The Big Waste: Food Network Looks at Food Waste in America

On “The Big Waste”, four Food Network chefs prepare a multi-course feast for one hundred people with waste food. Anne Burrell, Bobby Flay, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Michael Symon groan when they hear the challenge. Garbage? Unfortunately, they find it’s very easy to produce a large feast from the food that’s wasted each day.

Typical of Food Network shows, the four chefs are competing in teams to see who can come up with best recipe from a limited selection of foods. They can only use ingredients on their way to the trash. According to the show, 40% of food in America goes uneaten – 200 pounds per person per year. Food waste is a big problem.

Waste in Food Preparation and Distribution

Alex and Anne start at Ferrara Bakery, where they find that the ends of deli-sliced meat and grinds of coffee and cocoa are thrown away. Flour on the outside of rising dough is swept off and thrown away instead of being reused or repurposed.

Bobby and Michael go to Manhattan Food Exchange, where fresh produce that looks fine to my eye is being thrown out. The owner of the store points out peas with lighter green spots on the pods. He takes the chefs to the back of the store and shows them carrots with bumps and radishes with wilted greens. All this is food that we would love if we pulled it out of our own gardens.

The next place Alex and Anne go to is a seafood distributor. He’s stuck with returned orders because of party cancellations and other reasons and, in some cases, fish with slightly discolored flesh that are still fresh. As a distributor, he can’t find a new buyer before the fish goes bad. Any delay of delivery can mean that he’ll lose a large stock of fish.

Bobby and Michael continue on to a butcher. They find beef bones and organ meats that are going to be thrown away. They make the obvious decision and take those home for broth and stock.

All the food has to pass inspection by a food inspector. He meets them back at the kitchen and tests all the animal products for temperature. Everything passes, except the prosciutto, which Anne decides to take home and feed her family.

Dumpster Diving with a Freegan

Next up, Anne Burrell spends an evening with a freegan. A freegan dumpster dives for food. After stores close, they throw away the food that will expire the next day or just to make room for the next day’s inventory. The segment shows an astonishing amount of fresh veggies and prepared food in the garbage.

It’s a great idea to reduce waste, but with one caveat: you really have to know what you’re doing to pull food out of the garbage and eat it. Earlier in the day, the chefs were looking at food pulled from produce stands. Once food goes into the garbage, you don’t know if the raw produce has had contact with raw meat. A store might have thrown out that prepared food because they found a problem with the preparation and decided it was unsafe, not just “old”.

Waste on the Farm

The next day, the chefs head out to various farms and produce stands. Rick at Lawrence Farm Orchards says that 40 to 50% of his food is wasted. His pick-your-own farm has a lot of food lying on the ground and he says this is because people pick a head of cabbage or a tomato and then see one they like better, so they throw the first one on the ground.

At the other farms, the same thing happens. The piles of fresh produce that are being wasted are beautiful, but sad.

The Chicken and the Egg

But what was even more sad was amount of chicken and eggs wasted. Chickens are thrown out just because of appearance. They show one where the wing is broken, but the rest of the chicken looks fine. If I were roasting a whole hen, it would matter. Most of the time, though, when I buy a chicken, I’m just going to cut it up anyway.

Eggs are thrown out because of size. The ones that are too big can’t fit in the carton. The ones that are too small wouldn’t stay put and might break in the carton. They’re just as useful in making bread or scrambled eggs, but they never make it to market.

The last fifteen minutes of the show focus on the competition and the dishes the chefs produce from the waste foods. By now, I’m sure you realize that their options are really unlimited. They’re pretty much the same as if they had shopped in the grocery store for the food.

The Big Waste” will show again on Food Network at 4 p.m. Eastern Time on January 14.

More on Food Waste

Image of produce via Shutterstock; Anne Burrell by Helga Esteb /; Alex Guarnaschelli by lev radin /; Bobby Flay by DFree /

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18 thoughts on “The Big Waste: Food Network Looks at Food Waste in America”

  1. I was profoundly moved by this show. I appreciate the ‘spotlight’ and pray that many others got the message tonight! Wow, it really is shocking how we’ve become food diva’s and yet, we let many of our neighbors (especially the children) go hungry each day. We all should be hanging our heads in shame. Bravo, Food Network for bringing such an important message to light and doing so with such great personalities!! I wish this was a series – or do this in the vain of “Chopped”! Thank you again for waking me up, as it takes millions of grains of sand to fill a bottle.

  2. This show was fantastic. It proved what is so wrong with our current food system in America. If I had the time and the resources, I would gladly go around and pay these purveyors to take the waste off their hands. They could eliminate their garbage bills, and we could sell the produce for a severely discounted price for lower-income families. Whatever is leftover, you could obviously donate to schools, veterans associations, and homeless shelters.

  3. This show is an exercise of ego and ratings for Food Network! Why were all the featured chefs cronnies fed the “multi course feast” at a black tie event at the end? I noticed several other hosts of Food Network shows attending this event.
    Why weren’t meals prepared for the homeless instead? No judging who’s the best, just feeding the HUNGRY.

    Did anyone besides me notice that the show was HEAVY handed in blaming the consumer for all this waste?! Where are all these farms, meat plants and egg stands? How does the average consumer sans a popular t.v. show get in on snagging some free food? I’ll take it. I dare say, if I were to take a less than perfect sack of tomatoes to the check out in my grocery store or favorite veggie stand I would not be getting it for free.
    Why don’t any of these vendors donate their perfectly good waste to shelters that could prepare perfectly free meals for perfectly hungry homeless or poor people?

    Shame on you Food Network.

  4. I enjoyed last night’s show; however, it is completely wrong to blame the customers for the waste. The blame is solely the vendors/purveyors fault. If you have a choice between an items that is perfect versus an items that doesn’t look perfect for the exact same price, which one would you pick? Who would want to spend their monies on items that look bad, especially if the item is at regular priced? I am sure if the vendor mark the items down customers wouldn’t mind buying the products. I am sure the chefs on last nights’ show, would have chosen the better looking items as well, if they were given the opportunity. I don’t understand why they were acting so surprised by the fact someone wouldn’t buy imperfect items.

  5. Loved the show, I would like to see more episodes! But the only thing i did not like was when i saw the people they invited, i mean why not invite homeless people, people that actually need food and want to eat not people who are there just to be in the show or to take pictures w the chefs……but other than that it was a GREAT show. :)

  6. Food is way to expensive here in America . I have paid almost $3.00 for a green pepper . If I am going to pay that money for a vegetable. I will pick the best I can find. They should sell that food at a lower price . I would be the first one buying it. It’ ll be awesome to fine a not perfect green pepper at a $0.50 price.

    1. I think this is the best show I’m so proud off all the cook’s I grow thing’s in the summer and not everything look’s gr8 but I cut the not so good looking stuff off .. and its so good … Yes I as well would Love to see this sold and let me pick what I like Its sad to think they throw all this good food out When other can have it My waste…My Grandpa was a dairy owner and a farmer I’m 53 today But I lived on it and it was the best food We had Milk from the cow nothing Done to it The best .. oh my how we lost the Good thing’s in life Sad you think I miss the Day’s … God Bless you all Miss Jean

  7. Felicia Spencer

    This show was the absolute best that Food Network has ever produced! Thank you for bringing an awareness to the public eye! With our current economy situation we should not be wasting food! I was raised on a farm…. we never new what “perfect” food was. If it came out of the fields we ate it… no matter how it looked. I would hope that a organization of some type could be started to take all this food to shelters and have it prepared for the homeless.

  8. I googled this show just because I wanted to see the ‘next’ episode. I am an avid food network fan, and I was in love with this show….turns out it was a one episode thing…sucky.
    PLEASE DO MORE EPISODES! I can’t believe they put that annoying girl from b*thchin kitchen on for so long, but they only do one episode of this? Grrrr

  9. I watched your show and was amazed at the amout of food you were able to ascertain!!! Unreal! I have a relative that works at a local grocery store and he is saddened daily by the bulk of food that is run through their processors and not just tossed in the local dumpsters. SAD!!! After watching this show, it occurred to me that I can make a difference!!! And I would like to do something like this in my city. Are there laws or rules do you have to abide by and likely by state? I am just wondering if this is something that can be captialized on for local homeless shelters? Please, please advise how you got past the “grocers” have to toss it “rules”? please help!? I would love to make a difference locally!!!! There is a huge homeless population . . . I happend to know, I currently work with the local food stamp program. I would love to make a difference in my area!! Thank you for any information you can give. Please respond!!

    Tarek A
    Grand Forks, ND

  10. I have always known about the waste of food in this country but did not know it was to that extend! Ever since fastfood took off, people have become lazy. Even fast food places waste an unbelieviable amount of food (I know this because I used to get food from them at closing time when I was hitchhiking around the country). Places that sell food should be donating to homeless shelters, food banks, etc. The American people need not to be so picky, not everything is perfect!! There is no reason anyone in this country should be hungry or go without food!! It is time Americans took care of their own and not other countries!!

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