The moment that Louise handed me a plastic clamshell box full of hot spaghetti for breakfast was a turning point in my perspective about food. The noodles glistened with a light coat of oil and a few flecks of onion, with a big dollop of ketchup and mayo on the side.
I had spent enough time in Haiti by this point that I was numb to the novelty of eating spaghetti - Haitian style - at 8 am in the morning with condiments that Americans like me normally reserve for french fries, hotdogs, and hamburgers.
Holding the box, I turned to Rodolph - who was officially my translator - although that title makes his role sound too formal, connoting dress shoes and linguistic expertise. Rodolph was an astute flip-flop wearing 21-year-old living in the neighborhood who knew a handful of words in English. Although we had only known each other for less than a year we had become fast friends, and he and his buddies were my constant companions in Port-au-Prince.
“Rodolph, why didn’t Louise cook breakfast for everybody today?”
Rodolph shrugged. “Maybe she didn’t have money to buy food for everybody.” His countenance conveyed no emotion, as if to avoid something tender and painful that was a part of this quotidian reality. I had encountered this expression on the faces of others in Port-au-Prince; people facing overwhelming obstacles who appeared detached, a result of withstanding unfathomable hardship. Coming from a culture in California that was both abundant and expressive, it confounded me. I took a deep breath.
This was my second trip as a volunteer in Haiti. Every day, Louise, a young women in her mid-20’s, prepared breakfast for me, Rodolph and his best friend, and everybody in her family. I paid Louise’s elderly mother - known tenderly by everybody in the neighborhood as simply “Mama” - $100 per week for my homestay, which meant sleeping in my tent a few feet away from their outdoor kitchen, stashing my belongings in their home, and eating breakfast and dinner with the family.
“What will you eat?” I asked Rodolph. “And what about Peterson, Mama, Mirelle, Samson, Roseline, Leonce, and Louise?”
Rodolph shrugged again. “We’ll be okay.”
“Without breakfast?” My voice started to sound shrill.
If Louise didn’t have money to buy food to cook, then surely she did not have the cash to get food from street vendors.
My hunger pangs, intensified by the heat and the fact that dinner had been served at 3pm the day before, propelled me to open the lid of the clamshell, stick the thin plastic fork into the steaming noodles and twist. The noodles slithered across each other until the flimsy fork was straining against the weight, and I took a bite and savored the taste. I sensed Samson and Roseline in the other room laying on mattresses, conspicuously looking the other way. I thought about the hunger pangs that would haunt them all morning at school. I felt hot tears escape my eyes and begin to streak down my cheeks. I closed the clamshell box and handed it to Rodolph. “Please, eat it,” I said, “And share it with the others.”
Rodolph began to protest but I stopped him. “Please,” I said firmly, and then I stood up and walked to my tent. Rodolph and I both knew that I had snack bars in my luggage and that I could afford to purchase food elsewhere during the day.
Our domain of influence is sometimes very small. But small things matter. They add up.
The reason I remember that morning in Haiti was the contrast of it to my life back home. Sure, I skipped meals all the time: when I was busy, or in a rush, or when I slept in on weekends, or when I ate too much the night before. Sure, I was conscious about the cost of food when eating out, and I ate an unusual amount of top ramen during my first year living on my own after college. But never, ever, ever had I skipped a meal because I couldn't afford 99 cents for a package of pasta.
I thought of all the food I had wasted in my day-to-day life. The half-eaten sandwiches. The cucumbers that grew mold before I had a chance to chop them up. Take-out boxes with partially consumed chow. Tupperware containers full of leftovers that were eventually dumped into the compost. Prior to that morning in Haiti, amid the competing priorities of my life, wasting small quantities of food didn’t really register on my radar. Because there was always plenty to meet my body’s caloric needs, and not just for me, but for my friends, my family, and just about everyone I knew. That day was different. That day was the day that people I cared deeply about - my kind and generous host family - didn’t have money for spaghetti for breakfast. It was a mundane moment that suddenly wasn’t mundane anymore.
It wasn’t my only “aha” moment in Haiti. There were so many others. Moments that opened my eyes wide. Some of them were utterly haunting: chance encounters with kids that had skinny limbs and extended bellies - a symptom of acute malnutrition called kwashiorkor. Babies wasting away. I have very little to say about witnessing these heartbreaking horrors.
I will tell this story: on one of my subsequent trips to Haiti, Rodolph and I - along with a merry band of amazing photographers and activists - taught a week-long photography class at an after school program. Two of my favorite students - each about 8 or 9 years old - were a pair of best friends who were prodigiously energetic, spunky, and determined.
At the end of the week, as we were preparing the gallery for their exhibit, I asked them how old they were exactly, so I could put their age on their name card next to their art.
“Fourteen,” they told me in unison. I faltered. How could these little guys possibly be 14?
A vice tightened on my chest as the reality of the situation slowly sunk in: likely they had severe growth stunting, a result of chronic undernourishment. It doesn’t mean they are just a little short for their age, it means lifelong consequences to their overall health and brain development. A tragedy of massive proportions. And these kids are not a statistic. They are two children I adore, multiplied by a couple million across Haiti, and about 144 million across the globe (according to the World Health Organization). It is mind blowing to me that such an easily preventable scourge continues to plague children in the 21st Century.
Again, I thought of all the food I had wasted, and wished, for an irrational moment, that I could FedEx my weekly leftovers to their doorstep.
But no matter how hard my experiences in Haiti rocked me, after each trip I would eventually settle back into my comfortable life in San Francisco, and, after a while, not flinch at dishing out $16 for a craft cocktail with French nougat-infused spirits and a dusting of fennel pollen.
It is hard to reconcile these twin worlds of need and excess. I don’t pretend to have any answers as to how to live ethically in a world of such enormous disparity and injustice. Except to do what I can. On most days, it is a very small thing. But maybe if we all did small things, it could add up.
In fact, it does add up. America does not eat 40% of its food. And in case you’re thinking it’s the supply chain to blame (farms, supermarkets, restaurants, etc), yeah, they are big culprits, but so are each of us, tossing about 400 pounds of food annually. The costs are staggering: $218 billion to the economy, 21% of fresh water from growing food that will be wasted, 2.6% of all greenhouse gasses from food rotting in landfills.
My experiences in Haiti inspired me to want to reverse these trends, to remember how precious food felt there, to bridge these worlds. I wanted to craft a food philosophy that does not forsake the incredible pleasures of food, but that also serves as a gesture of gratitude for every morsel at my table. To honor the preciousness of food, and to fight for a future where everybody has access to adequate nutrition as a basic human right. There is enough food to feed the world if we cherish all food and all people equally.
My credo is simple: use everything. Every grain of rice leftover from Chinese take-out and both halves of every sandwich. By having zero food waste in my kitchen, I try to let my enjoyment of food be a reminder of the values I hold dear in the most visceral way possible: with every delicious bite.
Rescuing a stem of cilantro may have a marginal impact but the cumulative effect of more people wasting less has the potential to pack a serious punch. And the symbolism matters. In the same way that many food traditions are an expression of religious beliefs or the way that dietary habits become a sense of identity, using food to its full potential has become a ritual for me that aligns nourishing my body with nourishing the world. A reminder to put making-our-world-a-better-place-ism front and center in our daily habits, as well as in our grand ambitions.
I confess: it’s also a form of gamification that forces me to push my creativity in the kitchen. Just like an episode of Top Chef, my husband - and chief collaborator in all things - will inventory the fridge with me to see what needs to be used up: quinoa, scallions, basil, and egg? We got this!
The definition of useavore: to relish using food. Every bit of it. I’m excited to offer our tips and tricks for minimizing food waste, and whether you are vegan or flexitarian, whether you keep kosher or halal, whether you do Paleo or South Beach, we welcome you to join in and become a useavore too!
And with that, here is a handy recipe:
Haitian Breakfast Spaghetti
• Spaghetti noodles, either freshly cooked better yet, leftovers
• A bit of oil
• Some finely chopped shallot or onion (scallions or leeks would work too)
• Dash of salt
• Condiments: mayo and ketchup
• Optional: 1 hot dog, sliced into ¼ thick rounds
Directions: Sauté shallot or onion in the oil over medium heat until translucent. Add optional hot dog slices and cook until slightly browned. Add spaghetti and toss until warm. Sprinkle with salt. Serve with condiments. You got this!