Island Thyme

In the past few articles, I’ve talked about why we need to be more aware of how and where to buy our food, and why it’s so important that we consume more local foods. There is another thing we need to do if we are to be self-sustainable here on Vancouver Island – we need to change how wasteful we are with our food. Depending on the studies you follow, the western world wastes between 33% and 39% of its food supply. A good portion of this (20%) is wasted between harvest and the kitchen table – this happens in transport and in spoilage at the grocery store. The remaining 13% – 19% is created from household waste: spoilage and wasteful cooking habits. As astounding as it may seem, this amount of waste has been going on as far back as 1974. Twenty years before that, this sort of waste would have been intolerable to us both personally and as a nation.

Some quick ways to start minimizing one’s own household waste is to save vegetable trimming in the freezer and use them with the Thanksgiving turkey bones for soup stock. The plant matter that is not usable for stock (members of the cabbage family, potatoes and fruit trimmings, for example) can be put into a composter, or given to a local farmer for chicken feed. Any meat trim can also be saved for stock, and the layer of fat that floats to the top of your stock and hardens in the fridge can be pulled off and kept for sautéing your next steak, vegetables for soup or batch of rice pilaf.

Leftovers are another culprit – and the largest segment of household food waste. Cooking only what you need for a day or two alone will go a long way to minimizing food waste. Getting creative with what little leftovers you do have should take care of the rest. Make an omelet with that left over salmon, a soup with the leftover vegetables or a sandwich out of the left over roast. Not only will this use up your leftovers, you will be spending less on groceries.

The amount of edible waste thrown away isn’t the only problem. We live in a high privileged consumer culture with an instant gratification complex. What this translates into is that when most of us want to eat meat, for example, we want quick cooking tender cuts like New York steaks, sirloin or tenderloin. What this means is that the tougher cuts of meats – stewing, braising, etc., get forgotten, ground up or wasted. We need to start using all parts of our food again – bring back the pot roasts, the goulashes and the art of making soup stocks. This culture finds these sorts of things substandard, almost offensive – you don’t invite your neighbors over to dinner and serve them stew – it’s socially unacceptable. James Barber is a local example of someone who spent the better part of his life promoting such "peasant” dishes as being affordable and delicious. These dishes are also environmentally sustainable, and make perfect sense in a world where nobody is home all day – drop a pot roast in your crock-pot with some water and a few vegetables, set it on low and dinner’s ready when you get home from work.

Most people want to do their part to create a sustainable future, but in the big picture, it’s the simple and personal choices we make that will have the largest impact on what happens to us, and our planet. No amount of legislation, government policies or local laws will ever have the impact that small changes in our personal habits could ever achieve.

Chef Sean O’Connell has over 17 years of cooking experience in some of it’s finest establishments. Sean and his wife, Jessica, run Equinox Cafe and Catering in downtown Duncan, a restaurant that focuses on locally grown and produced foods.