Meet Brennan Coker. She is a sustainability content creator and environmental advocate who uses her platform to combat everyday food waste. Her birthday is Earth Day, so she was quite literally born to do this. Coker understands that it takes more than one person’s effort to combat food waste, so she encourages “imperfect sustainability” to her growing viewership of 146K+ TikTok followers, helping food-waste newbies learn to live a low-impact lifestyle. But how did she get started? Below, she explains.

Spoon University: When did you find yourself really invested in the zero waste movement?

Brennan Coker: Environmentalism has been a part of my life since I was very young, as both of my parents were environmentalists. However, it wasn’t until after I spent a year living in northern Germany at the age of 18 that I became very aware of all of the changes that we could make to our daily lives to have a positive impact on our environment and inspire others. I started to make changes to my daily routines once I was living on my own and haven’t looked back since. I feel a responsibility to share just how simple and attainable these lifestyle changes can really be, and I feel very fortunate to have a platform where I can do just that.

SU: Where do you find inspiration for your recipes?

BC: Honestly, my main source of inspiration is the ingredients themselves. I do my best to plan my recipes around individual ingredients, whether that’s a bunch of carrots that are leftover in my fridge and need to be used up or some kind of seasonal fruit I found at the farmers market that inspired me. I really believe that eating seasonally, and what we have available to us, is ideal. It helps me to get creative in the kitchen, try new things, and avoid food waste at the same time.

SU: What are some misconceptions people have about food waste?

BC: Simply put, the biggest misconception I see regarding food waste is that it’s not as big of a problem as it really is. I feel people underestimate just how much food is just needlessly wasted in the U.S. on a daily basis. We see arbitrary expiration dates and assume we have to stick to them no matter what. We internalize the idea that food with imperfections should automatically go to the trash. The truth is, there are millions of food insecure households in the United States today, all while 40% of our food supply is wasted. In my eyes, that’s unacceptable.

SU: I love your garbage soup videos! How do you know what ingredients to put in, and does it always turn out delicious?

BC: Garbage soup is one of my favorite ways to use up the odds and ends in the back of my fridge at the end of the week. I usually stick to a simple formula — brown some onions and garlic, chop and add the rest of the veggies I have on hand, top with veggie broth, and pressure cook until everything is tender. I always flavor it all with a mix of spices that suit my personal taste. I once heard a chef I worked with say, "A bad cook is just someone who doesn’t understand how to use spices," and it has always stuck with me.

Understanding flavor profiles is key. Most of the time, with delicious aromatics like garlic, onions, herbs, plenty of good quality salt, and fresh cracked pepper, it’s hard for much to taste bad. I have definitely made some soups that were better than others, but with some practice, it’s really unlikely for a batch of garbage soup to end up a complete failure. I always suggest that you loosely base them off of recipes you find online until you get the hang of it.

SU: In cases where recipes don’t turn out great, what do you do? How do you revive a “failed” recipe?

BC: Usually, the best option for me is throwing anything vegetable-based into a soup and anything fruit-based into some kind of smoothie. I really enjoy the challenge. How can we repurpose this? What can this be used for? It’s a lot of fun for me. The truth is, sometimes things just aren’t great. Thankfully, I have the ability to compost as a last resort, which is always a good option for anything that just isn’t salvageable. But when it comes to food waste, I’ve not been known to give up easily.

SU: You grow a lot of your own herbs. How would you suggest doing that if someone lives in a small space?

BC: Having a fully-fledged garden is on my list of goals for the future, but I do what I can with my current living situation, and I’m very happy with it! Growing herbs in pots is a really beginner-friendly option for anyone who wants to get more into growing their own food but doesn’t have all the resources they think they need to go all out. I’ve had success growing things like basil, mint, and oregano indoors, and they’re very great starter plants that can take your recipes to the next level.

I have also been lucky enough to own a hydroponics garden tower, which has been incredible. They’re certainly not always the most budget-friendly purchase, but they serve as a great solution for those of us who want to garden without having the green space to do so. I love that every time I move, it can come with me. The joy of eating food you grew yourself really is unmatched.

SU: To learn more about reducing food waste, what are some of your favorite resources?

BC: Perhaps this is an unorthodox answer, but when in doubt, look to the past. How did our grandparents make food last? How can we utilize those old-world practices in our new world?

SU: How would you suggest that college students take steps (big and small) to reduce food waste on their campus?

BC: I encourage students to start with a “fridge audit.” Take a look at what food you use most, what items are often wasted in your home, and use that information to make a plan. Meal planning helps reduce food waste and saves money, and freezing leftovers is another great option.

I first began getting interested in food waste reduction as a college student myself, so I’m very aware of just how hopeless it can feel at times. I want to assure you, it’s not! Give yourself grace and remember that any small changes you are able to make in your own unique set of circumstances can have very big impacts. Focus on the big picture and do the best you can. 

Follow @brennan.kai on TikTok for more sustainability and food waste videos, including some fabulous garbage soup recipes.