Trash Talk: Fighting Food Waste
By Jon Shoulders
About 40 percent of the food produced in America is not eaten.
According to a 2012 report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), every year $165 billion worth of food ends up in U.S. landfills. No single link in the supply chain is immune — production, post-harvest, processing, distribution, retail and consumption all yield massive food waste.
John Williamson, founder and executive director of Carmel-based Food Rescue, puts the dilemma in bold, somewhat unexpected terms. “If you ask me what the two biggest factors are in food waste in America I would say it’s that we live in the land of abundance, and that food waste is profitable,” he says. “And that is a very difficult concept to get our minds around. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t bother us and we’re willing to accept it.”
Ten years ago Williamson became fed up with the amount of food being thrown out at restaurants and groceries and decided to launch Food Rescue in an attempt to make those in charge of food establishments and schools aware and proactive about how much of their food was needlessly discarded. He observed produce delivery trucks showing up at grocery stores only to have shipments rejected for solely aesthetic reasons.
“It has nothing to do with taste — those things have to meet the standards of the grocery store to even be accepted, because it’s the perfectly shaped and perfectly produced food that is profitable and what people want,” he says. “A lot of times the imperfect food goes directly to a landfill or directly to a food pantry.” Overstocked product displays and early disposal of nearly expired items only exacerbate the problem.
For these reasons, as well as the inability to cover the costs of labor and transport if market prices are low, many farmers will simply leave portions of their harvest in the ground. “It’s cheaper just to let it rot,” Williamson says. “Therein comes the old saying — we don’t have a food supply problem in this country, we have a distribution problem.”
And of course there’s the consumer phase of the supply chain — the NRDC reports that U.S. families throw out about 25 percent of their food and beverage purchases due to factors like poor planning, impulse buying and confusion regarding expiration dates. Fruits and vegetables make up the biggest percentage of losses in households as well as retail stores and food service establishments, followed by dairy and meat.
Sadly, the negative effects of wasting food don’t end after it’s been chucked into a landfill. As food decomposes, it gives off methane and carbon dioxide, both greenhouse gasses harmful to the earth’s atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period.
“The biggest misunderstanding is that when food goes into the trash it’s gone, but the reality is, it’s not,” says Heather Maybury, owner of Earth Mama Compost. Maybury’s company picks up food scraps from residences and businesses and drops it off at GreenCycle, an Indy-based company that makes organic compost, mulch and soil blends for landscapers and gardeners. “If it’s in the compost pile it will be putting off those harmful gases for a week or a month, and if it goes to the landfill it could be a decade or two — maybe even four.”
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Williamson feels one of the keys to reducing unnecessary food waste lies in making connections. The Food Rescue staff typically consults with restaurants and schools to determine a level of interest in implementing a food waste recovery program, and if the given organization has already secured approval for any such programs. Williamson assists with the logistics to get the process rolling, and connections are then made to the appropriate pickup service and food-relief outlet.
With options for local donation programs on the rise, excuses for business owners and school officials are growing thin (especially given the financial incentive — more on that in a bit). Gleaners Food Bank, St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, Midwest Food Bank and Second Helpings recently teamed up with the Indiana Motor Truck Association to redirect food otherwise bound for the nearest landfill. Known as Indy Food Drop, the program simply reroutes drivers to one of the four food agencies instead of dumping the rejected food that is picked up.
On a national scale programs like Food Cowboy, which uses location-based technology to reroute rejected, landfill-bound food to pantries, food banks, or shelters, are increasingly available. The California-based nonprofit group Waste No Food provides a platform for farms, businesses, cafeterias, and groceries to post their excess food on the group’s official website, allowing local aid groups to intercept it.
For those seeking concrete benefits of donating in addition to the gratification that comes with helping those in need, tax benefits are also available. Qualified, tax-paying businesses that make charitable food donations are eligible for a federal tax deduction equal to the cost of the goods as well as up to half of the profit that would have been made for those goods. (The deduction cannot exceed twice the cost of the items.)
“Not only is there a tax incentive, but there is legal protection,” Williamson adds, pointing to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 to minimize liability for businesses who donate perishable food to nonprofits. “The Food Recovery Project in Arkansas has done a study that’s proven that no restaurant has ever been sued by a recipient from a food pantry for their food. The idea that you might get sued due to food safety issues — there’s no case law in America since 1996 to support that argument, so it’s really a myth. What people are really more concerned about is bad press, with the possibility of food safety issues like E. coli.”
When convincing a business or school to implement or strengthen waste reduction policies, Williamson likes to use a simple analogy. “Think of it as a table with four legs — you’ve got legal protection, a financial incentive to do it, good public relations, and morally it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “You have all of those elements in place and the table stands firmly on those legs.”
For anyone who’d like to reduce their own household food waste through composting but would rather leave the dirty work to someone else, Earth Mama’s residential and commercial pickup service — weekly or every other week — is available for a $10-per-pickup fee. “If you’re composting yourself there’s a website that I recommend often called EarthEasy.com that gives every way that you could compost, and how to fix things that go wrong,” says Maybury, who currently picks up food scraps from more than 60 residential and commercial clients. “Just educate yourself and learn how to keep your pile alive with microbes and such by avoiding some common mistakes like not having it large enough or putting it in too much of a shaded area.”
Not interested in composting? Consider giving those food scraps to farmers who can use it for animal feed. Regulations vary by state, so make sure to contact your local solid waste or public health office to learn more about what can be donated, and any safety protocols that might apply.
“Reducing the amount of waste you actually produce is another important piece,” adds Maybury. “Just using scraps in food stock and broths helps reduce waste in the beginning, so you don’t have as much to deal with.”
According to U.S. Economic Research Service data for 2015, about 15.8 million U.S. households were food insecure at some point during the year. Yet about 133 billion pounds of food — much of it perfectly edible and wholesome — is wasted annually. Approximately one billion food items are thrown away each year in K-12 schools alone. Reducing food losses by a meager 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans. Let those numbers sink in as you rise from the dinner table tonight.
Visit the following sites for additional info and resources:
foodrescue.net * indyfooddrop.org * foodcowboy.com * imperfectproduce.com * cafeteriaculture.org * earthmamacompost.com * eartheasy.com * foodwastealliance.org * hhfoodbank.org * hoosierfarmersmarkets.org/glean-in
Interested in learning more about starting a gleaning program on your farm? Read this National Farmers Union blog post and contact the Indiana Farmers Union at firstname.lastname@example.org for help getting started.
For another read on Indy Food Drop, check out this story on the Indianapolis Star website.