Chefs Fight Food Waste One City at a Time

From the James Beard Foundation
By Maggie Borden

Last month, JBF partnered with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) for a day of chef advocacy training to kick off their Nashville pilot program to fight food waste. Responding to Mayor Megan Barry’s new citywide Food Saver Challenge, chefs and restaurateurs from across Music City came together to brainstorm strategies for reducing waste in their businesses, from sourcing to kitchen scraps to dining room leftovers. We spoke with Dana Gunders, NRDC’s senior scientist for food and agriculture programs, to learn more about the pilot’s origins, the ins and outs of municipal food policy, and how chefs bring a lot to the table.

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JBF: Why start with a pilot in Nashville?

Dana Gunders: It started with the NRDC’s theory about cities. We believe that cities are particularly motivated players when it comes to reducing food waste, and that’s because they often have problems with waste, they often have food insecurity, and they also often have climate goals. Addressing the waste of food in their city helps to hit all three of those pain points.

We decided on Nashville as one of our pilot cities for a few reasons. It’s a very progressive city, there’s a lot of excitement around food there right now, and yet it’s not New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. It’s a very relatable city for others to look at and say, “oh, they did that in Nashville, we can do it here.” It’s a mid-sized city, it’s in the heartland, and it’s not like they’ve been working on this issue for 30 years and already have everything in place. It’s been wonderful so far. It’s taken some time to lay groundwork, but we feel that it’s been a very welcoming city and people are really open to the ideas that we brought.


JBF: Why was it important to work with chefs, and how did the James Beard Foundation play into that?

DG: Chefs have an interesting relationship with food waste, because it’s built into their basic training. On the one hand, it’s part of the general ethos of running a kitchen to do your best to have the least amount of waste possible. But on the other hand, there are the realities of the industry, like when there are tradeoffs in terms of quality, the amount of fresh product they’re serving, portion sizes, and the inevitability of waste that happens from the front of house, which can all add up to a significant amount of waste.

The James Beard Foundation was a fantastic organization to partner with. We both bring really different skills to the table and that worked out really well. I think what made JBF a great partner for this initiative is the brand and the ability to really convene chefs and have them take something seriously. I guarantee most of the chefs in the room had never heard of NRDC, but they certainly knew the Foundation. And Beard is really what brought them there and gave us a venue to talk about this issue. I think we were able to just be our wonky selves and the team from JBF was able to translate it to a constituency we thought was important to engage: chefs.

But as JBF emphasizes, chef voices are powerful and they have a lot of tools at their disposal. So we wanted to have them come and get some contextual and strategic background for their role in this program. The day started off pretty broad and we just got more local and more tactical as we went on. We had someone come in and talk about how things work in Nashville—who the council members are and who you need to talk to if you want to get something done in this city. And then we had the chefs brainstorm on who else they thought should be part of the conversation, and talked to them about the Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge.

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Jay Sheridan