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New York City restaurants, nonprofits create tasteful ways to reduce food waste

NYC restaurants, nonprofits create tasteful ways to reduce food waste
NYC restaurants, nonprofits create tasteful ways to reduce food waste 03:12

NEW YORK -- The United Nations says about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans is linked to food.

With that in mind, Blackbarn, a restaurant on East 26th Street in the Flatiron District, is reusing food in innovative ways.

Many dishes are farm-to-table, but there is one in particular that is created from the table to the farm.

"We take all of our food scraps, we send them out for compost, and then from the compost, we get these nice, beautiful mushrooms," said Brian Fowler, executive chef of Blackbarn.

Twice a week, up to eight different kinds of mushrooms are delivered to the restaurant by Peat, a circular farm based in Queens.

Fowler says it transforms organic waste into mushrooms in a matter of weeks.

"So with the compost, they ground this all down to pretty much sawdust and then from the sawdust, they incubate it ... with little spores," said Fowler.  "And from these little spores, we get these nice, beautiful mushrooms."

"We buy the mushrooms back at a reduced cost," said John Doherty, chef-owner of Blackbarn.

New York City restaurants, nonprofits create tasteful ways to reduce food waste - extended version 05:24

Doherty built a reputation cooking for the most presidents and world leaders as executive chef at Waldorf Astoria hotel for more than two decades.

He's taken several steps to combat waste including having staff reuse stale bread that's made in house for croutons and bread pudding, utilize fish stock for soup, repurpose empty wine bottles to serve water, and slice wine boxes and use each wooden slab as a rustic serving plate for apple cider donut desserts.

"I think it all started by looking to save energy cost," said Doherty.  "I hate waste. It just bothers me."

The U.N. estimates that 1.3 tons of edible food is wasted each year. Most of it ends up in greenhouse gas-producing landfills or incinerators. Scientists say around 85% of food is not composted, which results in 8% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

"I've seen estimates stating that 30% of food can be wasted either before it arrives to the consumer or on its way from retail to the customer or after, afterwards because of spoilage," said William Hlubik, professor of agriculture at Rutgers University and head of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

At the Extension, he says researchers are applying for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Grant to build a geothermal greenhouse that would rely on soil and water below ground for energy.

"So we're actually using the energy that's already there to keep the plants alive," said Hlubik.  "Getting those plants to people so that then they can produce food. We can expand our, what are called 'Rows for the Hungry' areas."

Some restaurants have been focusing on only buying from local farms and then stretching some of those ingredients for as long as possible.

"We use all the trimmings for all of our burger grind so that all our burgers are zero waste," said Nate Ashton, executive chef at Gab's in the West Village. "We like to dry age all our beef in house. That's going to help cut down on the amount of carbon dioxide and methane that's released into the air from factory farming of beef."

He also uses every part of arugula rabe and purchases from organic flower farms.

Pointing to one of the flowers acting as the final touch to a finished dish, he explains, "These are grown in New Jersey.  They utilize a geothermal vent to heat their tunnels. Again, it's another just sustainable way of creating a little beauty on the plate."

Gabby Madden, owner of Gab's, says in one week they don't even fill up one compost bin.

Since last year, New York City has required large food establishments to compost, which is the recycling of organic matter that can enrich soil.

Gab's, a smaller restaurant that opened earlier this year, does it by choice. It also invested in napkins and containers that are compostable.

"It's a little more expensive, but we're also reducing the weight of our garbage," said Madden.

The app "Too Good To Go" gives more than 3,000 food businesses in the Tri-State Area an opportunity to unload surplus food.  Registered establishments pack a "surprise bag" for consumers and sell it for one-third of the retail price. The app estimates millions of bags have been distributed nationwide.

The nonprofit City Harvest rescues food from more than 2,000 locations weekly and delivers it to people in need for free through nearly 400 soup kitchens, food pantries and other programs.

It estimates that last year alone, it saved 132 million pounds of food and that most of it was fresh produce.

The nonprofit says that's the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road for the entire year or planting 2 million trees.

Back at Blackbarn, the chefs say in the first few months of doing business with Peat, they were told more than 13,000 pounds of organic waste was separated and collected from their restaurant. Peat's website says it tracks client's food waste daily.

"This is just something small that we can do," said Doherty.

Environmental experts say individuals tracking their food and knowing what is being put into and out of the ecosystem, is definitely a start.

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