Waste? Not!

By Alissa Hamilton (Author of Squeezed and Got Milked?)  – Writer in Residence, Food Systems Lab

Photo: Heather Kaiser (Corn Silk)

Every so often we hear news of the latest updates to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Mostly they include additions.  “Binge-watch” and “vape” are a couple of new activities that have become so popular that the OED editors have deemed them deserving of word recognition. But on one late summer walk, Canadian born Wayne Roberts and Indonesian born Tammara Soma put their birth-languages together to arrive at what they believe should be a deletion: “waste” as a noun, and therefore “food waste” as a term.  Over tea a few days later, Tammara explained to me that while Indonesians talk of wasting food, food waste isn’t a thing in Indonesian.  That’s the way it should be in English too.

In “Waste-Soma,” Wayne’s newsletter entry about his walk with Tammara, Wayne—who, as the former and longtime chair of Toronto’s Food Policy Council, is the man largely responsible for putting food on Toronto City Council’s agenda—outlines the global problem that he and Tammara met to discuss:  the massive amounts of food that humans waste each day, week and year.  The crux of the problem is easy to illustrate: every apple we don’t eat is all the wasted energy used to grow, harvest, package and ship it, plus all the global warming gases emitted as the apple rots in landfills.  The solution isn’t so easy to picture. Composting plays a familiar, if limited role. It mitigates the problem, but only marginally because it doesn’t make up for all the energy it took to get the apple to you in the first place. Recognizing that preventing so many truckloads of food from being wasted demands a diverse set of interventions, innovations, and perspectives from stakeholders ranging from indigenous communities to for-profit businesses, Tammara has launched the Food Systems lab.  Wayne is so enthused by Tammara’s vision to take a comprehensive approach toward identifying ways to reduce the amount of food we as a society waste that he has agreed to become a Special Advisor to the lab.  First off the waste-busters want to put an end to food waste literally. As Wayne writes, “’food waste’ has to be renamed ‘wasted food,’ because waste is a verb, not a noun.”

I live and learn by Wayne’s words. I don’t know about you but I’m always upping the ante. Take push-ups. One day long ago I started with one or two, then I added another to make a few, only to find myself decades later doing hundreds, all the while reveling in the resilience I feel I’m building from the ground up. I apply the same mentality to pretty much everything I do, including deciding what’s edible.  As with the push-ups, I am always pushing the boundaries.  When I encounter bits of food that are unfamiliar I nibble first before discarding.  This led me years ago to salvage a pile of corn silk that was headed for the garbage. First I sampled a strand, which was pleasantly sweet, crisp, and definitely chewable.  Then I decided to try dumping the entire bundle into a pot of vegetables I was about to steam and see what happened. The result—a kind of stringy yet delicate wad of summer that’s perfect for absorbing any sauce—exceeded my expectations. I call it corny vermicelli, but that’s not quite accurate.  It has none of the starchy texture that makes people go giddy over grain-based noodles. Still, it’s a treat to me, and at the very least, definitely NOT garbage.

Corn smut.jpg
Photo: Vilseskogen (Corn Smut)

One August day at Toronto’s Dufferin Grove farmers’ market, Ted the farmer heard me extolling the virtues of corn silk to a patron who had just bought a bag of corn one stall over. Ted piped in that in Mexico corn smut, known there as huitlacoche, is a delicacy. Curious, I went home and did a quick online search. It turned up tons of information. A euphemism for a type of fungus that mutates corn kernels into bluish-grayish bloated, malignant-looking growths, corn smut is not a welcome intruder in the fields of most farmers you talk to here. However, that may change as more chefs who have sampled it, mostly south of the border, stake it out. I’ve never tried it but from what I read it resembles its relative the mushroom in flavor. I’m guessing more of the forest than the cultivated button kind. And apparently it’s more than just a pretty taste. It contains lysine, an essential amino acid that corn lacks, which makes the corn and corn smut pairing a perfect protein.

While writing my latest book Got Milked? I learned about the many nutrients in parts of food we tend to trash. For instance, who knew that watermelon seeds are packed with protein and magnesium. Now I don’t buy the seedless variety because I get so much less for my money.  Any seeds that I don’t eat with the fruit I save and add to my breakfast bowl for a mild crunch.

I even have a recipe for drying and crushing eggshells into a powder that can inconspicuously be added to most baked goods, from cookies and cakes, to granola. You can also start your day with a quick and easy calcium kick by sprinkling the powder on porridge or adding it to your morning shake. You don’t need much. One teaspoon contains 800mg of calcium, as compared to 300 mg in an eight-ounce glass of milk.

I challenge you to begin to expand your horizon of what’s edible today. You’ll be surprised at how much farther that expensive bag of fresh produce will take you. The trick is you will have to learn and get used to buying less. Start by repurposing something you would normally throw out at dinner. In the spirit of eating more whole foods, perhaps forgo peeling the carrots, potatoes, or winter squash. Your gut will thank you for the extra nutrient-dense and tasty source of fiber. Or consider the cauliflower leaves collard greens and cook accordingly. Or save your orange peels—I store mine in a bag in the freezer—for adding zest and a healthy dose of bioflavanoids to everything from salad dressings to hot cereal. With enough practice, maybe by next summer you’ll have the muscle to take on corn smut.

You have nothing to lose: waste less, get more.  Win-win. Few things in life are so simple and universally beneficial.