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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

One Solution to the Food Waste Problem: Eat Your Garbage

The villains of climate change tend be what we put out: carbon-spewing cars, soot-emitting power plants, farting cows. So it follows that we might make a dent in the problem by focusing on what we take in. Like, what if we ate trash?

That’s the premise behind Shuggie’s Trash Pie and Natural Wine, a restaurant that opened this spring in San Francisco‘s Mission District specializing in ingredients otherwise destined for the dump. Cofounder Kayla Abe and her team rescue bruised peppers, unwanted fish heads, and excess dough crumbs and repurpose them into gourmet “grandma style” pizzas, snacks, and shareables, all with the goal of helping slow climate change.

Food waste is a major contributor to the problem—the US alone discards $218 billion worth of food each year. Producing these discarded morsels eats up a lot of energy: Each year, the equivalent of 37 million cars’ annual greenhouse gas emissions and 21 percent of US water use all go down the drain.

Abe and her Shuggie’s cofounder David Murphy (the duo also runs an upcycled pickle brand called Ugly Pickle Co.) felt compelled to do something about the problem. “So we made the fairly obvious choice of opening a restaurant and putting all this trash on pizza,” she says.

Food waste has many culprits besides forgetting one’s to-go box in the back of the fridge (although that plays no small role; consumers generate over 40 percent of food waste). Sometimes picky shoppers snub their noses at cosmetically unappealing yet perfectly edible produce. Other times, beautiful food gets tossed for reasons that have nothing to do with desirability.

“Time is the greatest enemy of perfectly good food,” says Abe. A lack of labor or cold storage plus time constraints can spell doom for comestibles. Recently, one of Shuggies’ suppliers approached them with an excess of summer squash. The squash was in perfect shape, but due to the farmers’ limited labor supply, he prioritized picking tomatoes, a higher value crop. So Shuggie’s salvaged the vegetables and Hawt Squash was born: a trash pie topped with thin-sliced deep-roasted squash, melty cheese, fresh tomatillo, chimichurri, fried excess onions, and serrano chili. The farmer’s “annual headache ended up turning into our best-selling pizza,” says Abe.

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In an effort to use up every last crumb, Shuggie’s upcycles food byproducts. Its pizza crust substitutes water for whey, a byproduct of Shuggie’s house made cheese—and incidentally, a water polluter—and it gets its texture from oat flour left over from oat milk.

Shuggie’s also aims to break down cultural stigmas against certain foods. It serves no prime cuts of meat, only “livers, gizzards, hearts, and chicken feet.” If that grosses you out, Abe implores you to examine your biases.

“Offcuts are truly a cultural construct,” she says. “There is a delicious world outside of chicken breast, I swear.” To prove the point, she invites you to try a dish of beefheart meatballs with a wilty green emulsion made from spotty, sun-drenched, unsellable greens; harissa; and mint. “Solving food waste really does mean eating adventurously,” she adds.

Rescuing unloved food takes work, and the Shuggie’s team spends considerable time talking with suppliers, ferreting out where along their supply chains edible food is falling through the cracks. To have a measurable impact on the planet, Abe acknowledges that one restaurant can’t do it alone. “Our bigger mission is looping others into this battle,” she says. “Instead of scaring people into change, we need to celebrate environmentalism, and make an otherwise terrifying topic exciting and delicious.”

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