Feeding the 5,000 Addresses Food Waste With Free Meals in Union Square

Chefs stir the pot for Feeding the 5,000 in Milan.
Chefs stir the pot for Feeding the 5,000 in Milan.
Photo courtesy Feedback

Every year, $218 billion worth of food is wasted in the United States.

Estimates claim that up to 63 million tons of perfectly safe food finds its way not onto plates, but into massive landfills, where it rots and spews out greenhouse gases like methane. Yet approximately 49 million Americans live in food-insecure homes. It appears not much has changed since Steinbeck's days.

"It's kind of staggering that we haven't addressed this issue before," says Chris Hunt, special advisor on food and agriculture for GRACE Communications Foundation. "We can use that food that we're just throwing away."

To bring more attention on the issue, Feedback — a U.K.-based environmental nonprofit dedicated to ending waste throughout the food system — has started its U.S. campaign. On Tuesday, May 10, the organization and its partners (including the Rockefeller Foundation, NRDC, EPA, GRACE Communications, and dozens more) will be hosting the first New York City Feeding the 5,000 event on the north end of Union Square, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The one-day food festival is aimed at educating the public about waste by providing 5,000 random individuals with free meals. The dishes will be entirely composed of fresh ingredients that would have been trashed — collected from farms, wholesalers, and food retailers. The dishes will be devised with Feedback and the chefs on the ground, supported by Liz Neumark's Great Performances Team and Drexel Food Lab.

Well-known NYC toques, like Dan Barber of Blue Hill, will be there offering support. Anti-waste advocates will be on-site giving talks. Live demos by Slow Food NYC's Jeneé Grannum, Jason Weiner of Almond, and Egg's Evan Hanczor will cover subjects including composting and cooking to reduce waste.

"Worldwide, there is growing recognition of the colossal problem of avoidable and unnecessary food waste. Thankfully, there is also a growing awareness of the menu of delicious solutions that exist to tackle it," Feedback founder Tristram Stuart says in a statement. "Feeding the 5000 events are designed to celebrate these efforts while simultaneously empowering the general public to make informed decisions about buying and using food, and to demand change from the food industry. Supermarkets in particular must recognize that it's no longer acceptable to discard food in dumpsters and cause farmers to waste crops while people go hungry. It's up to us — the public — to recognize that every forkful, trip to the fridge, or visit to a grocery store is an opportunity to take a stand against food waste."

Since 2009, Feedback has hosted over 34 "guerilla-style" Feeding the 5,000 events, in cities ranging from Dublin and Amsterdam to Paris and Milan. "Tristram Stewart literally wrote the book on food waste," says Hunt, who is an expert on domestic food waste. "Our hope is that Feeding the 5,000 will continue to raise awareness on the magnitude of food waste in the U.S."

Over the past half-decade, European nations have been working to decrease waste. With the help of Feedback, other nonprofits, and governmental efforts, the U.K. has reduced household food waste by 21 percent. In February, France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food, forcing grocery stores to donate leftovers to charity instead.

Hunt recently consulted on a ReFed report on food waste. It found that in the U.S., food waste consumes 21 percent of all fresh water, 21 percent of landfill volume, 19 percent of all fertilizer, and 18 percent of cropland. And yet, one out of every seven Americans is food insecure.

That waste comes at a cost. Hunt says the average family of four wastes somewhere between $1,300 and $2,300 per year. Highlighting a list of solutions — ranging from consumer education campaigns and smaller plates to standardized date labeling, packaging adjustments, and donation logistics — ReFed found it could create $10 billion in economic benefits, 15 million jobs, substantial reductions in emissions, as well as save water and other natural resources.

The hope is to reduce U.S. food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. "The issue has emerged in the public consciousness," says Hunt. "There's really great agreement about the fact we need to move forward and tackle this."

While there's still a long way to go in creating a more sustainable, less wasteful food system, chefs and restaurateurs have recently started bringing the issue to the forefront of gastronomic consciousness. Barber featured a two-week pop-up, WastED, at his Greenwich Village restaurant in March 2015. Barber and a team of guest celebrity chefs — like Mario Batali, Enrique Olvera, and Sean Brock — served an entire menu based on ingredients headed to the trash. Fast-casual chain Sweetgreen followed suit with a "WastED" salad created with Blue Hill, highlighting frequently chucked ingredients like carrot ribbons, bread butts, and broccoli stalks and leaves.

Barber wanted to show guests that items that are considered garbage by many home cooks can be (and currently are) used regularly in professional kitchens. He used by-products like oft-discarded skate cartilage, sable skeleton, and juicer pulp. "The inspiration for it is really the idea that chefs, in general, create delicious dishes from things people normally wouldn't eat," Barber tells the Voice. "We call it ravioli and charge seventeen dollars for it; we don't call it waste."

Where Barber's WastED got the media and elite gastronomes talking about waste, Feeding the 5,000 is geared toward the general public — those who do not spend time scouring food blogs or seeking the hottest new restaurants and trends. Organizers have no doubt that individuals interested in food and environmental issues will show up; however, the idea is to attract regular people who just happen to be walking by. "The ultimate goal is to bring the issue to as broad an audience as possible," says Hunt. "It's Union Square on a weekday: I think we'll see tremendous diversity of attendees."


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