Waste Not Want Not: A conversation with chef Alison Mountford about America’s food resources

Alison Mountford + veggies in her home kitchen. (Photo: Ends + Stems)

The rectangle of light from the open fridge illuminates the darkening kitchen. Behind its doors stands a woman with glazed over eyes, staring into an abyss of options. She releases a sigh of exasperation. It is a sigh of exasperation heard across the country, at the end of the work day, as we all trudge back home and confront the big, cold, metal box of mystery. If we do not love to cook, or even know how, the question, “What am I going to make for dinner?” is as daunting as any. Especially as we look in our fridge and see the cornucopia of food — some purchased on the ill-advised store run we made while hungry, an assortment of e ingredients purchased when we ambitiously wanted to follow some obscure recipe that only called for 1 tsp of a $30 jar, and don’t forget about the bottom pull-out drawers that might as well be a graveyard for celery and lettuce. Looking upon this landscape, the average American might feel paralyzed with options, and the guilt of wasting food. Thankfully, Alison Mountford, renowned chef and food waste expert, has made it her mission to help solve this problem.


Mountford is the owner and founder of Ends + Stems, a meal plan service that offers recipes designed to eliminate food waste by reducing portion size, eliminating specialty ingredients, and working with what is already in the fridge. But, reducing food waste was not something Mountford originally planned on pursuing; life has a funny way of bringing you to things you couldn’t imagine. Mountford began as a personal chef in San Francisco in 2005, eventually she opened her own café and started a meal delivery service. She and her team of chefs would go into affluent households, cook extravagant meals, and watch as her customers spent most of the evening talking and drinking rather than eating. “They just wanted the food to say they could have it,” says Mountford. “They would throw away so much of it, and there were still so many leftovers. It was so frustrating, even with food rescue services it can be hard to donate all of it.”

After reading a National Resources Defense Council report on the environmental impacts of wasted food, Mountford decided to pursue an alternate path. “There has to be more than just cooking nice food for rich people who can throw it away.”

Mountford wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, for America’s vapid waste. By working and cooking for other people, she developed a unique perspective on how much the average household wastes. Ends + Stems began with interviews. She interviewed around 1,000 people about why it was hard to make dinner, why it was hard to cook at home, and why they thought they wasted food. The most common answer was that preparing dinner was simply overwhelming. “People didn’t have time to decide what to make for dinner based on the food they already had in their fridge. People wanted help when they were looking in the fridge to decide what to cook.” So Ends + Stems was created to help people make use of what they have.

If you go on the Ends + Stems website, you’ll find an exciting feature that allows you to plug two ingredients that you already have in your fridge into an online generator, which will spit out some easy recipes that you can make with your chosen ingredients. I, like a child given free reign to catch an adult in a mistake, spent awhile with this feature. Typing in everything from tofu to plum juice, to see if it could actually give me a recipe with any ingredient, and to my slight chagrin, it passed the test.

Creating a product such as Mountford’s is a useful tool in a society that needs to be increasingly concerned with its health, and with preserving natural resources. It is no secret that the American food system is failing us, and learning how to cook our own food — and do it responsibly — is something that can save us; if not on a national level, then one household at a time. Mountford says we are so quick to throw food away because we are far removed from it. “The further we get from growing our own food, from the life cycle of the food, the further we get from what’s normal and what’s not normal. If you don’t have any experience in the life cycle of food, you don’t know what it is.” For someone that wants to re-acquaint themselves with natural foods, and redesign their diet, Mountford advocates for making smaller changes. “The most important advice I give individuals is to pick spaces that concern you. Start really small, make a few changes, find a few farmers markets. How could you not let food go to waste? How could you eat less meat? How could you buy one locally produced item?”

Mountford was part of a team that won the first ever EPA grant to educate people on food waste at Drexel University. When she began as an educator against waste, it was through the popular medium of Instagram. Being recognized by the EPA, and given money to enact change, helped reinforce her belief that there was an audience that cared about being less wasteful. “It is so super, super exciting. Since I started, my theory is that people will change their behavior, they just need to understand how and why.” With this grant, Ends + Stems will create a series of short videos based on “culinary home empowerment.” At the end of the videos, patrons will answer a quick scientific questionnaire that will be collected for data, and then given a self-led course with a series of lessons on food waste.

As well as educating individuals on a national level, on a local level Mountford is the director of marketing for Providence run Hope & Main. Hope & Main is a place for over 100 small food businesses to connect, organize, and create. As a native Rhode Islander, Mountford is passionate about preserving the diversity and excellence of Providence’s food culture. “Providence is known for good food. If we don’t keep it local, it will be easier for chains to come in. I just want to see the powers that be, whether it be the governors or the big funders, put some rocketfuel behind it. The power and the talent is here, let’s make it bigger.” If we reduce chain restaurants, we can reduce waste. More local businesses means more farmers markets, which means more good food grown from the ground. More giving back, less taking from.

You can find Alison Mountford on “The Rhode Show,” in her series “What’s in Your Fridge,” every Tuesday beginning March 5. Also at endsandstems.com, as well as her instagram @endsandstems

Food Trucks: