It’s like the most ridiculous “Chopped” basket to ever challenge a chef, multiplied by a hundred. Like, say, 100 pounds of zucchini, or three giant cases of cocoa powder. Or 90 cases of lemons from a limoncello liquor-making company. Or 100 fresh trout from a stream at Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus.
“We had to get all our friends together and have like a big trout-gutting party,” says Greg Austin, a chef with 412 Food Rescue’s Good Food Project. “For the most part, we just get what we get. And then we figure it out as fast as we can.”
And, of course, when life gives you (90 cases of) lemons … you know what to do.
In a world of grim statistics, here’s one that sticks out: In the U.S., about 30-40% of all food is wasted, according to the USDA. That means it doesn’t feed anyone. Instead, it mostly goes to landfills.
There are answers to this problem, however.
Some of them have been pioneered by Pittsburgh’s 412 Food Rescue, whose world-changing idea has created a network of volunteers that intercept landfill-bound food and get it to people and communities in need with their own vehicles, through a simple app, as easily as ordering an Uber.
Sometimes, however, large donations of bulk food appear. That’s when Austin and Zero Waste Kitchen come in.
Their commercial kitchen in Millvale wastes only .003% of the food it receives. Everything else goes to nonprofits serving the needy, like women’s shelters.
It’s a new challenge every day. Sometimes, they get something predictable and useful, like a pallet of groceries from Gordon Food Service. On other days, it’s the trout or lemons.
From this unpredictable array of food, Austin crafts balanced meals for people who would otherwise struggle to eat. One recent menu featured dishes like chicken chili, spinach dip and pita chips, with rice pudding.
Good Food Project partners with LearnPath, a tech firm that helps track every bit of food. They’ve received 123,000 pounds of food since the beginning of the year. Most of it gets turned into meals, and a smaller percentage is composted.
“The amount of trash that we weren’t able to compost was 32 pounds,” says Austin.
Wasting only 32 pounds out of 123,000 pounds of food destined for a landfill is pretty impressive.
In the past year, they’ve made more than 32,000 meals — about 1,000 per week — served in compostable containers.
After about 15 years in restaurant kitchens, many of them fine dining, Austin has found the challenge of the Good Food Project invigorating. It’s a good fit for someone whose curiosity about food always went beyond superstar chefs and reality shows like “Chopped.”
“I was looking to understand food because when I grew up, I’m just old enough to have grown up on TV dinners. You know, when microwaves weren’t considered suspect in the public consciousness,” he says.
“I started working in kitchens as a way to understand life. And in my understanding, this job has been a really cool reversal of what I’ve gotten to see over the last 15 years when it comes to wasting food.”
If you’re interested in volunteering for the Good Food Project, you can fill out a form here. No kitchen experience is necessary.