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Finding solutions to food waste

Two waste bins are placed at each food station in the kitchen at Trezo Mare, a restaurant in Briarcliff Village in Kansas City, Mo., one for waste and the other for food waste. (Payne Roberts for Harvest Public Media)
Two waste bins are placed at each food station in the kitchen at Trezo Mare, a restaurant in Briarcliff Village in Kansas City, Mo., one for waste and the other for food waste. (Payne Roberts for Harvest Public Media)
About the author
Intern

Payne Roberts joined Harvest Public Media as an intern in May 2013.

Nearly 50 million Americans lack the resources or funding to know where their next meal will come from, according to 2012 hunger documentary “Taking a Place at the Table.” But, it’s not as if we don’t have enough food for all. In fact, the answer to solving problems like hunger could be in our garbage.

According to a 2009 study released by the National Institutes of Health, 40 percent of the nation’s food goes uneaten. Bloomberg Businessweek estimates that value is equivalent to $180 billion worth of food. That’s a resource that could possibly feed the 1 in 7 Americans who is using the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps, a service that cost taxpayers $78 billion in 2012.

The food waste problem, though, doesn’t end there. All of that food waste winds up somewhere, most often in one of the nation’s 1,900 landfills. Food dumped in landfills can break down and produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas with 20 times the comparative impact on climate change than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

So, how do we decrease food waste? Both public and private organizations are addressing the issue, searching for solutions. 

An Online Challenge

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are sponsoring the Food Waste Challenge, their attempt to decrease food waste. The program will create an online forum where businesses and government agencies across the country can list the activities and practices they have implemented to reduce, recycle and reuse food waste.

Participants in the challenge can also post individual goals for decreasing food waste on the forum, which can be found on the USDA’s website. Periodically, the USDA will post status reports on these goals.

Elise Golan, USDA director for sustainable development, says the idea for the challenge began internally.

“USDA, we did some soul-searching,” Golan said. “We wanted to look internally at our own programs, projects and policies and see if there were things we could do that we could do, that we had to do to help facilitate the reduction, recovering and recycling of food and food waste.”

The USDA then decided to expand the program to include the public. Ultimately, it hopes to gain 1,000 participants by 2020 and in doing so, inspire a shift in culture.

“We feel that as we build that participant base, we will really start to see a change in attitude in the country about how we think about food and food waste,” Golan said.  

Recycling Restaurant Food

Trezo Mare, a restaurant in Briarcliff Village in Kansas City, Mo., recycles 80 percent of its food waste. Aaron Wells, chef de cuisine at Trezo Mare, says the restaurant makes a conscious effort to be Earth-friendly.

“It’s part of who we are,” Wells said.

Trezo Mare rids of its waste through a program called F.R.E.D., or Food Residual Environmental Diversion. The program began in 2003 after Missouri Organic, an organic recycling facility in Kansas City, received a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to collect and compost food waste. It’s a service Kevin Anderson, president of Missouri Organic, calls completing the circle.

“We’re taking the waste stream that would otherwise go to the landfill and creating these products – compost, mulches, custom soil blends - and getting that material into food production with urban gardens and a lot of backyard gardens,” Anderson said.

Missouri Organic collects food waste from 120 clients in the Kansas City area and recycles the material to create top-soil, mulch and compost. The business serves clients Anderson says have an “environmental-mindset” because it costs more than typical waste services. However, he says as the company expands, prices are stabilizing and sometimes decreasing. Their goal is to make recycling food waste no more expensive than throwing it out.

“Right now, we’re working on a model to be cost-neutral with the landfill,” Anderson says.

Anderson says Missouri Organic’s client base is growing 10-20 percent each year and was able to divert 20,000 tons of food waste from landfills in 2012.

A 2008 study conducted by BioCycle, the U.S. Composting Council’s official magazine, reports there were 267 food waste composting sites in the U.S., 92 which operate under a centralized model like Missouri Organic. Centralized facilities collect the waste from homes and businesses and compost at one, central facility. Nora Goldstein, editor at BioCycle, estimates the number of centralized models that collect food waste has grown to somewhere between 200 and 225 commercial and municipal facilities in the U.S.

Building Momentum

Reducing and recycling food waste is a budding industry that is developing every day. Practices for ridding of food waste vary and new ideas are forming – one of the reasons the Food Waste Challenge will host an online inventory of participant activities.

“We’re hoping it will stimulate other companies or organizations across the food supply chain to adopt some of those practices or to think of their own,” Golan said.