New York City eateries redirect food waste to those in need

Colorful tarts, roasted seasonal vegetables, cheese boards paired with hummus.

Brooklyn-based catering company Harvest & Revel's menu rivals other upscale caterers in New York City. But in the company's kitchen, as with a growing number of eateries and companies, the mission is sustainability.

At Harvest & Revel, the culinary team uses low-waste techniques in its food preparation. Carrot peels and tomato stems aren't discarded and sent to landfills. They are instead repurposed as sauces and broths.

"We really started working on low-waste commitment before it was trendy, and that is often using as much of a product as you can," said Amber Drew, operations manager at Harvest & Revel. "It comes down to utilizing the tops of vegetables for a pesto, or using fruit ends to make homemade jam, or using day-old bread to make croutons for a salad."

Since Harvest & Revel was founded in 2012 as Bed Stuy Kitchen, Drew and Sara Elise, the company's founder and creative director, have used recipes to tackle the growing food waste crisis in New York City. According to the New York City Mayor's Office of Sustainability, New Yorkers produce 14 million tons of waste that is sent to landfills each year. Of that, two million tons are organic waste, largely food, a 2017 report by the Department of Sanitation revealed. The same report said the city's food businesses generate 650,000 tons of food waste alone.

This waste, which could be repurposed, recycled or composted, creates methane as it breaks down. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and intensifies the process of trapping heat in the atmosphere, accelerating Earth's warming.

But the food waste problem extends beyond environmental hazards. In New York City, 12.8% of residents face food insecurity, according to a 2018 study by Hunger Free America.

Low-waste eateries like Haven's Kitchen and Graffiti Earth, as well as catering companies like Harvest & Revel and Purslane, are based in upscale neighborhoods, so low-waste, healthy food can be hard for all New Yorkers to access.

That's why several low-waste institutions tackle both inequality and climate change by donating leftover food rather than trashing it. Along with repurposing scraps, Harvest & Revel partners with the city-based non-profit Rescuing Leftover Cuisine to redirect their uneaten food from landfills to those in need.

"We call or text (Rescuing Leftover Cuisine) and package all of our leftover food into disposable containers," said Drew. "They just come and pick it up and utilize it to feed people who are facing food scarcity or experiencing hunger by donating it to shelters, soup kitchens, and care centers."

City Harvest, a New York City organization with a similar mission, collects food from restaurants that it partners with and sends it to over 300 agencies in the five boroughs, decreasing waste and hunger at the same time.

The West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a supermarket-style food pantry, receives much of the food that City Harvest diverts. The organization also looks to gourmet grocery store Zabar's, several of the city's Greenmarkets and other institutions to source its fresh food, according to chef and executive director Gregory Silverman.

"We give out about 1.7 million pounds of food a year. 70% of that – 1.2 or 1.3 million pounds – is what would be in landfills," said Silverman. "It's great quality and would be thrown away otherwise."

As low-waste eating becomes more popular and slowly spreads across the city, the public response to zero-waste techniques is positive, as company owners have observed. It also is no longer confined to the food industry. Many companies have adapted similar low-waste methods to operate.

"We are seeing so much interest in our approach. Eco-conscious caterers, event planners, designers, florists, and venue managers are starting to commit to working together to create waste-free events," said Amanda Braddock, event director at Purslane catering company. "The demand is real, and it is inspiring."

It may be a relatively new concept, but adapting techniques to reduce the amount of waste restaurants and companies create is cost-effective, according to a recent report by Champions 12.3.

Champions 12.3 is a coalition of executives from institutions, such as governments, businesses, research organizations, and farmers groups, who are working to achieve food loss and waste reduction-related goals from the 17 Sustainable Development Goals created by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.

For every dollar that a restaurant had invested in food waste reduction, it received a $7 savings in return, the report said, creating a possible incentive to join the growing low-waste food movement both in New York City and globally.

Dave Lewis, chair of Champions 12.3, stated in the document, "The only way we can halve food waste by 2030 is if restaurants and other businesses along the supply chain step up their action. Every part of the food industry has a responsibility to reduce food waste."

"We hear a lot about the food waste side of things, about individual responsibility and what people and restaurants need to do to help. The little bits and all the cool projects that are happening with chefs are nice, but the big changes are further upstream," said Silverman. "Chefs can definitely lead, but we need to use networks and tools to think about food waste further up the food chain."

Shifra Dayak, 16, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Silver Spring, Md.