The Food Recovery Hierarchy developed by the Environmental Protection Agency shows how to take steps to conserve resources.
by Christine Burns Rudalevige
Portland Press Herald column
As my kids moved through their middle school health classes, I followed the USDA’s transition from the food pyramid to the MyPlate illustration as the tool of choice for teaching young eaters – and all Americans – about the building blocks of a healthy diet.
But it wasn’t until last month’s Feeding 5000 event in Portland that I learned about another triangular paradigm, this one championed by advocates of reducing food waste. Mark King of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection introduced the concept to me at the event, where hundreds of volunteers fed thousands of eaters with food gleaned from Maine farms.
The Food Recovery Hierarchy, developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is visually represented by an inverted pyramid. The triangle provides a framework to help municipalities, institutions, corporations and restaurants decrease the amount of perfectly good food they now toss into trash cans. As King explained the hierarchy’s layers, I mentally scaled them down to fit my own kitchen.
King said the most effective way to reduce waste is at the source. For us home cooks, that means buying only what we need and have plans to use immediately. If you can, buy seconds – ugly or bruised produce that may not look perfect but is perfectly edible – so that waste isn’t pushed further down the pyramid.
If you buy too much in spite of your best efforts not to, the next step in the hierarchy lies in diverting edible food to food banks and rescue programs. While individuals can readily hand off surplus canned goods, donating fresh, more perishable food is complicated by food safety issues.
Instead, home cooks can process perishable goods – vegetables into pureed soups or extra dairy items into macaroni and cheese – that can feed hungry, shut-in neighbors. Have a look around. There are more neighbors in need than you may think.
When feeding people is not possible, feeding animals is the next best option. I can offload a few bits of leftover people food to my black Lab and hound mix, Theo, but only as an occasional treat, not as a solution to curb my family’s overall food waste. If you’ve got chickens or pigs, you’ve got a more reliable outlet at this level than I do.
Commercial kitchens can tap into a growing number of services that turn food scraps into biogas and spent cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. A household biogas system, like those sold by HomeBiogas, runs about $1,000 and converts food waste and animal manure into enough clean gas to cook three meals and produce 10 liters of clean natural liquid fertilizer daily.
Mainers can tap into Maine Standard Biofuels’ biodiesel conversion program by dropping off used cooking oil at its Ingersoll Street location in Portland, checking with a local transfer station to see if it supports the service, or putting the oil out with a Garbage-to-Garden curbside compost bucket for home collection.
The last step in the hierarchy is composting. With much ado, last spring I gave into decades-long pressure from my in-laws to compost, joining the WeCompostIt! fold.
Before I took up composting, I was very diligent about adhering to what I now know to be the higher levels of the food waste hierarchy. But since, I’ve been more lax, pitching usable scraps into the bucket before first considering how to repurpose them.
Thanks to King and his explanation of the Food Recovery Hierarchy, now I have a better visual of where composting should fit into my own efforts to waste less food.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester, and a cooking teacher in Brunswick.
I developed this recipe out of laziness, really. I wanted gratin potatoes but I had no gruyere cheese and only a quarter cup of cream, and I really didn’t want to go to the grocery store. So I improvised to make do with what I had on hand. All that went into the compost bin while making this recipe were the garlic skins.
1 cup grated nutty cheese (Gruyere, Swiss, Comte or any local Alpine variety)
1/2 cup grated salty cheese (Parmesan, Romano, Grana Padano or any local hard cheese)
2 cups of something creamy (cream, half and half, or an equal mixture of milk and sour cream, crème fraîche or mascarpone cheese)
2 tablespoons chopped hearty fresh herb (thyme, rosemary, parsley, sage or savory)
2 garlic cloves, grated or very finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
5 large potatoes (white, yellow or sweet), scrubbed
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Grease the bottom and sides of a 12-inch cast iron pan. (I just spread around the solidified bacon grease left in mine from breakfast.)
Combine the cheeses in a large bowl. Set aside 1/3 of the mixture in a small bowl. Mix the remaining cheese with 2 cups of something creamy, the herbs, garlic, salt and pepper. Use a mandolin to slice the potatoes into 1/8 inch-thick rounds. Drop the slices into the creamy mixture and coat them well.
Pick up a handful of the dressed slices and loosely stack them in your hands. Arrange the stack on its side along the edge of the pan. Repeat the process so the slices are arranged in concentric circles in the cast iron pan. Pour any of the creamy mixture remaining in the bowl over the potatoes. Cover the pan tightly with tin foil if it doesn’t have a cover and bake the potatoes for 30 minutes. Remove the cover, sprinkle with the reserved cheese and bake for another 30 minutes until the cheese is golden, the potatoes tender and the creamy mixture bubbly. Let the gratin rest for 15 minutes before serving.