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Stop Food Waste: How Plant-Based Eating Can Help

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I was recently at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim interviewing businesses about their new products.

On opening night, I watched a film called “Just Eat It!” I highly recommend checking out this documentary. It’s about the multi-billion dollar food waste problem in the United States. You won’t believe how much “good, safe, and unopened” food goes to the landfill.

This interview is with Robert Egger, the CEO of L.A. Kitchen. He successfully started a kitchen in the DC area and then came back to the West Coast to launch this one.

The kitchen is helping a lot of hungry people and it’s not only feeding the homeless. Check out the video to find out what you can do to help stop food waste. Also, learn why the plant-based diet is the most sustainable for our world.

Learn more about the L.A. Kitchen.

Image by Laura from Pixabay


Please excuse the typos and punctuation errors. This transcript was completed by AI voice-generation software.

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
Households is still one of the major sources of food waste.

Phoebe Chongchua:
Welcome to The Plant-Based Diet. I’m Phoebe Chongchua, where we’re planting seeds for a lifetime of healthy living. Thanks for tuning in. Today we’re talking about something very important in this episode. It is all about food waste, and this is a very significant problem in the United States. We’re going to tackle that today. In fact, it is a multi-billion dollar problem in the United States. The US spends 218 billion a year growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never even eaten. That’s according to Reed, a collaborative of more than 30 businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and government leaders who are committed to reducing United States food waste in our country. I was just at the Natural Products Expo West 2016 in Anaheim, and I saw a fabulous documentary called Just Eat It. I highly recommend that you check it out. It follows a couple that decides to eat nothing but food waste for six months.
So they go dumpster diving and they find tons of food. Now, I’m not talking about the fast food that you throw out in the trash can or something like that. I’m talking about literally packages and packages of unopened food that is fine to eat. So they live on this and it’s amazing what you see in this documentary, how much food is waste. You will be horrified when you see some of the scenes. It’ll make you think twice about scraping your plate and just dumping the food in the trash can or down the garbage disposal. Highly recommend that you check it out. My guest today is Robert Egger, the CEO of LA Kitchen. He’s creating a movement in Los Angeles with a new nonprofit that helps address several growing problems, including food waste, hunger issues, especially within low income groups and seniors and the unemployment rate.
Robert is no stranger to food kitchen programs. He pioneered the model of LA Kitchen during his 24 year tenure as the president of the DC Central Kitchen, the country’s first community kitchen where food donated by hospitality businesses and farms is used to fuel a nationally recognized culinary arts job training program. Now, since its opening in 1989, the DC Central Kitchen has produced over 26 million meals and helped 1000 men and women gain full-time employment. The kitchen also operates its own revenue generating business, fresh start catering, as well as the campus kitchen programs, which coordinate similar recycling meal programs in 33 colleges or high school-based kitchens. Welcome to the show, Robert. I’m so excited to have you on. Robert, let’s start off by talking about how serious is food waste. I talked about it being multi-billions of dollars that are spent on the industry, but how big really is the food waste problem within the US and globally?

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
Well, in the US in the west, it’s probably the most pronounced. I mean, in the United States, it’s estimated that about 40% of the food we produce every day and it really let that sink in. That’s a gargantuan figure, but half of that is fruits and vegetables that are usually just cosmetically imperfect. So what you have again, is some of the most beautiful freshest food in the world, and particularly here in California, being dissed under because it’s bent, broken, bruised, overripe, under rippe or sometimes just too expensive to go out and get. For example, we heard today about the example of the celery that in effect, the growers will go out and pull off five or six stocks and cut it off, and you’ll get that classic kind of the thing you buy in the store. But those stocks are on the ground now, what a waste. But the reality is how do we actually, from an economic perspective, go and get those stocks? So this is one of the things that many of us are focused on. How can we really get into the mechanics of food prevention versus the kind of emotional tug of it’s so wrong, it’s like cool, it’s wrong? Yes, but how do we actually fundamentally make something happen?

Phoebe Chongchua:
We often think of it as the homeless are the ones that are actually starving or going hungry, but you say that there’s others that are suffering as well. Tell me about that.

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
There’s a lot of residual impact of hunger. Now, again, it’s important to say that you’d be hard pressed to find really severe hunger in a large scale way in America, but what you have is this kind of nagging hunger that erodes our productivity at work. It erodes children’s ability to function well. It keeps seniors instead of living vibrant lives in the hospital. So what you have is a whole litany of people who don’t have enough at any given month to make it through the entire month without wondering where’s the next meal going to come from? So right now, the primary face of hunger is going to be a single mom with a kid or two working one or two jobs. But if she’s working on an hourly wage job, it’s going to be really, really tough to make it to the end of the month without some kind of support. More and more and more. Sadly, you’re going to see older Americans, people who didn’t have enough money saved or they lost their retirement in oh eight. But you have a lot of people who’ve grown up thinking it’ll somehow be magically in America and you’re just going to have thousands, millions of older people, or just the money’s going to run out.

Phoebe Chongchua:
Well, we look at something like this, it’s very easy to start pointing the finger and thinking that it’s the big corporations that are to blame. But you tell us that really, we’ve all got a hand in this and we’re all responsible for food waste.

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
We’re all at fault here. I mean, for example, restaurants only have a huge amount of food, but it’s because Americans really want these enormous plates of food. I mean, if restaurants offer smaller portions, there’s no data to show that customers will come. People really genuinely seem to want this excess. It’s the buffet construct. So restaurants throw away a lot, but not as much as you think. They’ve got more and more sophisticated about this grocery stores major source of this. And of course there’s a lot of work on the expiration date. Households is still one of the major sources of food waste people because unlike Europe where people in the shop, they shop that day for the food, they’re going to cook that night American shop once a week to fill up our big refrigerators. This is a big part of it. We’ve had these big refrigerators in our homes and we feel the need to fill them up. And so what you have is a predictable amount of food you’re just never going to get to, and we’re all a little bit guilty of that.

Phoebe Chongchua:
This is something that many people don’t seem to understand. A lot of the food is simply thrown out from commercial entities such as big restaurants and corporations, grocery stores. Why isn’t this food being donated,

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
Right? I mean, it’s legitimate while people are shielded from libel unless it’s a case of gross negligence. So somebody might make the case that if somebody picked up meat in a station wagon in a 90 degree day and no one stopped and said, where’s this going? How quickly are you getting in refrigeration that might be construed as gross negligence? So what many of us did in the 1990s is we really invested in refrigerated vehicles, and we said, for example, all our drivers are certified food handlers. We’ll provide containers. We’ll show up when it’s convenient for you. We’ll write tax deductible receipts based on weight. Again, we’ll put it into refrigerated vehicles. In the case of the DC Central Kitchen, we were ooking everything to 1 65, which kills most pathogens. So it really is creating, I think, an atmosphere of professionalism that makes a business feel like, okay, these people are professionals.
I trust that they’re going to handle it well. Again, we have a society that after 1940, we had such an explosive economy. It created this false sense of we have so much, it doesn’t matter. And I think now we’re having to reimagine what does it mean in America when we don’t have the extra we did, and we have to readjust, I think, to I think more reasonable portions, more reasonable purchasing. It is going to be very clumsy. You don’t see very many politicians talking openly about the fact that the American economy has shifted, that we can’t afford to throw away all that we do, and not just food, but think about it, clothes, electronics, we were people. Total waste. We throw everything away because everything else is cheap. And I think that era in which we could afford this has really changed, whether it’s from an ecological standpoint, an economic standpoint, a social standpoint, you can make a case, even a religious standpoint. We’ve reached the point where I think we have to look really hard at ourselves and determine what’s the new diet going to be, and it doesn’t necessarily have to hurt.

Phoebe Chongchua:
Robert, you had such a successful career in dc. What brought you back to California?

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
Well, I grew up in Southern California, so there’s a great sense of return, and it really, I think, nurtured the man. I became the Southern California culture, and in particular, I was 10 in 1968 when Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and that had a profound impact on me. So a lot of the work I’ve done began then, but I tend to be kind of an amateur futurist. What are the trends? What are the things coming? So instead of being caught flatfooted, I kind of see who’s next at the bottom of the totem pole in America, or more importantly, where’s the food going to come from to feed those men and women? So California is both supply and demand. You have an unlimited supply of fruits and vegetables because California is the major producer of America’s fruits and vegetables. And because again, half of the food we throw away is merely cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables.
It’s the perfect spot. But in enough, Los Angeles County is home to the largest concentration of older people living in poverty. We always think of it as Hollywood and youth, but it’s actually a huge number, almost 1.25 million people over 65 now, and the number will double in 10 years. So supply and demand is here, but LA will also be an early outpost of a generation of older people to be really nutritionally sophisticated. They’re going to want vegetarian, they’re going to want vegan. They’re going to have a real clear sense in their own mind of what they want, but even if they don’t, their doctors will be talking more about it. Their kids will be talking to ’em about it, their grandkids. So everything I think is leading towards this moment where you’re going to see a real exciting opportunity to take food that would’ve been thrown away, fruits and vegetables, to create a job training program and an employment opportunity so that men and women can learn skills while they chop up donated product, but then get a job in a business that buys fruits and vegetables from farmers at a reduced price and then goes out to do contracts, whether it’s school foods, senior meals for the idea of locally sourced, scratch cooked meals that support local farmers, keep people out of prison, provide healthier, more beautiful meals, but profit never leaves town.
It gets reinvested in either wages for employees or back into the job training program. But it’s the idea of taking seniors out on curated grocery trips or the farmer’s markets where you can start to say, you have a very limited budget. Let’s go out shopping together and with chefs or even men and women from our job training program, and let’s vigorously explore how you can stretch your meal. I love to do intergenerational. I think this is the future. I want to see old and young together at every opportunity because in the agriculture, it was older people’s jobs to kind of tell the legends, the stories of family, to teach manners, to talk about a million different things. And I just think we’ve lost that. And so that’s a big part of what I want to do is just put young and old together. So whether it’s an afterschool program, whether it’s a cooking demo, whether it’s the way we deliver food, I mean, I’d love to see more and more places put old and young together in a place where people can eat together.

Phoebe Chongchua:
Robert, I know that you’re a fan of the plant-based diet, and I know that you are also a fan of bringing in different cultures and ethnicities, especially when it comes to food and meal planning. Tell us a little bit more about that. Why is that so important?

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
The largest concentration of Iranians, Armenians, south Koreans, people from all over the world, yet we feed people a homogenous western meal construct. So the idea of being able to explore not only plant-based, but as you start to wean older people, gently courteously respectfully over this divide of thinking, meat has to be part of everything and start to tilt towards plant. The vibrant flavors of world cultures can really be a tremendous ally

Phoebe Chongchua:
When we look to the future. Robert, you have said that plant-based is the way to go. You say that that’s economically and socially essential. Why

Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen:
Most food interesting enough is based on federal reimbursement, school foods, prison foods, all that stuff, and it calls for three ounces of protein. But America really hasn’t realized that they can’t feed this many older people. A senior meal based on a protein diet just doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable. It’s certainly not healthy, and it’s too expensive. So again, this idea of shifting people towards plant-based is economically essential. It’s socially essential. But what’s funny is I assumed that LA would be an early adapter city, and it will be, but already of the seniors we work with, 25% are already asking for vegetarian. I was shocked by that. I thought that would be five, 10 years out already, you’re seeing the early indication of people who are open to a meat free diet. Now, again, I still enjoy meat, but I just think the idea is meat as part of a meal, not the meal.

Phoebe Chongchua:
Robert goes on to say that there are a lot of things that we can do to improve the situation, and there’s simple things like composting, shopping with a grocery list so that you’re able to see exactly what you need instead of buying too much of a particular item and then ending up throwing it out. So a few simple things can make a big difference in the food waste problem. If you’d like to learn more, visit the plant-based diet.com, and again, thank you to Robert for being on the show. Until next time, eat fit. Keep fit, and live fit.


Phoebe Chongchua is a multimedia brand journalist who consults and writes on wellness, all things plant-based, fitness, lifestyle, and travel. She is yoga certified and earned her certificate in Whole Food Plant-Based Eating in 2010 through eCornell and the T. Colin Campbell Foundation. She's also a top podcaster for her marketing/storytelling podcast, The Brand Journalism Advantage at ThinkLikeAJournalist.com

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