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‘Top Chef’ Tom Colicchio on America’s staggering waste of food

The United States wastes roughly 70 billion pounds of food every year, an estimated quarter of all food produced in the country. Now, TV “Top Chef” Tom Colicchio aims to bring the issue to the highest levels of government with his “Food Policy Action” group. Political director Lisa Desjardins talks to Colicchio about how he plans to end American food wastage.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But first: Roughly 70 billion pounds of food is wasted annually in the United States.

    The "NewsHour"'s Lisa Desjardins is back from maternity leave, and she caught up this week with chef Tom Colicchio of TV's "Top Chef."

    He was on Capitol Hill to bring attention to the issue of how much is wasted in American and to represent the group he co-founded, Food Policy Action.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Many folks in the food waste movement say that some 40 percent of our food grown in this country is unused or wasted. That's kind of a hard number to get your head around.

  • TOM COLICCHIO, Co-Founder, Food Policy Action:

    Well, actually, that's the real number, 40 percent.

    In fact, when I heard that number about two years ago, that's what really brought me to this issue. I was staggered by the amount of food that's being wasted. When you think about what you purchase at home, you can imagine throwing 40 percent in the garbage, and you think about how hard farmers work, and everything that goes in.

    It's not just the food. It's all the resources that go into creating the food. So it's water, it's energy, it's people's work.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    You know, last year, NPR and "NewsHour" teamed up; we went to the Salinas Valley in California.

    And there, we got these extraordinary pictures of dump trucks full of lettuce and spinach, cartons full of broccoli, that the producers were taking to the landfill, not consumers. We also have a food culture in this country that promotes, and to some degree almost worships, beautiful food.

    And, in your restaurants, you serve beautiful food. How do you change that culture to show Americans that your food can be imperfect?

  • TOM COLICCHIO:

    When people think of wasted food, they think of something that is left on the plate. We're not talking about that. We're talking about food that is perfectly good.

    But I think, if we're looking at large supermarkets that are throwing food out because it's slightly wilted or there's a little blemish on it or it's slightly bruised, I think the average person looks at that and goes, there's nothing wrong with that. Why are we throwing this away?

    But when you see those truckloads, I think you look at that and go, we have to fix this problem.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    We saw this week the very first hearing from the House Agriculture Committee on food waste. This is a time when politicians are looking at polls that say the number one concern for voters is the economy. The number two concern is terrorism.

  • TOM COLICCHIO:

    When you have 25 percent of recruits showing up to fight our wars that are washing out because of obesity, when you have health care costs rising because of the way we're — what we're eating in this country that's costing us about $200 billion a year.

    So it actually does affect the economy and it does affect mission readiness. So you can actually equate food right back to these issues that are important, these issues, economic issues and issues of national security.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    I think a lot of our viewers would be surprised to know there are almost no clear national guidelines for food labeling and date labeling.

  • TOM COLICCHIO:

    Right. Right. And that's part of the reason why we're here in Washington today. We are supporting Congresswoman Pingree's bill, co-sponsored on the Senate side. Richard Blumenthal sponsored it as well.

    And it just really focuses on date labeling. Right now, we have sell-by dates. The sell-by date doesn't mean that a gallon of milk is spoiled. It means that that is when the manufacturer wants you to sell it by.

    Typically, it's fine for a good many days past that, and yet 80 percent of the people will look at that and throw it out by the sell-by date. And so a ton of food is being wasted because things are improperly labeled. And this bill will address that.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    I'm curious. I always look in the back of the "Top Chef" show. You see these beautiful bins of fruits and vegetables and meats. What happens to the food on the show?

  • TOM COLICCHIO:

    We have a very hungry crew that eats well.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • TOM COLICCHIO:

    We really do.

    We — without giving too much away, we just had a challenge where there was a lot of really delicious barbecue pig left over, and every bit of it went to our crew.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    What tips do you have for people who want to change this in their own lives?

  • TOM COLICCHIO:

    Yes, so, I think, on the consumer side, try to shop more frequently.

    If you're somebody who goes and shops for your family once a week, you typically overbuy. Don't ever shop when you're hungry, because you definitely overpurchase and overbuy food. Also, what I try to do is, on Friday, that's when I clean out my refrigerator.

    So, I go in, I look at all the vegetables, all the scraps, I chop it up and it either goes into a soup or it goes into a pasta. I think it's something, when you start focusing on it, and you start looking at it and you start — people are so focused, they are so cost-conscious when they're purchasing food, but yet, when they come home, they don't look at the price when they are throwing foods in the garbage.

    And so I think that, if you do that, that clean-up Friday, where I call it cleanup Friday, I clean out the refrigerator and make something with that, I think that's one thing that people could do.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The New York Times called you a citizen chef.

    Tom Colicchio, thank you for joining us.

  • TOM COLICCHIO:

    You're welcome. Thank you.

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