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VOL. 42 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 23, 2018

Less in landfills, more for hungry Tennesseans

Nashville at forefront of fight to trim food waste, turn what’s left into compost

By Linda Bryant

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Tennesseans waste an estimated 40 percent of their food supply yearly, even as people go hungry in the state. It’s a staggering statistic, especially considering that an estimated 1 million Tennesseans – about 315,000 of whom are children – are considered “food insecure” and don’t necessarily know from where their next meal is coming.

Many who are active in the food-waste prevention movement say they are seeing awareness and action on a similar level to what happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s when towns and cities across the country adopted comprehensive recycling programs.

Efforts are underway in some of our largest cities, including Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, to raise awareness about the realities of food waste and give citizens the tools and knowledge – whether by offering access to more convenient, affordable and environmentally friendly ways of composting, finding new ways of saving and distributing food before it spoils or by offering educational workshops and technical assistance to citizens and corporations that want to learn how to reduce their food waste.

Initiatives and projects are being spearheaded by restaurateurs, universities, corporations, business leaders and entrepreneurs, public servants and non-profit organizations.

Seema Prasad, owner of Miel Restaurant in West Nashville.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“We recently had 50 chefs and decision-makers in a room, and we talked about what food that we [restaurateurs] can’t use at the end of the night,’’ says Seema Prasad, owner of Nashville’s Miel Restaurant. “How do we keep it from being more food waste and get it to organizations that can package it in a timely manner?”

Pilot city

Nashville is the furthest along when it comes to addressing food waste and is poised to step into a critical role as a role model, especially in the Southeast, where food waste awareness has lagged behind cities such as Seattle, Austin and San Francisco.

In 2015, the National Resources Defense Council selected Nashville as its pilot city for developing high-impact local policies and on-the-ground actions to address food waste. The group’s specific project in the city, the Nashville Food Waste Initiative, is developing strategies and practical tools to serve as models for cities around the country.

Miel Restaurant chef Andrew Coins dumps food scraps into a compost bin. Owner Seema Prasad is leading an effort to recycle restaurant waste.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

The approach to combating food waste in Knoxville and Chattanooga is fragmented at this point, but both cities are seeing notable change with the emergence of new programs designed to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the state is expected to get involved “very soon” with some additional programs, according to Ashley Cabrera, creative services coordinator with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in the Office of Sustainable Practices.

The department works to reduce the amount of food waste entering landfills through the promotion and recognition of residential, commercial and industrial waste minimization practices; food recovery and donation; anaerobic digestion and composting throughout the state. These efforts are supported through grant-funding, technical assistance, educational opportunities and other resources.

In 2015, TDEC initiated the first-ever organics management funding opportunity on behalf of the state with a goal targeted at increasing composting. Since then, more than $5 million has been awarded to a variety of public and private entities across the state to reduce wasted food and food waste.

TDEC also has partnered with Metro Nashville Public Works and community organizations on public education efforts concerning food-waste initiatives.

This spring, TDEC is planning to launch a voluntary recognition program, Get Food Smart TN, which aims to highlight organizations across the state that engage in food waste-conscious actions as a mechanism for furthering best practices in using food wisely, preventing the generation of food waste and recovering or diverting wasted food.

Corporate commitment

Increasingly, the business community is getting involved.

Kroger, for example, the largest grocery store chain in the country, committed in 2017 to making a difference when it launched Zero Hunger | Zero Waste. The companywide initiative has pledged to end hunger in the communities Kroger serves and eliminate waste in the company by 2025.

Kroger is a major food retailer in Knoxville and Nashville, but doesn’t operate in Chattanooga.

Steps to eliminate food waste

  • Meal plan and shop with a list
  • Donate to a local food bank
  • Make leftovers into soups and casseroles that can be frozen
    Compost
  • Avoid trays at all-you-can-eat dining facilities and use smaller eating dishes at home to reduce over-portioning
  • Educate yourself on the shelf-life of the produce you use regularly at home
  • Pay attention to expiration dates on canned goods and rotate the contents of your pantry frequently
  • Purchase less food in grocery shopping trips so that less goes to waste
  • Organize food in the fridge by what needs to be eaten first
  • Freeze food that isn’t eaten
  • Finish leftovers first; repurpose food for another meal
  • Don’t discard food just because it reached the “sell-by” date, check it for freshness first
  • Compost as much food waste as possible in separate bins

The ambitious campaign also established a $10 million innovation fund “to address hunger, food waste and the paradoxical relationship between the two” and has pledged to donate three billion meals by 2025.

Additionally, Kroger has vowed to “advocate for public policy solutions to address hunger and to shorten the line at food banks, lobbying for continued funding of federal hunger relief programs, and for public policies that help communities prevent and divert waste from landfills, including recycling, composting and sustainability programs that can be scaled for maximum impact.”

“Feeding the hungry has always been one of our main focuses of giving,” explains Melissa Eads, corporate affairs manager at Kroger Nashville Division.

“Forty-two million Americans struggle with hunger, and at the same time an estimated 72 billion pounds of food end up in the landfill every year. Kroger is looking for innovative ideas around hunger and food waste and in the process of crowdsourcing ideas from customers.

“Our overarching goal is the same in each city,” Eads adds. “In our stores we operate in a way that we never let anything that would be perfectly good for someone to eat go to waste.”

Knoxville, Chattanooga in the game

In Knoxville, the University of Tennessee runs a rigorous recycling and composting program and has set a goal of diverting 90 percent or more of all waste by composting, reducing use, recycling and reusing.

Until recently, the school’s robust composting and recycling program has been conducted largely behind the scenes by staff, but in 2017 the program launched a front-of-the-house composting service at Southern Kitchen, an on-campus restaurant, says Austin Reynolds, zero waste coordinator at UT.

“It makes a lot of sense to keep increasing our composting efforts,” Reynolds says. “We made a net profit last year – close to $200,000 – just from keeping things out of the landfill. It’s hard to argue with something generating wealth and helping the environment.”

Reynolds says Knoxville is held back from doing more to address the food waste problem because of a lack of services.

“The main thing about Knoxville that makes it difficult is that the city doesn’t have a municipal or privately-run composting program,” he adds. “But I believe that will change. I feel momentum building on campus. Students are interested and reach out to us with questions. Our program alone is growing fast.”

Indeed, UT’s recycling division has some notable statistics. In food waste alone, the program has gone from 8 tons of collect material in 2010 to 383 tons in 2016.

Reynolds, 26, also sees the issue as generational. “My generation and younger are a lot more invested in this issue and worried about it,” he explains.

“Also, I think the South is a not quite as aware or caught up on things like composting and recycling as other parts of the country because we have a lot more space and landfills are not quite at the premium they are in the more densely areas of the country. But it’s an issue that’s catching up with us.”

Chattanooga took a giant leap forward in its ability to combat food waste late last year when Atlas Organics, a Spartanburg, South Carolina-based social enterprise expanded its commercial/industrial and residential composting and food waste pick-up services to the area.

“A lot of people are very glad to see the service in Chattanooga,” says Cullon Hooks, general manager of the Chattanooga branch of Atlas Organics.

“It’s a huge learning curve for a lot of people, but people are really receptive to it. There’s also a large potential market [for composting and eliminating food waste]. I like to say that anybody who eats is a potential client.”

Atlas Organics operates composting facilities in parts of South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee through public-private partnerships with municipalities.

Here’s how it works: the company takes the food waste collected from customers and mixes it with the yard waste collected curbside by the municipality. After 45 days, a high-quality compost is produced and sold back to agriculture, landscape and home gardening markets. (Residential accounts in Chattanooga are serviced under the brand name Compost House; Atlas Organics is the brand name for commercial accounts.)

Compost House offers a doorstep pickup program, which is $24 a month, in which workers come weekly to a home to swap out dirty buckets for clean, or a drop-off program for $14 a month that allows participants to bring food waste to a designated drop-off location.

A bucket or buckets are provided based on the program of choice.

“I’m very pleased with the positive traction we’re getting,” Hooks says. “Throwing things in the garbage can be so inexpensive, especially in the Southeast. It can be hard to make a case to pay more when the city or the private waste haulers will pick [garbage and waste] up for very little.”

Local leaders speak out

“Ninety-five percent of food waste ends up either in landfills or is incinerated,” says Linda Breggin, project coordinator of the Nashville Food Waste Initiative. “That’s the last place we want it to go because when it goes into a landfill in anaerobic condition it will produce methane, and that’s a problem because methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.”

Breggin, who also works with the Environmental Law Institute and teaches part time at Vanderbilt School of Law, says NFWI is focusing on rescue and recovery of food waste first, so that “hungry people can be feed,” and then focuses on recycling and composting as strategies to reduce food waste.

“In Davidson County, alone we have 110,000 people without food, and yet we’re throwing all this food away,” Breggin adds. “From a social justice perspective, it doesn’t really make any sense.

“What we are doing here is going to be a model for cities around the country,” Breggin continues. “Part of what we’re trying to do here is examine different approaches and try and see what works. We also want to try to build ownership in the community so it continues after we leave.”

Nashville is tackling the issue in myriad ways.

One example is the Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge, which launched in 2017, and asked local restaurants to implement practices to prevent food waste, donate food and/or recycle food scraps and report on progress.

The ongoing initiative is being embraced by many in the local restaurant and food trade, Prasad says.

Prasad, who has been on the front lines of the food waste challenge since she opened Miel in 2008, applies sustainable practices such as composting. She says she’s determined to make composting and food conservation household words among Nashville residents and in the business community.

Prasad was recently recognized by “Restaurant Hospitality,’’ a trade journal for the American restaurant industry, as a national leader for her efforts to build a community anaerobic digester composting facility in Middle Tennessee.

This type of composting facility would allow organic waste to be processed by the tons and converted in an oxygen-free environment to high-quality compost used to enrich soils and renewable biogas.

It took Prasad more than two years to find the right leasable parcel of land for the composting facility, which is located near Ashland City. She also helped form a non-profit foundation for the project and raised money from local donors and foundations, including grants from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, HCA, Bank of America and the Steve Turner Foundation, among others.

“I vetted 31 parcels,” Prasad explains. “It was a 15- to 20- hour a week job.”

With a projected opening date hoped for late 2018, the new composting facility will be one of 40 to 50 anaerobic digester facilities across the country. It is expected to divert food waste from the region’s landfills by turning it into usable compost and liquid fertilizer for local farmers and gardeners. It also will capture the methane gas, using it for energy.

The details of composting and beyond

Many see widespread composting used by citizens and the business community as the best solution to the growing problem of food waste. But people don’t always understand why letting food decompose in a landfill is frowned on compared to composting it.

While food that is mixed in with regular trash is estimated to make up about 40 percent of the trash in landfills, it is also is the biggest offender in creating landfill methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that’s an estimated 72 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

“Reducing landfill methane is just one of the benefits of composting and working to keep food waste out of landfills,” Prasad notes. “As with any habit change, it takes time to initiate something that is brand new. We are not just talking about composting, we are [trying to change the mentality behind] a throw away, wasteful community.”

Prasad is also involved in working with the Nashville restaurant community on ways to save wasted and discarded food.

“Nashville being chosen by the NRDC for their pilot food waste initiative has really helped spur more conversation about this entire issue,” Prasad says. “And it’s not just conversation about waste, but meaningful dialogue about edible food we could give away to someone who needs to eat.

Prasad says she would like Nashville to be a model for food waste reduction that’s replicated and admired by other cities, especially those in the Southeast, within five years.

“I would like to see our major institutions such as hospitals and convention centers all participating in diverting their waste,” she points out. “We are already going into some schools and community centers to educate, but I want to see that we have secure programs in schools where children can learn where these important resources can be captured and used in their communities.”

Another benefit to Nashville’s role as an NRDC pilot city for food waste – and one that cities such as Knoxville and Chattanooga might take note of – is that it spurred Metro government to participate as a stakeholder and partner with other leaders, educators, company owners and activists.

As a result, Metro Public Works has added two drop-off points for food waste for people who are unable to compost: The Omohundro Center at 1019 Omohundro Place, which is about half-way between downtown and Donelson, and East Center at 943 Doctor Richard G. Adams Drive, which is off Trinity Lane near Ellington Parkway.

Public Works is also offering composting workshops to neighborhood groups and conducting classes in public settings such as schools and community centers.

“Many people don’t have enough space or don’t garden but still want to compost,” says Sharon Smith, assistant director at Metro Public Works. “Now we can provide them opportunities to drop off food waste.

“If people will just give composting a try, they’ll realize that it’s easy and kind of fun,” Smith adds. “It took some time for people to become aware of recycling, but they did.

“Now we’re to the point of getting them to focus on the ‘stinky’ part of waste reduction. It can be challenging but once most people give composting a try, they realize it’s easy and kind of fun.”

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