McLean County Farmers, Charities Combat Food Waste | WGLT

McLean County Farmers, Charities Combat Food Waste

Jun 27, 2018

As an environmentally conscious owner of three farm-to-table restaurants in McLean County, chef Ken Myszka hates to throw out any food.

“Most kitchens that I go in that I’m not managing, I see so much waste just from neglect of not taking the 30 seconds to scrape out the pan,” Myszka said.

Myszka symbolizes this through what he calls a $1 million spatula. It's an exaggeration he admits but the point is clear: Don't waste a single drop.

“If you do a good job scraping out all the pots and pans every time you make a recipe and every time you change a container with a spatula, then over the life of that spatula, that thing could be worth up to $1 million,” Myzska said.

Ken Myszka says most of the produce served at his restaurants is one- or two-day fresh.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

Myszka conveys his food waste mantra to his customers. His servers write the date on customers' carryout boxes so they have a reminder of how long they have to eat it.

He said limiting food waste is especially challenging when working with raw produce, which typically has a one-week shelf life. 

Whether it's pork, eggs or radishes, anything that's been sitting for more than a few days ends up in what he calls the family meal, which happens daily at each of his restaurants, Epiphany Farms and Anju Above in Bloomington and Old Bank in LeRoy, and his farm in Downs.

Staff prepares a meal for all of his 165 employees with the food that's showing some age but is still good. Myszka said that keeps the food for his customers the freshest, and there's an added benefit.

“It’s the base of our culture,” Myszka said. “It’s like a happy family sits down and has a meal together and they have a conversation, they get to know each other and they enjoy a meal and that is really what this is all about.”

Charities

The National Resource Defense Council estimates up to 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, even though 1 in 8 Americans struggles to put enough food on the table.

And food waste isn't just a problem in restaurants. It's a major issue for grocery stores.

Mike Hoffman, logistics director of Midwest Food Bank in Normal, said we the consumers are largely to blame.

“If you go to the grocery store and have two pieces of fruit in front of you, one has a slight blemish on it and the other one doesn’t have any blemishes on it, we’re all going to take the one that’s perfect,” Hoffman said. “We like everything really nice, right?”

It's gotten to the point, Hoffman said, stores will turn away entire truckloads of apples, for example, because some look less than perfect, perhaps proving the old adage that one bad apple really can spoil a whole barrel.

“It boils down to you and me, the average consumer, who is saying, ‘Look there really isn’t anything wrong with this fruit,’ but we all want the best,” Hoffman said. “That’s kind of the way we are in America. We’ve been groomed that way.”

That's where agencies like Midwest Food Bank step in. Food haulers who are turned away from the stores will deliver their still perfectly good produce to the food bank and its new 100,000-square-foot warehouse, where it gets repackaged into family-size containers that can feed families for weeks.

Several dozen food banks in McLean County come in weekly to pick up truckloads of food to deliver to families in need. It's an effort that relies heavily on volunteers. Midwest volunteers put in 220,000 hours of free labor at each of its eight locations in the United States and Kenya, all so that good food doesn't go to waste while many go hungry.

“There’s a lot of waste out there and we are recovering as much as we can,” Hoffman said. “I’m just thankful for the food that’s in this warehouse that can go out that way because that’s something that’s not going into the landfill, that’s not getting wasted and in the bigger picture, we are serving people in need.”

Veggie Oasis

There are other charities which help to redistribute food that might otherwise be destined for the landfill.

Isaac Simmons is a volunteer for the Veggie Oasis. Each week he and other volunteers arrive at the end of Bloomington's weekly farmers market, hauling a wheelbarrow, offering to take the merchants' leftover produce to give to families in need. He says he saw firsthand how many families were struggling with access to healthy food when he worked at the market last year.

“That kind of woke me up to the food insecurity of Bloomington-Normal,” Simmons said.

Simmons, a junior business and religion major at Illinois Wesleyan, said he often leaves with up to three wheelbarrows full of prepared food, fruits and vegetables.

“I feel amazing about it but I try not to put how I feel about it into it because it’s really just something that should happen normally,” Simmons conceded.

That food is then delivered to the West Bloomington Revitalization Project offices, where it's placed on tables outside for anyone to take, no questions asked.

The donations are typically gone within an hour.

Toni Milewski of Bloomington said the Veggie Oasis has given her family the opportunity to have a healthier diet.

“It’s a great help to us. It’s really cut our food budget,” Milewski said. “It allows us to spend money on other things we need. It allows us to try new foods without being out much money.”

The mother of three is often amused by what her three pre-teens want to take home and try, like okra, eggplant and a Mexican turnip called jicama.

“They pick whatever they want and they pick some pretty adventurous stuff and then we get home and have to figure out how to prepare it and how to cook it,” Milewski said. “We’ve found a lot of new things we’ve tried to make part of our regular diet, like kale chips which was a popular one.”

Armando Baez tends to a garden at his Bloomington home. He donates much of the produce to the Veggie Oasis.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

Therein lies the challenge for some families—knowing what to do with foods with which they have little familiarity.

Armando Baez works for the West Bloomington Revitalization Project and has created what you would call an urban farm at his home just a few blocks east of downtown Bloomington. It's where he grows everything from cucumbers and tomatoes to snap peas and amaranth, a leaf vegetable similar to kale.

The challenge, Baez said, is educating families on how to prepare certain foods they may have never seen before and to make it in such a way that their children will actually eat it.

“That’s absolutely valid,” Baez said. “There still has to be some sort of ongoing conversation about how to use this food or what’s a good way to turn this vegetable into something that’s tasty.”

To that end, Veggie Oasis provides menu cards to aid the uninitiated and to help ensure that produce doesn't go to waste.

Education

So how big a problem is food waste? Erin Kennedy, manager of the Center for Healthy Lifestyles at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center, notes a study which said Americans spend $218 billion planting, growing and hauling foods that ever gets eaten, even though 48 million in the U.S. are food insecure.

“That’s not just in other states. That’s right here on our community right in Bloomington, right in Chenoa, the two cities that struggle the most in McLean County with food insecurity,” Kennedy said. “It’s happening.”

That was based on a recent study done by the McLean County Wellness Coalition, a group of business, health and social services agencies which formed about a decade ago to address issues such as food insecurity, obesity and other health concerns. 

Kennedy said we are often a victim of our own disposable culture. She said education might help prevent us from being so wasteful.

“If you use the sniff test and that’s the non-educational way of saying it, but think about the ‘sell by’, ‘use by’, ‘best by’ labels on food and really understand what those mean,” Kennedy said.

A local food safety expert agrees. Linda Foutch is a food program supervisor with the McLean County Health Department.

“There aren’t many true expiration dates based on (Food and Drug Administration) food code,” Foutch said.

Foutch's mission is food safety, and even she believes we are too quick to dispose of food that's perfectly fine.

“I understand that, especially when you see that people die from food poisoning and food-borne illness, (there are) hospitalizations and death,” Foutch said.

Foutch acknowledges there are serious food safety risks that are being ignored in some circles, such as drinking unpasteurized milk, which is blamed for a recent e-coli outbreak at a Tennessee daycare.

She added there are no regulations against grocery stores or restaurants donating unused food to charities. One exception, she said, is state law prevents home canned goods from being served at a permitted facility because of the risk for botulism, a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves and can be fatal.

Foutch said when it comes to taking donated food, it's receiver beware, noting she recently told a local pantry it should throw out a package of raw meat that was donated in a trash bag.

“Garbage bags are for garbage. They are not food grade. They are made from a recycled plastic that can leech those chemicals that were in that plastic into the food,” Foutch said.

Cottage Food Act

Food waste is often a struggle for farmers. Katie Bishop and her husband, Hans, both left State Farm Insurance in Bloomington within the last decade to work on his family farm in Atlanta known as PrairiErth.

Katie Bishop of PrairiErth weighs a broccoli floret for a customer at the Bloomington farmers market.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

She said one of their customers’ favorite crops is heirloom tomatoes—and a majority of them to go waste.

“Up to 60 percent just end up in the compost or in my kitchen to use because I can’t sell them,” Bishop said. “They are so fragile they’ll crack or split and if we don’t sell them. We don’t have a cannery that we can just take them to process them that way."

Changes to the state's Illinois Cottage Food Act which took effect in January give producers a chance to re-purpose their crops such as canning or freezing them or converting them into a jelly or sauce that they can sell to the public at their farm or at a market.

Bishop said that has helped them salvage perfectly good produce that might otherwise go to waste and help them expand their business.

“A lot of this stuff is the less-than-perfects, the things that people won’t want to buy but are still delicious and wonderful,” she said.  

Bishop added her most environmentally-conscious customers will seek out the less-than-perfect produce because she said they know they taste best.

“Our greens might have little holes in it from the bugs that have chewed on it or the broccoli might have a little worm in it,” Bishop said. “There’s definitely a perception of a lack of quality, but I think it’s actually the opposite.”

PrairiErth is in the process of creating a food hub, a giant freezer being built on its farm that will enable to it to store and distribute produce from other regional farmers who don't have the means for larger distribution on their own.

Bobby and Brandy Hansen of Normal credit the Cottage Food Act with growing their hobby into a business. They married her love of gardening with his love of hot peppers into something that took off beyond their wildest dreams.

"It's like they are your children. You raised them from seed and now all of the sudden you are going to waste it? When somebody can use it, why do that?"

“When we first started out, I thought it was just a fluke,” Brandy Hansen said. “Our friends (would say), ‘Yeah it’s good,’ but when people kept coming back and saying, ‘Are you going to have some sauces again this year,' and then we’re like OK, maybe we’ve got something here.” 

The couple grows hot peppers at a farm in LeRoy, but Bobby said the hottest of the hot, including the ghost peppers and Fataliis, are grown in their backyard so he can keep a close eye on them.

After initially exploring whether it was worth renting space at a commercial kitchen to create a hot sauce business and realizing it was too expensive, they saw the state law had changed that allowed them to sell the sauce.

Until that time, they had been selling only the peppers at the Bloomington farmers market and would have to throw away what they didn't sell.

“At the end we had a while glut of other things and it was like what are we going to do with the rest of these peppers,” she said. “Rather than compost them, we made them into a final sauce called Season Finale.”

Bobby Hansen, who works as a computer technician for District 87 schools in Bloomington, said that means no good pepper goes to waste.

“As long as the pepper doesn’t die on the vine so to speak, we can use almost every single one of them,” he said.

Brandy Hansen said the cottage food revisions have not only helped she and her husband grow a business that she hopes will soon pay for itself, it also helps them be better stewards of their own land.

"That makes me happy because it makes me sad when I have to throw a bunch of peppers away,” Brandy Hansen said. “It’s like they are your children, you raised them from seed and now all of the sudden you are going to waste it? When somebody can use it, why do that?”

Brandy admits she's more than just a hot sauce maker, she's also become a fan.

“I like them hot now,” she said.”I’ll eat something and (think), you know this doesn’t really please me and then I’m like, ‘Ah this needs some hot sauce!'"

While these efforts are encouraging to the environmentally conscious, there's still a long way to go. The U.S. throws out close to 91 billion kilograms of food per year, more than the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Sweden combined. That's according to the 2017 Food Sustainability Index compiled by the British kitchen retailer Magnet.

The U.S., however, is not the worst when it comes to wasting food. While the average American tosses close to 300 kilos of food in the trash every year, Australians dispose of more than 360 kilos of trash on average. Sweden isn't much better than the U.S.

The most conscientious about food waste were Greece, China, India and Russia.

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