PORTSMOUTH ó There's certainly enough food to feed the world's hungry people, but rather, the challenge is having the logistics to get it around, said Deb Anthony, executive director of Gather food pantry.

In the second half of 2018, Gather repurposed 12,645 pounds of food that otherwise would have gone to waste. From that, volunteers created more than 9,800 meals originally slated for the landfill. As food slowly decomposes once in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It's said a single orange peel can take upwards of six months to break down.

There's a lot being done on the Seacoast to address the colossal issue of food waste. Forty percent of food produced nationwide is wasted, in a country where upwards of 40 million people are food insecure, according to the USDA. At Gather, which serves 1,100 families a month in Seacoast New Hampshire and southern Maine, they're making sure most, if not all of the food they receive actually goes into stomachs, whether that be humans, or the pigs fed their compost in a neighboring town.

Seacoast chefs are implementing sustainable practices in their kitchens by composting, using "all of the animal," and turning repurposed or uncommon foods into delicacies. American restaurants are often known as locations of immense food waste, where hundreds of pounds of food daily are shoveled off unfinished plates into trashcans. But many chefs, particularly in Portsmouth, have recognized their duty in the larger food system as responsible creators, and how that shapes their product, and management of their kitchens.†

In the words of the late and revered Anthony Bourdain from his 2017 documentary film "Wasted!," "Use everything, waste nothing."

Fighting hunger

The Seacoast's largest food pantry and hunger relief organization, Portsmouth-based Gather has cut its food waste by more than 40 percent, with 48 percent of the "saved" food avoiding compost and actually going into hungry bellies. That reduction occurred in just six months.

"We started looking at how much food we were throwing away, and then looking at how much of that food we were able to get out the door," Anthony said. Active in composting, Gather already saw Mr. Fox Composting pick up their waste weekly, and a Greenland farmer stopped by regularly to pick up a load to feed his pigs.

"We were doing good feeding the pigs, but we wanted to get it to the people," Anthony said. "We wanted to cook it, but we didn't have a kitchen."

The pantry formed a partnership with Cross Roads House homeless shelter, which has a large licensed industrial kitchen that often goes unused during the daytime hours. That was the beginning of Gather's "Pantry 2 Table" program, which on a weekly basis sees volunteers prepare full meals using food that otherwise would have gone to waste. That includes much of the food Gather receives from fresh rescue; donations from Hannaford or Trader Joe's that are a day or two from expiration.

Gather volunteers cook at Cross Roads twice a week, and sometimes St. John's Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, totaling a weekly output of 250 meals. The meals are delivered to the homes of seniors, and put on the shelves at the Friday pantry market.

"One, weíre saving food and repurposing it," Anthony said. "And two, we found it works pretty well to get people to eat healthy."

The meals each week depend largely on what food they have that day. Anthony laughed it's a lot like the Food Network's "Chopped," where volunteers get creative with what they have. They've done Shepherd's pie, chicken Parmesan, meatloaf, stuffed peppers, pork chops with sides, soups, bread puddings and apple crisps. Anthony said they never have issue getting volunteers; it's a chance for people to cook together, while doing good for the community.

Gleaning, the ancient practice of harvesting unwanted food, has been another piece of Gather's food rescue efforts. Nonprofit New Hampshire Gleans collects thousands of pounds of fresh produce, particularly in the summer and fall, that would have otherwise gone to waste. Farmers typically call the group when they're getting ready to turnover a crop, or incoming weather could potentially damage a certain vegetable or fruit. Gather gets many of those hauls, and is even able to help stock smaller pantries.

Gather recently brought on board Kelsey MacDonald, the Seacoast gleaning coordinator, so Anthony thinks the gleaning aspect is something they can really "beef up" this approaching farm season.

"I think the Seacoast is uniquely aware and there is a lot of activism going on around food waste in general," Anthony said. "The restaurants are engaging in ways that they havenít in the past. Mr. Fox came into town and made a big hit several years ago. And he made it easy. Thereís a new kind of energy around that."

Anthony said Gather will go into strategic planning this spring, discussing where it wants to focus efforts going forward, and food waste will certainly be a piece of that. "If you talk to people who are forward thinking, we all recognize that food pantries arenít the solution. They shouldn't be, but they are. We need to examine our bigger and larger food systems. We need to rethink how we handle food waste."

Chef innovation

Last month, Slow Food Seacoast, in partnership with Heirloom Harvest Project, Heron Pond Farm and Bakie Farm Initiative, hosted a barn feast in Kingston featuring some of the region's most well-known chefs, where they collaborated to create a meal using only local repurposed foods.

David Vargas of Vida Cantina and Ore Nell's BBQ, and Matt Louis of Moxy and The Franklin, were two of those chefs, and both are keenly aware of their roles in reducing waste.

For Vargas, the mindset he uses in his kitchen today stems from his childhood. "Personally, I have something deeper than just being a chef," he said. "Growing up super poor is a huge thing as far as what I teach in the kitchen now. We were taught you just never throw away food."

A way for chefs to address waste, Vargas said, is to "utilize every single part of what our community has to offer, as far as proteins, vegetables, dairy." For example, Vargas and his culinary team regularly freeze protein scraps, because "we don't know how we're going to use it at that time, but we do know they are useful in the future."

"Implementing that mindset as a chef is such a big deal for me because our community is so reliant on our food system that we have to be in touch with it in so many different ways," he said. Vargas said another challenge is incorporating more unusual foods or animal parts into an everyday dish that customers will be apt to order.

"It's like how can we incorporate livers, hearts and brains into everyday dishes that will help elevate the flavors and almost be hidden?" he said.

Louis piggybacked off the sentiment, but noted it's up to diners to have an open mind. "A huge way we can all be part of this is opening ourselves up to eating different things," he said.

Once at Moxy, they served a fried fish skeleton, which turned out to be pretty popular. The skeletons otherwise would have gone to stock, or some type of waste, whether trash or compost.

"A lot of it for us, even before food waste, is actually utilization of a variety of products, perhaps lesser known or underutilized, whether it be fish, or meats or vegetables," Louis said. Moxy is known for utilizing whole animals, instead of just isolating prime meat cuts.

"We work with a lot of whole animals and every part of that animal we use," he said. "The bones, the kidneys, the tongues. We use some goat, which is maybe a little bit against the grain." Earlier this week, Moxy had pig head with bone marrow aioli on the menu. Last month, it advertised a goat carcass from an Epping farm that they planned to use every bit of, right down to the clean fat for confit.

A big piece is the local aspect, too. Louis said if a farmer down the road grows a large turnip crop, but "instead people want to order avocados from Mexico," those turnips are likely to go to waste.

"For me the conversation starts there," he said. "The more that we can be adamant about looking at what's available right outside our doors, and using that, inevitably right there we're already chipping away at the food waste problem."

At The Franklin, another example of keeping a renewable resource out of the landfill, all oyster shells go back into Great Bay through a Coastal Conservation Association of New Hampshire program, helping regenerate oyster reefs.

Vargas said Seacoast chefs are like a "secret group chat," constantly sharing ideas with each other. That's clear, considering the number of establishments that have taken on food waste and sustainability initiatives in the last several years.

Jumpin' Jay's Fish Cafe collects all of its food waste in composting bins, and gets a weekly visit from Mr. Fox, as does the Portsmouth Brewery, only its spent malt and hops from the beer brewing process are used for farm animal feed.