There’s a growing movement to reduce food waste as a means to cut greenhouse gases. In our 2018 report, Climate Change Needs Behavior Change, we found that food waste is one of the biggest ways that individuals can make an impact on climate change.
Alison Mountford wants to make it easier for households to be part of the solution. That’s why she founded Ends+Stems, a small business that offers delicious ways for home cooks to reduce food waste. Alison, a chef and entrepreneur, spoke with us about helping households throw less away, reduce their carbon footprint, and save time and money in the process.
Ends+Stems focuses on helping home cooks make healthy, delicious meals while also combating food waste. How did this become important to you and what was your journey to get to where you are today?
I started my career as a chef in 2005, and it was always my goal to help busy families eat dinners together with less stress and cooking whole foods. To run a profitable food business, you must be aware of every dollar you’re spending, so my introduction to not wasting food was a very pragmatic effort to stay afloat. In 2015, Dana Gunders had just published her groundbreaking report at the National Resources Defense Council that showed the enormous scale of what we waste. What especially caught my attention was how much food is wasted in homes. Ends+Stems began slowly, really as a side project, an outlet of creativity. When I saw the reaction from people enjoying my meal planning tips, I was encouraged to build it into a business.
How can individuals feel more empowered about addressing food waste?
Even as a citizen of this planet who is worried about our future and is ready to act, I can still feel lost or paralyzed. What can I do that matters? My absolute favorite reason to be a voice in the zero food waste movement is that it is so easy (and free) to do something. For example, I rent my house, so I cannot install solar panels or high efficiency appliances. I can’t upgrade the windows to seal in my heat or invest in an electric car because there’s no way to charge it. But I can make sure that the romaine I bought this week gets eaten. My family, with no extra expense or permission needed, can be sure to eat our leftovers, store our potatoes for maximum shelf life, and understand that expiration dates aren’t regulated. Everyone can participate in reducing their food waste, and you’ll actually save money! It may be true that one avocado removed from the landfill isn’t how we’ll stop climate change, but when I surveyed my customers recently, 100% of them said that by following my recipes and Instagram feed, they thought about reducing their waste at other points in the day.
In addition to eating leftovers and meal planning, what are some key behaviors that all of us can do individually to reduce food waste?
The classic advice is: meal plan and grocery shop from a list. And that’s indeed what my business is based on. I also recommend conducting a food waste audit (trust me, it can be fun! I have guidelines posted here) to provide a snapshot of what your household is wasting. Other tips are: buy less food or shop more often; use your freezer for extra time; and know where to store ingredients to maximize their shelf life.
We’ve noticed you draw from behavioral science in designing Ends+Stems’ resources and services. How do you incorporate behavioral insights into your work?
When I encountered some of the business tactics of behavioral science, I was excited to see that much of what came naturally to me has been researched and proven. From there, I studied (and even attended Rare’s BE.Hive conference!) and made some adjustments. First, you have to know your user. A busy parent’s stumbling block isn’t wasted food, it’s putting together an easy meal. By solving for that core problem in a way that also makes reducing food waste possible, it’s easy to gain enthusiastic users.
It’s also important to choose meaningful terms. Our impact metrics covert greenhouse gasses to the rough equivalent of slices of pizza to help people feel something about their efforts and make waste more tangible. No one wants to throw out 90 slices of pizza, but we might not feel so strongly about 90kg of greenhouse gases.
Try to use defaults. Reducing food waste also means eating less meat and more plants, but it doesn’t mean everyone needs to be vegetarian. I write my recipes so that the default serving size of meat is about 4–5 ounces, rather than the standard American portion of 6–7 or even 8 ounces! Of course, if someone wants to add more meat per plate, they can, but since the default is smaller, they are usually willing to stick with the status quo and take the path of least resistance.
And finally, make it social. Your next-door neighbor might not care about food waste or being more eco-friendly. But at Ends+Stems, I’m creating a national (even global) community where people can plug in and see that their counterparts across town do care. The weekly impact reports show your personal carbon savings and a tally of all of the subscribers’ savings. It’s a visual way to see that we all contribute to the solution, and you can refer a friend to join in.
There is a lot of different information out there about measuring food waste and where to intervene to make an impact. What might you propose to help us gain better data on food waste?
Conducting a food waste audit is the building block of gathering data. If you rely on your memory of what you tossed out, there will be a lot that you miss. And once you know you’re counting, it’s likely you will start to throw out less! If all of our food was wasted at once, you’d be shocked, but it’s a slow leak, so it’s hard to see. I’m also beginning to outline a project to measure what’s happening behind closed doors when people adopt zero-waste behaviors. The top advice for home cooks is to meal plan and shop from a list. But we haven’t been able to quantify just how much less you’ll waste if you follow that advice. I want to put a number on it.
We’d love to check out your recipes! Would you be willing to share one or two favorites?
I’d love to share two! The first is how to make anything in your fridge into a delicious frittata. It’s more of a method than a recipe: click here.
The second is my favorite soup of all time. It’s one of the first things I ever cooked. It also uses up stale bread — one of the most wasted items in our pantries: click here.
Hungry for more? Check out the brand new Endsandstems.com to subscribe for meal-planning tips and zero-waste recipes!
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