I don't know if there's a newer or more compelling way to say it: We waste 40 percent of our crops because they're not the right shape or size or color. Nearly half of everything. And that's before it hits our supermarkets and then our homes, where we throw away a further seven million tons of food every year.
So, when I tell you that London-based food entrepreneur Hannah McCollum turns waste vegetables into hummus and that's she's crowdfunding a campaign to scale her production up to utilize even more unwanted veggies, you might wonder exactly how much dip she'd have to make before putting even the slightest dint in such an excess of waste.
"I'm doing my part," she says. "But it's only a small scale. I know there are farmers with crops that I can take and support. But there's so much."
McCollum can't abide waste. Her aversion to it began when she left school. She completed culinary training and then started working with catering companies at sports events and private parties.
"At the end of every event, there was the most phenomenal amount of waste—smoked salmon, steak, breads, croissants, cheese. I mean huge chunks of it, all going into the bin. I tried to do something about it but I'd get told off. I had to stop because I felt like it was a Herculean task trying to save all that food from waste."
Following her catering work, McCollum went on to become a private chef.
"When I was cooking for large numbers, I started turning leftovers into dips or hummus for the next day," she remembers. "People loved them. They were tasty, bright, and colorful, and it was a nice way of using what would have otherwise become waste."
What began as a way of being thrifty for her clients turned into the germ of a much larger idea.
"I started going to the street market round the corner from me, where they threw away a lot," McCollum says. "Every time I went, I found myself coming home with an entire carload of all this surplus, and I was like, 'God, this is getting ridiculous.' I was making work for myself because I didn't couldn't bear to see the food wasted."
It's hard to comprehend the extent to which waste is almost systematically built into the way we produce food, but McCollum quickly discovered the way that all fruits and vegetables are graded. Farmers bring their harvest to warehouses where their crops—carrots, cucumbers, bananas, or whatever—are passed them along conveyor belts and electronically scanned for supermarket suitability based on size, weight, and color.
"Take a cucumber farmer I know, for example," McCollum says. "He always has boxes and boxes of what look perfectly fine, but aren't acceptable because they're not quite the right shade of green."
The wrong sized, shaped, and colored vegetables are labelled as "class two" and sent to market to be sold for mixing and blending.
This is where McCollum comes in.
"Even at market, there are boxes of things that won't sell and it changes every week," she explains. "One time, it might be the guy with seven boxes of turmeric, the guy with the class two beetroot, and another guy with mini bananas. The next time, there might be no mini bananas but big bananas that are class two."
McCollum scoops up the leftovers of the leftovers. Of course, there's a lot of produce to choose from in the class two category, but she focuses her attention onto specific ingredients to make the four hummus recipes she knows she can deliver from surplus vegetables, whatever the time of year.
"I've got loads of different recipes, but I narrowed down to my key flavors using what I knew I'd always be able to find whatever the time of year," she explains. "So, there's always donkey carrots. There are always bruised bananas. All year round you can get beetroots that have been rejected because they're either too big or too small. And then there are herbs that are oversized—big leafy bunches of them that the supermarkets won't take."
These four ingredients form the core flavors of ChicP hummus: carrot, ginger, and turmeric; beetroot, horseradish, and sage; a herby one made with fresh parsley; and banana, avocado, and cacao.
The beauty of McCollum's idea is the simplicity. Inviting me into her home kitchen where she started the ChicP business, she shows me what can be turned into a dip. We roughly chop a small pile of slightly browning giant spinach leaves and throw them into a blender with lemon, oil, chickpeas, tahini, and some seasoning. One minute later, vegetables I would have almost definitely thrown away if I'd found them in my fridge have been transformed into something fresh, green, and zingy tasting.
Of course, there are limits to what vegetables are fit to be eaten …
"Like this," McCollum says, holding up a limp piece of leaf and scrunching up her nose. Her face says it all.
You might query the worthiness of ChicP. After all, even with the full funding for her campaign, McCollum's hummus won't be a one-hit solution, turning all the rejected vegetables in the UK into dips for swanky dinner parties or the lunch boxes of middle class school children.
But it's a start and another step towards making the vast amounts of food we waste useful—an entrepreneurial solution to try and make some kind of difference, and one that McCollum hopes will inspire more of us to take care and waste less.