Margaret and Irene Li are on a mission to reduce food waste—and they’re bringing eaters along for the ride. The sisters are the cofounders of the project Food Waste Feast, a website, blog, and educational resource that has found a cult following around the country and between Margaret’s home base in Cary and Irene’s home base in Boston.
In 2012, Margaret—who goes by Mei—and Irene, alongside their older brother, founded Mei Mei, a food truck in Boston. In 2013, the business expanded to a brick-and-mortar restaurant and then, during the pandemic, evolved into a dumpling company.
Mei mei means “little sister” in Mandarin.
“The nickname for me came about as a child when I was the little sister in the family,” Mei explains. “When my older brother came up with the idea for the food truck, he asked my sister Irene and I to join him, and we thought the name Mei Mei was a great way to honor the family vibe behind the business.”
It was at Mei Mei, while producing food on a large scale, that the Lis began to notice the vast amount of food waste generated in restaurant operations—waste that made already slim restaurant margins even slimmer. Equipped with an MBA from Imperial College London, Mei brought a business-minded perspective to the family endeavor.
“The things that you’re purchasing and spending tons of money on—if that’s going to the trash, you are wasting your money,” she says.
At Mei Mei, the Lis’ solution to the challenge of food waste was to become more open-minded and creative with their menu items and recipes.
“One of the things that we did at our food truck and restaurant was try to design dishes that used up all parts of [an ingredient], whether it’s kale with holes in it that would go into our pesto or using cilantro stems in curry,” Mei explains. “It really helped our bottom line and also made for more interesting and delicious dishes.”
The frustration of waste and the excitement and joy that grew out of addressing that frustration is what sparked Food Waste Feast. The sisters hit a chord: the website has been so successful that it will be the foundation of a cookbook slated for release in June of next year.
“There are lots of things that feel very big and unchangeable,” Mei says. “Contributing to minimizing your food waste is something that we can do. And it’s not our sole responsibility, but it feels good to do that for me. And I hope for other people too.”
Research has shown that individuals are more likely to take incremental, tangible steps that have a real impact and allow them the satisfaction of knowing that their personal actions make a difference.
In the food production system, there are a multitude of points at which food waste can occur—and on a grand scale, it does, at each and every point, from farm to distributor, distributor to market, market to refrigerator, refrigerator to trash can. Much of that food never even makes it to a plate, let alone into a stomach. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted. There are many factors at play, and, even for the most environmentally conscious among us, “the fate of climate change doesn’t rest on whether you put your carrot tops in the compost,” Mei says.
Still, the actions of individuals do matter, as 31.9 percent of food brought into households goes to waste. There are many angles from which to engage people’s consciousness about food waste and find practical, sometimes creative ways to address the problem. One approach that grabs individuals’ attention and interest is the impact on their own finances.
The Lis were initially attuned to the cost of food waste in their commercial kitchen at Mei Mei, but even within homes, individuals are estimated to spend thousands of dollars a year on food that they end up throwing out. With the rising cost of food due to inflation and other factors, that financial burden only grows.
Home cooks who are interested in trying something new might find that the challenge of minimizing food waste presents exciting opportunities for experimentation in the kitchen. This is where Food Waste Feast comes in, with the Lis guiding and educating readers through a multitude of creative ways to cut down on kitchen waste.
“There are people who just really like it from a cooking perspective. Let’s say you’ve got fresh herbs and you’re making an herb oil or an herb sauce, or you’re taking your leftover bread and making bread crumbs. You have more components to work with,” says Mei, who recently turned 40 and moved to Cary with her husband and two kids in 2019.
She describes another approach that individual consumers might take, a technique not only for convincing her kids to eat their fruits and veggies but also for continuously transforming leftovers so that nothing ends up in the trash.
“If they didn’t eat all of their apple slices, I’ll put them in a bag, and that becomes their smoothie bag. I will keep it in the freezer and then I will make it into smoothies. And if they don’t drink those smoothies, I make it into popsicles and then I feed it to them again,” Mei explains. “I try to reincarnate things as much as possible.” When asked if there is any effort to reduce waste that goes over the top, Mei shares, “It all depends on what you think is weird. I will sometimes think my mom is going too far. I’m like, ‘You don’t need all these takeout sauces.’ And then she’ll put together a chicken marinade from all her different takeout sauces and I’m like, ‘OK, that was really good.’”
A tremendous amount of natural resources and energy are expended in all aspects of food production, so for those who are passionate about fighting climate change, minimizing food waste plays an important role. Food production and transportation systems generate carbon dioxide, and when food is disposed of and enters landfills it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes pollution and affects the climate detrimentally. According to the USDA, food waste makes up 24 percent of materials found in landfills, more than any other substance.
With all of these impacts and perspectives in mind, Food Waste Feast’s next venture, their cookbook titled Perfectly Good Food, will take shape with a new approach to recipes.
“In writing our cookbook, thinking about the way that recipes are often written, you realize how it can be very limiting,” Mei says. She explains that shopping for and cooking recipes with long, specific ingredient lists means that home cooks often end up with leftover ingredients that sit on a shelf and expire or that they don’t know how to use up in another way.
Perfectly Good Food recipes are more expansive: a recipe may call for two cups of chopped root vegetables rather than golden beets. One of the book’s philosophies is to think about ingredients in categories like grains and leafy greens. Ingredients within these categories can often be swapped for similar results, and that adaptability can help reduce waste and often make for more tasty, flexible, and personalized dishes.
“It might not be exactly the way it looks in that beautiful magazine cover,” Mei says, “but it’s gonna taste perfectly good.”
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