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It’s 8 p.m. and Italian chef Massimo Bottura is in his kitchen. Sporting thick-framed glasses, a neatly trimmed grey beard and a black hoody, his hands are a blur of movement as he chops vegetables and swipes them into the pots and pans arrayed around him. So far, so normal, you might think. But this is far from normal. Like tens of millions of other Italians, Massimo is under home quarantine as the nation fights the outbreak of COVID-19.
Italians have shown fortitude, patience and creativity to get through this dark period. Massimo—Chef patron of the three-Michelin-star restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena, and co-founder of Food for Soul, an organization that fights food waste through social inclusion, with his wife Lara Gilmore—is no different.
Three stars for the food, five for the heart
He is inspiring and entertaining his viewers by putting his pent-up energy into Kitchen Quarantine, a family-produced online cooking show on Instagram also trying to demonstrate how to make great meals from what’s at home. This cuts down the number of times people need to venture outside for supplies—thus reducing the risk of spreading and catching the virus—and teaches us a few tricks that reduce food waste.
“Kitchen Quarantine is… a fun way to interact with families all over the world, cook together, share ideas, enjoy each other’s company and teach people good practices in the kitchen, such as cleaning out the refrigerator to limit food waste, using leftovers to cook something new and eating a variety of foods,” says Bottura.
It may not seem obvious, but the issue of food waste is linked to zoonotic diseases—meaning diseases that jump from animal to human—such as COVID-19.
Agriculture is a major driver of human expansion into natural ecosystems, which, as the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, explained in a recent interview with The Guardian, can mean trouble.
“Our continued erosion of wild spaces, of our primary forests and our ecosystems, have brought us uncomfortably close to reservoir hosts—animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans,” she says. “As we continue our relentless move into natural habitats, contact between humans and reservoir hosts increases—all of which increases the likelihood of interaction between vectors and humans.”
People waste or lose around one third of all the food that is produced each year, equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes. This wasted food means wasted resources, such as water and land. Cutting food waste will save these resources and reduce climate change, which is in itself a major threat to human health.
Reducing food waste is a priority for Food for Soul, with its refettorio (refectory) projects around the global having recovered over 200 tonnes of imperfect food surplus out of landfill. Food is transformed into nourishing meals served in a convivial atmosphere to those experiencing extreme social vulnerability, including the homeless and refugees.
But Massimo wants to inspire further action on food waste across society by showing that discarded ingredients—such as imperfect vegetables or produce beyond arbitrary sell-by dates—can become something delicious and nutritious.
“If we can use all of the ingredients and to the fullest potential, we will reduce the amount of waste we are creating and shop more efficiently,” he says. “Compulsive shopping is the starting point for overproduction and exploitation of agricultural resources. Issues like biodiversity loss, climate change and social vulnerability are all connected. One bad habit leads to another, creating a vicious circle. Nature suffers as a result.
“We can all be part of the solution by looking at ingredients with different eyes. The challenge is to think about, for example, an apple or a banana beyond their bruises: they can still be tasty and nutritious if used properly. My advice is to buy seasonally and find creative ways to use what you have rather than always go out and buy more food.
“One of my favorite recipes made with leftover ingredients is Passatelli, one that anyone can easily replicate at home. Passatelli is a traditional Modenese pasta made from breadcrumbs that my grandmother Ancella used to make for my family. I learned from her and now I love making it for my family. This was also one of the first recipes of Kitchen Quarantine.”
Of course, simply repurposing food waste is not going to fix the problem entirely. Consumers should look at their own consumption profiles, buying only what they need. Supermarkets need to look at their food dating practices and standards to cut back on the amount of food they throw out. And so on down the chain, all the way to the farm.
Food waste is also only one part of the picture. Growing consumption of resource intensive-food, such as red meat and ultra-processed food is also driving the conversion of land for agriculture—destroying ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and contributing to climate change.
Refettorio partners are always evolving their programming to lift the consciousness of the community and improve the local food system. Food for Soul is researching the transformative role of nature to improve resilience for those most vulnerable, through architecture design concepts, urban gardening initiatives and culinary education. These activities teach us the value of food, what goes into producing it, and practical applications to sustain green space in a rapid period of urbanization.
At the heart of the challenges facing humanity—be it emerging pandemics, biodiversity loss or climate change—is our dysfunctional relationship with nature. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic into a world that will be greatly changed, we need to develop a far-healthier relationship with the planet.
“If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves,” says Andersen. “And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”
To find out more about Massimo Bottura and to tune into Kitchen Quarantine, follow him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/massimobottura/
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is doing its part to reform food systems and bring a host of environmental benefits. UNEP works with the One Planet Network Sustainable Food Systems Programme in three key areas: governance, food waste and sustainable diets