Photograph by Jed Winer, National Geographic
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Volunteers from José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup chop yellow squash that produce wholesalers were unable to sell due to their size, color, or shape.
Photograph by Jed Winer, National Geographic

How Volunteers Turn Unwanted Produce Into 5,000 Meals

Free meals are not free to produce. Volunteers and hundreds of pounds of produce go into an event that raises awareness about food waste.

The mounds of eggplant that hit the chopping room floor on Tuesday didn’t look like much. They, along with the carrots, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and onions that flooded in for processing that morning, were too large, misshapen or otherwise on-their-way-out to display uniformly on a grocery store shelf.

But, in the hands of the Feeding The 5000 event crew and dozens and dozens of volunteers, the 2,000 pounds of otherwise wasted produce became its own sort of miracle: the pièce de résistance of an event aimed at transforming not only “ugly” vegetables, but also our mindsets about them. Bonus? Some of Washington, D.C.'s top chefs helped turn them into curry, paella and chili.

Organizers say 6,750 people were fed at the event in D.C. on Wednesday.

“It’s often the case that we have more than we need,” says event coordinator Pascale Robinson. “When you’re dealing with food waste, the initial sourcing can be difficult, but then you have more than enough to make the point —waste is abundant.”

Changing mindsets about such food waste was the goal when Tristram Stuart and the organization he founded first fed 5,000 people with what would have otherwise been landfilled in London in 2009. Since then, he says, the United Kingdom has seen a 21-percent reduction in household food waste and “a sea change in attitudes.”

“It was supposed to be a one-off event,” says Stuart, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and founder of UK-based Feedback Global. But it was so popular, he planned more.

Wednesday was the organization’s 36th event, and only its second in the U.S.

“These events are really powerful,” says Zia Khan, vice president of initiatives and strategy at The Rockefeller Foundation, which gave a $500,000 grant to Feedback Global. “There are a lot of reports out there that show the analytics of how much food is wasted. These events can help change what we consider normal.”

In the U.S., the event’s message focuses on the low-hanging fruit that organizers see as the country’s next steps for reducing that 40-percent number of food that is never eaten or used here. A recent report also has set a goal of reducing food waste in the U.S. by 50 percent by 2030.

And, in the halls of Congress, Senators Chellie Pingree from Maine and Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut were introducing legislation aimed at curbing food waste. The want to clear up customer confusion surrounding “use by” and “sell by” date labels at supermarkets.

Dominika Jarosz, Feeding the 5000’s campaign manager, says D.C. was a natural location for the team’s second U.S. event because of its proximity to national policymakers — and it was a boon to partner with a handful of organizations that already are pioneering in the food waste space, like DC Central Kitchen.

DC Central Kitchen’s cooks already turn about 2,000 pounds of “underutilized” produce into 5,000 meals each day to relieve hunger in the city, in addition to the 7,000 meals the nonprofit makes for area schools. “Welcome to Feeding the 5,000,” DCCK’s chief executive officer Mike Curtin said as he opened up the event, “Or, as we like to call it at DC Central Kitchen, Wednesday.”

DCCK helped Feeding the 5000 organizers procure produce—600 pounds of sweet potatoes, 400 pounds of eggplant and 200 pounds of parsnips among them—that had been rejected from local retailers or languishing in storage. Local food distributors like Coastal Sunbelt Produce, Lancaster Produce and Hungry Harvest donated vegetables to the event that might have wound up in landfills. Other organizations that help divert food waste to feed the hungry, such as the Capital Area Food Bank and the Campus Kitchens Project, which replicates DCCK's model of food recovery and meal distribution on high school and college campuses across the country, also partnered in the event.

Alexander Moore, DCCK’s chief development officer and the event’s de facto emcee, says Feeding the 5000 can help reduce any stigmas still associated with using imperfect food to produce perfectly good meals. And it helps shine a spotlight on the work his organization and others do every day.

“These are good fruits and vegetables that just haven’t made the cut or the grade to get into the commercial food system,” Moore says.

Food Too "Ugly" to Sell Becomes a Feast for 5,000 People May 19, 2016 - What do you do with thousands of pounds of produce that's perfectly edible but a little blemished? You could throw it out, contributing to the massive food waste problem, which results in a third of the world's food supply going to waste. Or you could collect it, chop it up, and cook it into a meal for 5,000 people. That's what volunteers in Washington, D.C., did as part of the Feeding the 5000 campaign, which has held similar events around the world to draw attention to food waste.

Read more about turning "ugly" vegetables into a feast on National Geographic's The Plate.

The more than 5,000 people that wandered through the event space also got a taste of food-waste creations from some of D.C.’s favorite celebrity chefs. José Andrés’ and chefs from his Think Food Group stirred two, seven-foot-wide pans of fragrant paella as he riffed from the event’s stage on the need to end food waste in this country. “Here we are eating food that would have ended up in some pile somewhere,” Andrés said.

Spike Mendelsohn, a chef and chairman of D.C.’s newly christened Food Policy Council, said chefs have to demonstrate at events like this and in their restaurants that this food can be turned into delicious meals. On stage, he turned beef hearts from a Virginia meat processor into a food waste-based “kitchen sink chili.”

“It all goes back to awareness,” says Mendelsohn, whose Miami fast-casual restaurant, Sunny’s, turns leftover pulp from juicing and farro from breakfast bowls into a veggie burger. “Once it’s in your Rolodex to use this food, you practice it in daily life."

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