.
Most people don’t know that when food waste rots in landfill it produces methane. As a greenhouse gas, that methane is 20 times more potent than the CO2 pollution coming out of your car exhaust. The environmental impact of that is huge. In Britain, for example, they estimate that if they stopped all food waste, it would be equivalent to taking one in five cars off the road.
There’s one thing that becomes very clear from these figures. If we’re serious about tackling climate change and creating a safer future for Australia’s children then we need to do everything possible to reduce the amount of food that we use and throw out.
The good thing is that we won’t just save the environment. We’ll be saving our wallets too.
When we throw away food, we also throw away all the water and resources required to grow that food and transport it.
When people throw away their food, they throw away life itself. They waste all of the resources, fuel and energy that were used to get that food from the paddock to their plate. This indirectly is an insult to all those hard working farmers, fishermen, grape growers, primary producers of the land and sea. I have met so many wonderful primary producers in Australia and no one works harder than these people.
We need to support them more and show more love toward our families, by first of all, only purchasing local produce, and fresh produce at that, and secondly, by honouring and respecting that which they have lovingly grown for us. Again, we need to practice our mindfulness. We need to make every action we take, deliberate, considered, sensitive and well thought out.
I use a lot of rice in my cooking. But I need to be careful with how much I cook, because if I throw out a kilo of white rice, I’m also wasting the 1,550 litres that it took to grow that rice. When it comes to beef it’s even worse. Throwing out a kilogram of beef means you’re also wasting the tens of thousands of litres of water that went into producing that beef.
When it comes to food waste, we also need to cut down on the distance that we transport our food. If you buy food that’s in season and made locally in Australia, then it doesn’t need to be flown or shipped here from overseas. Furthermore, it tastes better because it is ‘in season’, it is grown within the natural rhythms of Mother Nature. Cutting down your ‘Food Miles’ in this way can really help the environment by cutting down on food transportation waste.
Flying in food to Australia has a really big impact on the environment. One way to do reduce that problem is to buy Australian grown food as much as you possibly can. That helps our farmers and our environment at the same time. I only serve mostly locally grown, organic and biodynamic produce in my restaurant.
As a restaurateur and food spokesperson I feel a deep sense of responsibility toward the community regarding our food choices. I only ever want to offer the healthiest, most vibrant, life-giving food and I only ever want to be sending out the right messages. It is not only the contribution that my staff and I want to make to the community, it is actually our duty, as I see it, for after all, we humans are simply ‘caretakers of this planet’.
The more people who understand this concept and live by it, the better condition the planet will be in. We need to do it for our children, and in doing so, we will be acting upon the greatest act of love and generosity ever known.
Kylie Kwong is a chef, restaurateur, author and television presenter. Head over to our Top Chef section for a series of Kylie’s best recipes.