In Charleston, we hop on the latest foodie trends. But our insistence on the coolest ingredients and the prettiest foods is part of the reason that America discards or rejects 40 percent of all food produced in this country, said Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation during a panel here on food waste last week at Le Creuset’s L’Atelier.

We want our food fresh and unblemished. But sometimes, ugly food or leftover food is what we should be looking for. Robert Stehling, chef and owner of Hominy Grill, has people standing in line for breakfast, but even then, he has to figure out what to do with 150 leftover biscuits a day and “there’s only so much bread pudding you can make,” he said during the panel.

Stehling, along with chefs Jill Mathias of Chez Nous and Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Saveur special projects editor Leslie Pariseau, joined Davis for the food waste discussion that marked the end of a 10-city Taste America tour for the foundation.

The problem is not just food we throw overboard, but food we go overboard for, the speakers explained.

Take Greek yogurt, the current breakfast darling.

“The great thing about American food culture is that we don’t have an American food culture,” Barber said. “That means we can move on trends with dizzying speed, like sushi, kale, quinoa, or Greek yogurt. The problem is it’s singular and not connected to a larger system. “In Greece, they use whey to marinate lamb. In America, the Greek yogurt is the end of the story, and farmers are required to bring back the whey and dispose of it themselves. It’s crazy because whey is nutritious and delicious.”

The whey, he says, acidifies the farmers’ soil when they dispose of it.

“Our love of Greek yogurt has created an environmental hazard because of the waste that is produced by that desire,” Davis said.

Barber added, it’s important for Americans to look at their diet holistically.

“I was eating at the Glass Onion and I was served a version of Hoppin’ John. What I learned was that the dish evolved because soils collapsed around 1820 in the South and a lot of farmers dropped their plows and moved West,” Barber said.

The soil salvation came, he says, when slaves used their knowledge of “thoughtful crop rotation” and planted beans in the rice fields to allow the soil to recover nitrogen robbed by generations of rice planting.

“Hoppin John encapsulated that,” Barber said. “You couldn’t have your rice without your beans. I thought the dish was evolving out of culinary tradition, but it was utilizing all the resources — another definition of waste — and calling it cuisine.”

The chefs on the panel all say restaurants can do their part to diversity food and reduce waste.

“Our goal is to run out every day and, if something is left, we turn it into something else the next day or a couple of days later,” said Mathias, whose Chez Nous seats only 36.

“I’m at the opposite end of the scale,” Stehling added. “With more volume, it creates a lot of opportunity to reuse and redirect leftovers. We do breakfast and anything from service the night before can be chopped up, covered with cheese, and put in an omelet. It gives us a lot of flexibility.”

Consumers play a role as well.

“Consumers could be open-minded as to what’s offered that is outside of their comfort zone. Our food is very rustic and sometimes that’s not what they want to eat that day, but it’s what we have,” Mathias said when asked how consumers can reduce food waste.

“Certainly consumers need to take responsibility for their education,” Stehling said, adding that the demand for only “pretty apples” in stores and restaurants is part of the problem.

“We can afford to leave things on the table just because we don’t like the way it looks. That’s a symptom of a rich society,” Stehling said.

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