Photo Gallery: Producing Great Taste out of Waste

Foto: Sarah Mewes

'Freegetarian' Feast Berlin Group Declares War on Food Waste

A series of communal dinners in Berlin is bringing together like-minded food lovers to enjoy meals concocted using local merchants' leftover, unwanted produce. The events are aimed at raising awareness about massive consumer food waste in Germany and the West.
Von Christopher Cottrell

Sandra Teitge remembers what it was like growing up in communist East Germany two decades ago.

"There was never enough food, so I learned to eat everything and not to leave anything on my plate," Teitge said.

But today, Germans live in a land of plenty -- a fact best illustrated by the sheer amount of food that gets tossed out. A recent study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection found that Germans waste 11 million tons of food each year. Most of the blame lies with private households. The average German discards 220 grams (8 ounces) of food every day -- the equivalent of an average breakfast.

Teitge and her partner Sarah Mewes snatch up unwanted food before it suffers an untimely fate. The duo began hosting a series of communal dinners at various locations in Berlin last year, using unsold produce they collected from markets and other food distributors to create delicious meals that are "freegetarian," a play on "freegan," the term used for people who dumpster dive to scavange for discarded food that is still edible, and vegetarians.

meaning food that is both inexpensive and meatless.

'What We're Doing Is Symbolic'

Mewes describes their project, the Dinner Exchange , as a convivial monthly gathering of like-minded people interested in changing society's cavalier attitude toward food waste.

"What we're doing is more symbolic," Mewes said. "In and of itself, the Dinner Exchange is obviously not a viable solution to the problem -- but there is a potential to change the way things are run or the way waste is currently dealt with."

The Dinner Exchange was launched in 2009 in London  by Alice Planel, a friend of both Teitge and Mewes. Its debut in Germany last October took place at Teitge's cramped flat in Berlin's cosmopolitan Kreuzberg district. Guests pay €4 ($5.33) for drinks and are asked to make an individual donation for the three-course meal. The proceeds go to local initiatives that focus on the issue of food waste and sustainable eating habits.

Five months on, Teitge and Mewes have already hosted five dinners and served some 140 diners. The duo is even considering doing a one-off in Beirut, Lebanon, although no formal date has been set.

On March 17, they carefully arranged place settings for 37 guests along a narrow row of tables in Berlin's cavernous Markthalle Neun building, a 120-year-old indoor farmer's market that specializes in local, seasonal produce.

The day before the March dinner, Teitge and Mewes visited merchants at the Markthalle, bakeries and other local food distributors, collecting as much food as they could. Early the next morning, they devised a tasty menu from their trove of random ingredients. It began with bowls of zesty tomato gazpacho, followed by sautéd broccoli with a sesame crust and mango-ginger dip. Next up was pasta al melone, warm honey melon tossed with penne and coriander. The meal ended with an apple crumble garnished with Brazilian red pepper.

Food and Good Company

Guests helped themselves to glasses of surplus wine, provided courtesy of a local merchant, as they bided their time between courses. Candlelight and fresh bouquets ensured a warm, intimate atmosphere.

"That's why we come here -- for the company and the food," said Stefan Brunken, a middle-aged Berlin resident who brought his wife to the dinner. "It's also nice that it has this positive side effect of doing something against food waste."

The booked-out March 17 event yielded €410 euros in proceeds, which the group then donated to Isle Demme, a gardening school in Berlin's Charlottenburg district that specializes in teaching school groups how to grow vegetables and other flora.

The timing of the Dinner Exchange event couldn't have been better. As Teitge and Mewes served up bowls of puréed vegetable soup, the German government's food and agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, began spearheading an effort to clear the fog surrounding expiration dates on food. It's impossible to predict with absolute certainty when food will expire, she said, encouraging consumers to be less quick about throwing things away. Expiration dates, according to Aigner, should be taken with a grain of salt.

No Regard for Waste

"We live in an affluent society with little or no regard for throwing out food," Aigner said in a statement. "In Germany and Europe far too much is simply discarded."

Aigner's awareness campaign on expiration dates comes on the heels of a study she commissioned from the University of Stuttgart to examine just how much food waste is actually avoidable.

The study's findings, released earlier this month, were alarming. Researchers found that an average consumer spends roughly €235 euros each year on food that he or she doesn't eat. For the country as a whole, that means a staggering €21.6 billion euros annually in avoidable expenses. It also concluded that 47 percent of the food thrown away in German households was probably still edible at the time.

It's enough to get policymakers interested on a number of levels. According to the Food Ministry, the different political groups in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, are planning an initiative to combat food waste that will "go across party lines." The European Commission and the European Parliament are also exploring a common approach to the issue for the entire continent.

But many challenges remain on the path to sustainable eating habits. Fruits and vegetables, for example, are more perishable than most foods, so they make up 44 percent of annual food waste. Another factor is that edibility does not always equal salability -- shoppers will always opt for an unbruised apple over one with a soft spot, so grocery stores and supermarkets are often forced to get rid of things simply due to their appearance.

But as the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

"There's a lot of value in finding a way to deal with (food waste) that creates pleasure and brings awareness," Jenny Helfrich, a 23-year-old researcher with Berlin's Technical University said at the March Dinner Exchange event, scraping the last bits of apple crumble off her plate. "Do you think we can ask for seconds?"

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