I Ate Food Waste Every Meal for Three Days, and This Is What I Learned

Saving raspberry marshmallows and Ethiopian beef stew from a landfill is pretty great.

Too Good To Go
Photo: Courtesy of Too Good To Go

Last week, my diet was all over the place — injera and berbere beef tips and gluten-free chocolate millet muffins, tomato pie, cubes of mangos, and raspberry marshmallows — and most of it came as a total surprise.

For three days this month, I set out to eat only food that was destined for a landfill using Too Good To Go. Launched in Copenhagen in 2016, the anti-food waste app lets users buy "surprise bags" filled with perfectly good surplus food from restaurants, bakeries, and other purveyors that would otherwise be thrown away. In 2020, the app launched in the U.S., first in New York and Boston before expanding to Philadelphia and beyond. Nowadays, nearly 52 million people in 17 countries are buying bags of leftovers, saving about 200,000 meals each day.

"In America, 40 percent of food goes to waste, accounting for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions," says Claire Oliverson, the company's U.S. Head of Marketing. "If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after the U.S. and China."

According to Oliverson, TGTG aims for an accessible solution — something that benefits both consumers and local businesses and, when scaled up, could actually make a dent in that staggering number. "Since we launched in the U.S., this community has already saved over 1.4 million meals, which is the carbon footprint equivalent to nearly 700 flights around the world," she says.

I read about the launch in Philly last year, noting the places like Pat's King of Steaks, Taiwanese fast casual spot Baology, and award-winning bakery High Street Philly had gotten onboard. On the evening before I started the challenge, I reserved my first bag from High Street for the next morning's breakfast. Helmed by Ellen Yin, the bakery is known for its perfect sourdough loaves and fresh sandwiches. When I reached out to ask her why they chose to work with TGTG, she told me that the company, which also operates outposts in West Philly and New York City, has been committed to boosting sustainable practices. And one of the biggest ways is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing food waste.

Too Good To Go
Courtesy of Too Good To Go

"That includes using all cuts of meat, utilizing the entire vegetable, preservation, and fermentation," she says. "Too Good to Go is just one other program in our tool box to ensure that perfectly good pre-prepared foods don't get thrown out."

After dropping my girls off at school, I hustled over to its new location on 9th Street to pick up my $4.99 prize: a paper bag filled with $15 worth of baked goods: four muffins, one cranberry kumquat, and three gluten-free chocolate.

I ate one for breakfast — with chocolate chips and toasted millet, world's more exciting than my typical morning meal — and saved the rest for the girls' after school snack. I talked with a shopkeeper named Sara, who told me they sell a lot of surprise bags, and that she occasionally buys her own from DiBruno Bros., the city's iconic cheesemonger and specialty grocery with an outpost next door to the bakery. Once, her surprise bag came with four balls of mozzarella. "I was so excited, until I realized I didn't know what I was going to do with all that cheese," she says. Luckily, her mom also loves cheese, and made a tray of chicken parmigiano with the windfall.

For lunch later in the day, I swiped through the app for something close and available, and landed on Belgian chain Le Pain Quotidien. There my surprise bag was filled with a croissant, a pain au chocolat, and a totally delicious mozzarella and tomato sandwich with fresh greens and balsamic. All for $4.99.

Dinner that night I wanted something less carb-forward, so I searched for "meals" on the app. I could have found something closer to my neighborhood, (and available a little earlier than the designated 7:30-8:30pm pick-up window) but I saw Alif Brew, an Ethiopian cafe and deli in West Philly that I had been wanting to try. Because good South Philly parking spots are as coveted as your nonna's red gravy recipe, I left my car and took an Uber instead, making my $5.99 meal a tad more expensive. My plate of spicy berbere beef tips, turmeric-laced carrots and green beans, and spongy injera was well worth the effort, though, as was the homemade pistachio baklava I bought while I was there.

After my strong showing on the first day of the challenge, I wasn't able to keep up the momentum for the following two days. Instead I tacked on a few extra days because we're still navigating a pandemic, and everyone knows the rules are a little more fluid.

Over the next few days, I had a weekend breakfast bagel feast with my family (seven bagels, $3.99), arrived too early for my Caica's Bakery bag (I learned the windows are strict, to account for when the purveyor knows how many leftovers they'll have.) But I passed the time by buying slices of their famous tomato pie.

Too Good To Go
Courtesy of Too Good To Go

I also got my own glee-inducing DiBruno Bros. bag. Instead of four balls of mozzarella, though, it was stuffed with prosciutto-topped focaccia, a monster cookie dough-filled cupcake, and a container of cut fruit with mangoes, pineapple, and strawberries (not a cube of honeydew in sight!) that was labeled with an $7.99 sticker — all for $4.99.

At Aurora Grace, a chocolate shop in Queen Village, my bag was filled with made-from-scratch raspberry marshmallows and dark chocolate bark flecked with pistachios and dried berries. I talked with Matthew, the shopkeeper here, too, who told me about a man who sometimes buys out their stock of surprise bags and brings them to a local hospital to give out to the nurses and other medical staff. (An idea I'm planning to steal for the incredibly hardworking teachers at my girls' school.)

In the span of nine bags, I learned that it's as delightful to be surprised by the meals as it is to feel like you're saving something from going to a landfill. And I only had one bag that could have been better. The last one was from a produce stand. After carting home a heaping bag, I realized much of the fruit and vegetables were moldy. What was still fresh though — a ripe mango, a bag of baby peppers and some jalapeños — was worth more than the $5.99 price tag, and fit seamlessly into our dinner of chicken and bean quesadillas, assembled with leftovers from the night before.

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