New beginnings

As the pink tips of rhubarb begin to emerge from the soil in our garden, my mind turns to the richness of foods we will have at our fingertips over the next several months.

I am already cutting chives from the garden at the front of our house, the rhubarb will be ready to eat in another couple of weeks and, not long after that, we will have our own asparagus on our dinner plates. After that, it depends what strikes the fancy of my partner, who is the gardener in our household. Salad greens, carrots, beets and herbs will certainly be on his list, along with tomatoes. The garlic was planted last fall, and its green tops are just starting to pop into the light.

As I anticipate the bounty that lies ahead, I am reminded of the commitment I made in January to reduce the amount of food waste coming out of my kitchen.

Despite my best attempts not to over-shop and to use up bits and pieces in my refrigerator, my counter-top compost bucket continues to fill too quickly with food I have failed to use and my recycling box with the packaging that accompanies too much of the food that I buy.

It’s hard not to despair at my apparent inability to change my ways. I felt like a recent cartoon in The New Yorker was speaking directly to me: one woman, bent over the freezer at the bottom of her refrigerator, is saying to another: “I freeze all my leftovers until I feel less guilty about throwing them away.”

Markets and worms

This did not seem to be so much the case over the six weeks my partner and I spent in San Miguel in the winter. Why, I wondered, and then came up with the answers quickly.

In San Miguel, we shop every day, mostly at local markets. The walk to and from the market is a disincentive to overbuy, because anything we buy has to be schlepped home, either on our backs or slung over our shoulders.

Fruits and vegetables at the market are not packaged in rigid plastic or, for that matter, in anything at all, so there is nothing to throw out once we have eaten the food.

We can buy just what we need for the day, with the result that fresh food does not get stockpiled as it waits for its turn in the compost bucket.

Refrigerators are smaller, making it more difficult to lose bits of food in dark corners or at the back of a crisper drawer until they are well past salvation.

But it’s more than that: we are acutely aware of the serious water shortage in the area around San Miguel and know that much of its cause is large-scale commercial fruit and vegetable farming. The line between limited water supplies and wasted food is shorter and more obvious there than it is here.

Of course, we still had food waste, but we were fortunate enough to be able to contribute it to our landlords’ worm composting system. We could see the results of the hard work of the worms on a regular basis, which gave us more incentive to sort our food waste properly than we have here as we wheel our green compost bin out to the curb once a week to have it taken away to an anonymous location for a somewhat murky purpose.

Zero waste restaurants

British chef Douglas McMaster calls his approach to food in his Brighton restaurant, Silo, “pre-industrial.” He works with local ingredients, buying them directly from the producers, and has them delivered in reusable containers. His restaurant has an onsite composting operation that produces up to 60 kilograms of compost in 24 hours, which then goes back to the farmers from whom he buys his meat and produce.

His commitment to zero-waste is extreme: a recent event he hosted in New York City, was decorated by 400 yellow tulips, which dangled from the ceiling by a length of wire. Their bulbs were intact, and they would be planted after the event.

In Canada, there are a number of restaurants moving towards no-waste.  From converting used cooking oil to biodiesel fuel, to telling customers to bring their own take-out containers, to practicing full animal (also called nose to tail) butchery, to contributing waste to local farmers for livestock feed, and much more, these restaurants are leading the way in reducing waste while also producing delicious food and surviving financially.

Despite my best intentions, I seem to leave a trail of food waste behind me everywhere I go. Perhaps these examples and those I found on the Zero Waste Canada website can inspire me to clean up my act.

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