Q&A: Why we need to stop throwing out food and start thinking of it as a resource

Placing compost in containers.
(L.A. Compost)

Next Tuesday, volunteers will be holding a “Disco Chop” party at L.A. Kitchen, a culinary arts training program that utilizes recovered fresh fruit and vegetables, busily chopping mounds of fruits and vegetables to music — with maybe some disco balls for added effect. It’s just part of the preparation for the first Los Angeles Feeding the 5000 event May 4, culminating in a free feast made entirely from fresh produce and meant to highlight the global issue of food waste. In addition to chopping, volunteers will also be working with L.A. Compost to collect and compost trimmings and leftovers.

L.A. Compost began in 2013, originally as a food waste diversion service. The crew would collect and transport food scraps, leaves, paper and other organic material from restaurants, homes and schools to locally-created compost centers, often in community supporters’ backyards. Within five months, 30,000 pounds of usable compost was diverted from landfills. Soon, L.A. Compost shifted from collecting to creating local compost hubs, with eight community compost hubs located throughout Los Angeles County. Recently, I spoke with Michael Martinez, executive director at L.A. Compost.

Often, we don’t realize we’re throwing out perfectly good food. What are some of the most common items you see discarded — and is there anything simple we could be doing differently?

I may not be the best person to talk to in terms of repurposing food, but I will say that when we teach composting workshops, we take it as a top-down approach. Composting, for us, is the last line of defense — food should go back to feeding people first before it goes in the compost bin.

It starts at the grocery store: Plan out your meals before you shop, understand exactly what it is you need and start from there. Often we buy in bulk only to have things go bad — or assume they’re bad — and toss them away, creating this revolving door of messiness. We try to get people to think smart when they’re shopping, and if and when there is an occasion where something actually goes bad, how do we repurpose it?

As for items, we often get a lot of stone fruit and a lot of citrus — materials that are, in my opinion, perfectly edible, but because of a bruise, or a blemish are discarded. It’s so easy and convenient for us to toss these materials away and not have to think about them this way.

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We have to change our thinking.

We have to change that mentality from “This is trash. How do I get rid of it?” to “This is a resource.” It’s a bit of a cultural shift and mind shift that needs to take place. But we feel these shifts happen more quickly and completely when they’re done in a community setting or with a neighbor, because it’s less overwhelming.

What if I’ve never composted?

Start with something. Just take that small step and then build from that. Don’t jump in and buy a tumbler or composting system that you may not know how to use or can’t afford. Learning is always in the doing, and I encourage people to read about it or watch videos.

I always encourage people to do what works for them. Composting is a wide spectrum, and it can be a little intimidating if one assumes it requires a pitchfork and a lot of time. We encourage people to start slow, or try with a neighbor. We also have compost hubs in places like churches, schools, museums, community gardens — places throughout Los Angeles. We create the infrastructure for the communities to compost together.

I see composting as a way to bring people together to create communities that think of others, and really appreciate and propel the whole story of food.

— Michael Martinez, executive director, L.A. Compost

If there’s one thread unifying all of the issues of food waste — from the farm to composting — it’s that sense of community and and an awareness that we’re all part of the food chain.

Being a part of something bigger than yourself puts everything in perspective. In Los Angeles, it’s so easy to get disconnected because of the sheer size and number of people that are here. For us, it’s about recapturing the excitement of communities and spaces and public areas for people to understand the good that is happening, as well as the power of food.

What are some of the negative impacts of food waste, and how does composting combat this?

First you have to look at how much time, energy and resources actually go into growing food. There’s this statistic that about 40% of all food grown gets tossed. A huge amount of work, water and power goes into growing food that’s often then transported very far to get to a restaurant or store only to not be sold, or to be purchased and then wasted. On the environmental side, yes, there are greenhouse gasses that are released in landfills. But it’s also the haulers and trucks that often haul food great distances.

On the issue of the environment, it’s also about soil. Our soils are poor and not porous, and they don’t have the spongelike quality that good soil has. Compost has the ability to store water well, so when it rains the water doesn’t just run off back into the ocean. It also helps sequester carbon through photosynthesis and helps to build nutrient-dense plants. It does a lot more than just smell pretty and grow good strawberries.

Is the composting movement gaining traction?

With composting, the conversation is growing and gaining strength. I feel that in the past few years, everyone is really interested in knowing where their food comes from, how it’s grown and how it’s labeled, but there are very few conversations in regards to the after-the-table experience, when the food no longer serves — in our minds — a valid purpose.

We want to encourage people to understand the entire story of food, because when we do, we appreciate it a bit more, in all of its stages.

Chefs and scientists will discuss solutions for tackling the global problem of food waste at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, beginning May 1. For a full schedule of events, click here.

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Twitter: @noellecarter


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