By Brandi Clark Burton
While most of us enjoy eating, very few people truly appreciate the enormous amounts of human, environmental and economic resources that go into making our meals possible. We are learning to eat seasonally, but lemonade in the summer—just when you need it most—is not coming from local lemons. And those of us who consume kale year-round will have to outsource when the blazing Texas sun makes growing it here untenable.
The average vegetable travels 1,300 miles to arrive on your plate, and that’s after the whole process of planting, growing, harvesting, processing and packaging.
The rotten truth is that after all that effort to obtain the food, much of it goes uneaten. An estimated 25 percent of what enters American homes gets wasted. And the average U.S. household spends more than $133 a month, or $1,600 per year, on food it throws away.
Even worse, in the U.S., we waste 40 percent of our food from farm to table. Altogether, it’s enough to fill Texas Memorial Stadium every day. Globally, up to 50 percent of edible food is wasted. A recent study commissioned by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 1.3 billion metric tons of food goes to waste annually around the world. That’s one-third of all food produced for humans.
Currently, most food waste goes straight to landfills, which is about the worst place it could go. Landfill deposits are sealed over with a layer of daily landfill cover, which leads to the anaerobic breakdown of the food. So rather than turning into soil, it generates the potent greenhouse gas methane, contributing to global warming.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the millions of missed opportunities to use the food and food scraps for higher and better uses. Food-recovery hierarchies developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Composting Council show the priorities in food recovery from the most preferable at the top to the least preferable at the bottom (see chart below).
The top choice on the chart is source reduction—this means preventing waste from happening. Next best is to feed people—specifically, hungry people. Wasted food is even more tragic when you realize that 49 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That’s 1 in 6 Americans, or about the same number as the entire populations of the 25 least-populated states. Even more heartbreaking: over 16 million of those who are food insecure in the U.S. are children. This is nearly the same number of all kids enrolled in every kindergarten, first, second and third grades.
Food donations are important, although there is a lot of fear around liability associated with handing food off to someone else who might become sick or die from eating it. Thankfully, federal and state legal protection is provided to businesses who donate food to nonprofit organizations via the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 and Texas’s Good Faith Donor Act of 1981.
In the Austin area, more than 120 agencies offer food assistance to people in need, yet it is not enough to keep up with demand. Though it cannot address the full scope of the problem, an effective system of food donors, food runners and possibly some digital applications can redirect to hungry people what is currently being thrown away. Keep Austin Fed is a small organization recovering food from a limited number of restaurants and bakeries and delivering that food to places like Easter Seals and SafePlace. After a bit of soul-searching, the group is gearing up to grow into the type of organization that can handle much more robust local food-recovery efforts.
In September 2011, I asked the City of Austin and Travis County’s Sustainable Food Policy Board to create a food-surplus-and-salvage working group. We spent over a year researching facts, legalities, programs and resources, as well as networking and meeting with local food groups to develop and understand the landscape of food recovery. One outcome of our efforts was having the Austin City Council declare 2013 the Year of Food Waste Prevention and Recovery.
Our working group, now called Food Shift Austin, is collaborating with Food Shift (in Oakland, CA) and EcoCampaigns to create a compelling initiative to align leaders, raise awareness and shift practices around food purchasing, handling and disposal.
The bottom line is that we need to stop paying to put food in landfills, where it has negative impacts, and instead use that food to achieve positive results—feeding people and animals, as well as generating biofuel and healthy soil. In the U.S., we spend $750 million a year to dispose of food. What if we spent that same money to recover food? Part of what is needed is a fundamental shift in the way food is valued on a cultural level. The line of thinking that led to the rebranding of Austin Solid Waste Services to Austin Resource Recovery is the same thought process we need to have around food. Food waste is still food—for humans, animals or microbes in compost. If surplus food is not suitable for human consumption, it can be used for feeding animals, for industrial uses or at least for turning into compost.
In December 2011, the Austin City Council unanimously approved the adoption of Austin Resource Recovery’s Master Plan, also known as the Zero Waste plan. If Austin is going to achieve zero waste, meaning 90-plus percent diversion from landfills or incineration, we must solve this food-waste problem.
The good news is that the size of the problem also indicates the size of the opportunity. We can take heart in knowing it is not this way in every culture, nor have Americans always been this wasteful. Many remember the efforts to grow victory gardens and not waste food during World War II. We can shift our culture to those values and practices again.
We are at an exciting time in history when we can redefine what is acceptable when it comes to food waste, and develop a variety of solutions that are good for people, animals and our environment, as well as our economy and our wallets.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
PREVENT FOOD WASTE AT HOME
We all have produce cull and trimmings, and even the most vigilant food savers end up with the occasional wilted lettuce or moldy leftovers. Try these ideas to minimize the volume of waste:
• Buy less, more often.
• Scan your refrigerator, freezer and pantry before heading out to the farmers market or the store. Plan dishes and meals that incorporate what you already have that needs to be used first.
• Learn about your food’s shelf life and how long it can be stored in the freezer. “Best by” and “use by” dates are not yet standardized or regulated and do not necessarily mean that the food is inedible if it’s past one of those dates. Trust your nose.
• Learn how to properly store food to extend its useful life. Putting things in the right bag, container or drawer in the refrigerator can make the difference of many days of usefulness.
• Use the freezer to temporarily stop the aging process. Turn fruit into smoothies or ice pops, and collect veggie trimmings for soup stock.
• Eat on smaller plates—it reduces food waste by about 20 percent.
• Adopt a system for diverting food scraps, produce trimmings and spoiled food. Implement or gain access to a composting system or animals that enjoy food scraps. If you don’t have a yard, consider indoor composting systems. You can also toss scraps into a bucket in the freezer and when it gets full, transport it to a neighbor’s chickens or community garden’s compost pile. Note: In 2013 nearly 8,000 Austin households are participating in a curbside food waste and yard trimmings collection pilot program.
PREVENT FOOD WASTE WHEN GOING OUT
• Order food family style.
• Split large entrées with a friend.
• Offer excess food you have to others.
• Bring a locking storage container to take home any leftovers.
• Make a pact with your dining buddies that you won’t let food go to waste. Either someone at the table will eat it or someone will take the leftovers!
PREVENT FOOD WASTE IN THE COMMUNITY
• If you host a meeting, party or event, let no good food go to waste on your watch. Have in place leftover donation, send-off and compost strategies. Have some biodegradable to-go containers so that any leftovers can be sent home with volunteers, staff, guests or anyone!
• Volunteer for Keep Austin Fed, and sign up to pick up surplus food from restaurants and bakeries to deliver to social service agencies.
For additional resources and more information on this subject, visit foodshiftaustin.org often for information about where you can donate surplus food, volunteer to be a food runner and find out more about liability protection and tax deductions for food donors.
LOCAL HEROES IN THE WAR ON WASTE
KEEP AUSTIN FED
Joseph de Leon wouldn’t normally buy a single-serving meal for himself, but he relishes the weekly opportunity to rescue hundreds of them—packed with everything from ahi Niçoise salad to grassfed beef—from the waste stream for some of the city’s poorest people. De Leon is a leader in Keep Austin Fed, a volunteer group that helps funnel to charity still-delicious but otherwise landfill-bound food from area bakeries, caterers and restaurants. “The best part,” he says, “is knowing that the people who are getting this would normally have no exposure to something like a quinoa salad, and that they would probably never buy this for themselves.”
Keep Austin Fed—which started in 2008 with one volunteer gathering and donating leftovers from a monthly catered wine-and-cheese-tasting event—has mushroomed into a network of more than 30 volunteer food runners who pick up and deliver consumable food to shelters, food pantries and other charities in cooperation with the nonprofit organization Easter Seals of Central Texas. This partnership allows the group to offer the participating donor businesses, which include Upper Crust Bakery, Snap Kitchen, Kerbey Lane Cafe and others, a tax deduction for the food they share.
While the volunteers don’t get a chance to actually feed people themselves, de Leon says they derive satisfaction from rescuing what are often mountains of food—which, in addition to the individually packaged meals, have contained catering trays stacked with lemon bars and fudge brownies, salmon entrées and even 10 gallons’ worth of Cajun-spiced mixed nuts—for the people who need it the most.
These days, Keep Austin Fed is also piloting a project in partnership with Compost Coalition, through which food that is no longer fresh enough for people to eat is either composted or fed to egg-producing chickens—thereby laying the foundation for a new generation of consumable food. The group is also developing a leadership team and an advisory board as word spreads among restaurant owners and other businesses that Keep Austin Fed is the go-to group for food rescue. In the meantime, de Leon says he’s enjoying doing his part to limit the food that winds up in the landfill while simultaneously giving poor people a chance to try healthy new foods. “I hear stories from the shelter that the residents really enjoyed that Mediterranean salad…that it was a real treat for them,” he says. “That’s just icing on the cake.”
Find out more at facebook.com/keepaustinfed
GROUND TO GROUND
About a year ago, Lindsay Razzaz was blown away by a community meeting she attended with members of Compost Coalition—a volunteer-based network of individuals and groups working to divert organic matter from the landfill through education, outreach and activities such as transporting kitchen scraps to local chickens. “I was impressed by the great service Compost Coalition was providing for local businesses and for the environment,” Razzaz says. “I loved that there was very little money needed to effect this change.”
In fact, Razzaz—who works in the horticulture office of Travis County’s Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service—was so inspired that she began researching different composting programs around the world and soon found one in Melbourne, Australia, called Ground to Ground that she thought would dovetail nicely with the goals of the coalition. “It was a community composting program for coffee, and I thought that would be an incredible fit since used coffee grounds are a really wonderful, nutrient-rich resource for your garden.”
Thus was born Austin’s own Ground to Ground project, a partnership that includes Compost Coalition and Travis County’s Texas A&M AgriLife Extension office, which uses their army of master gardener volunteers to recruit cafés to offer their used grounds freely to anyone who asks and to educate the community in general about their myriad benefits. “Coffee grounds actually contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium,” notes Razzaz, “which are the three major nutrients in conventional fertilizer, and they contribute a range of micronutrients such as magnesium, copper and calcium that you don’t typically find in synthetic fertilizers. They add organic matter to your yard or garden, which helps retain moisture, and are just a fantastic soil amendment overall.”
“I say that using coffee grounds in your garden is a gateway drug to composting,” Compost Coalition founder Heather-Nicole Hoffman adds with a laugh. “You can actually put them directly on your soil, so you don’t even have to compost them first.” Not to mention the fact that they’re free.
So far, the Ground to Ground program has enlisted about 20 participating coffee shops citywide that will provide free grounds (and even reusable containers to transport them in) through a bucket-exchange program. Program leaders say they’re always looking to expand, by adding either more businesses or outreach educators. “The beauty of it is that it’s simple, sustainable and community-driven,” Razzaz says. “Ground to Ground reduces waste, builds our soil and strengthens local businesses.”
Find out more at compostcoalition.com/ground-to-ground
FOUR SEASONS AUSTIN
The guest rooms at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin are known for their luxurious amenities—including down-filled duvets and complimentary bath products from L’Occitane en Provence. But last fall, the hotel’s sustainability team introduced another special feature: an in-room recycling system—complete with information for guests on how to compost their food leftovers—as part of their new Zero Waste initiative, an ambitious program designed to cut down landfill-bound refuse from 90 to less than 10 percent in just two years. “We have seen a great amount of participation from the guests,” says Spa Supervisor Jaramy LaLonde, who serves as the chair of the sustainability committee that spearheaded the program. “We are a forerunner in waste diversion. That’s exciting to me.”
The initiative is being undertaken in partnership with Texas Disposal Systems, which collects all three components of waste: recycling, compost and landfill trash. This has allowed for many items that were only just recently sent to the landfill (including cardboard, most forms of plastic and even the food trays put out for spa guests) to serve a higher purpose. “We divert almost everything, except for a minimal amount of trash that doesn’t compost or go into single-stream recycling, such as straws or condiment containers,” says LaLonde. “Almost everything else, you can divert to single-stream and compost.” Indeed, between December 2012 and February 2013, the hotel diverted 216,520 pounds from the landfill, which is 85 tons more than the same period the previous year.
While the hotel’s sustainability team’s goal is to achieve zero-waste status in two years—decades sooner than the City of Austin’s own plan for a 90-percent diversion rate by the year 2040—the team says they’re not stopping there. They hope to eventually make the program a closed loop by using the hotel’s own compost to enrich the soil for the chef’s kitchen garden as well as the surrounding area along Lady Bird Lake. But for now, LaLonde says it’s satisfying to see people from all areas of the hotel—food and beverage workers, housekeeping staff, even guests—enthusiastically doing their part to keep things out of the landfill. “It took us almost two years to get this in place,” LaLonde says. “But we believe in our earth and in having a legacy for the future. It’s the right thing to do.”
Find out more at fourseasons.com/austin