Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge Seeks to Cut Local Food Waste

From, By Margaret Littman

Taking a look at programs and organizations that cut waste and redirect food to the hungry. Imagine the entire space of Nissan Stadium filled to the top with uneaten produce. The lettuce you forgot about in the back of your crisper. Those melon-sphere garnishes served with your omelet at brunch last week. Imagine an arena’s worth of that, piled layer upon layer, rotting away every day.

The stats are mind-blowing: Up to 40 percent of all food in the U.S. is thrown away. Every single day, Americans toss out enough food to fill the Titans’ stadium. About 20 percent of all waste in this country’s landfills is food.

And the wasteful part isn’t just the perfectly good food going unused. Every time we toss those leftovers, every time stale bagels from a craft-services table get thrown out, we’re also wasting the natural resources (such as fresh water and crop land) used to produce that food. When organic matter is put into a landfill, it produces methane gas — because oxygen isn’t reaching the organic material, it goes through anaerobic decomposition. And methane is a greenhouse gas.

What’s more, we’re wasting cash. The average family of four throws away about $1,800 in edible food annually. That’s the equivalent of walking into Kroger, buying five bags of groceries and dropping two in the parking lot as you leave, explains Linda Breggin, an environmental lawyer and project coordinator for the Nashville Food Waste Initiative.

OK, so all that waste is bad. But here’s what makes it worse: At least 1 in 8 people in the U.S. is food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to enough to eat due to lack of resources at some point during the year, according to the USDA. Some estimates put the number as high as 1 in 6. In Davidson County, about 100,000 people are food insecure, 25,000 of whom are children, Breggin says.

“If we could reduce food waste in our country, we could feed all food insecure people,” explains Breggin. She cites a Natural Resources Defense Council report called “Wasted” that found that “one-third of the food we throw out would be enough to feed this population completely.”

In 2015 the NRDC was looking into “testing some theories on ways that cities could address food waste,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the NRDC. “We looked at Nashville as a way to pilot that research. It was perfect to us as a mid-sized city in the middle of the country.” San Francisco and New York are not necessarily seen as model cities for the rest of the country, because they are so large and progressive. “Nashville is a city that others could relate to,” says Hoover. Research from the 2012 “Wasted” report, which was updated again in 2017, demonstrates the far-reaching impact of food waste and food rescue.

Along with the NRDC pilot program, Music City developed a number of cooperative programs — for businesses, schools and individuals — through a number of complementary agencies tied with a common, albeit ambitious, goal: to get Nashville to become a zero-waste city. The idea was to address the interconnected problems of food waste and hunger through a variety of initiatives, including waste reduction through education; donations to the hungry; composting what cannot be donated; other recycling (such as cooking oil); and, of course, systems to assess progress.

The Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge was first launched as a pilot in 2017 under then-Mayor Megan Barry, and was relaunched by Mayor David Briley in November 2018. The program works with restaurants, hotels and other commercial hospitality sites to reduce the amount of excess food they prepare, donate the food they don’t use, and compost what can’t be donated.

“This project started before I became mayor,” says Briley, “but it is up my alley. It brings together issues of equity. Families have enough to eat, so it is more than being about the environment, but it does divert from the landfill. This is one of those cases where you can do right and do good.”

Thus far, more than 50 restaurants have signed on to participate, including Miel and Etch.

“Not a lot of people think about it,” says Karl Ebert, concessions manager for Delaware North, the third-party vendor for the Bridgestone Arena and the Nashville Predators, which donates excess food to the Nashville Rescue Mission and Room In The Inn. “I’m not saying it is easy to do, because you are changing the way people think and act. But it is easy, in that once you make a little change, it can go a long way.” Before Ebert joined Delaware North he was associate director of operations at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where he also oversaw reducing food waste.

For Ebert, much of the emphasis is on reducing the amount of excess food that is prepared in the first place. “Hockey games are pretty easy,” he says. “We know what to prepare and when we prepare it, so we don’t waste a lot. We know how many people will be there and how many people eat hot dogs in the first period. Concerts are a bigger question. The crowd for Metallica is different than the Harlem Globetrotters, so that is more [of a] guessing game. We compare previous shows and work to not over-prepare.”

For Delaware North, donating uneaten but still-edible food is fairly simple. At Bridgestone, they have the capacity to safely store food until the next day, when the Nashville Rescue Mission or another agency can pick it up. Smaller restaurants and other venues might not have that ability, and few food banks can pick up or process donations late at night, which is when prepared event food is often available, making donations more complicated.

At the Renaissance Nashville downtown, the majority of catering is for breakfasts and lunches. The hotel has its own trucks that can make donation deliveries, so it hasn’t been a problem to get donations to the Nashville Rescue Mission.

Kevin Pickard is director of operations for the Renaissance. He says The Compost Co., a local firm that picks up food that can’t be donated on a weekly basis (such as scraps from plates and vegetable peelings), reported that the Renaissance composted more food waste than any other Nashville hotel in 2018, diverting 140,215 pounds from landfills into compost. The crew also diverted 9,473 pounds of cooking oil by recycling it.

“The staff feels proud, and that is the best payoff ever,” Pickard says. There are compost bins in every hotel department, as well as the employee cafeteria.

Briley says Nashville hadn’t been forced to think about food-waste reduction in the past because, unlike New York or Los Angeles, the cost per ton of disposal is relatively manageable, so landfill costs weren’t as much of a motivator. But as the city grows, that may change. It is increasingly expensive to suck out that methane produced by organic waste in landfills and convert it to energy.

“It is not sustainable to keep digging holes and burying trash,” says Sharon Smith, assistant director for Metro Public Works.

Metro Public Works will soon release its Zero Waste Master Plan, which will outline the ways the city plans to meet its zero-waste goal. Unlike the Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge, which is focused on restaurants, many of these efforts are geared toward individuals. For example, grants to teach residents about backyard composting turned into free classes at East Nashville’s Turnip Green Creative Reuse. When those classes sell out, there are other options around town from other entities. For example, the Master Gardeners of Davidson County group often offers free classes at public libraries. Metro now has four different convenience centers where residents who don’t want to compost at home can bring their food waste. Another effort involves building an anaerobic digester that would better break down organic waste and convert the methane to usable energy.

From NRDC’s perspective, Nashville exceeded expectations. “We’ve never before worked on a meeting where we get 50 RSVPs, but 75 people would show up,” Hoover says. She cites the doubling of composting rates and reduction of waste through education as evidence that Nashville is on the right track.

NRDC’s Save the Food website provides tips for reducing the amount of food that gets thrown away by cooking with leftovers, storing food properly and, for instance, accurately estimating the amount of nachos to make when you have friends over to watch a Preds game.

“They laugh at me here because I don’t worry about ‘sell-by’ dates for my food at home,” says Melissa Eads, a spokeswoman for the Kroger grocery store chain. Freezing a leftover half-loaf of bread for grilled-cheeses, making soup from wilting vegetables and taking stock of what you have in the house before you go food shopping are some of the actions Eads would like to see consumers implement on a regular basis.

But company-wide, Kroger is thinking bigger, as it has a goal of zero food waste by 2025. At Middle Tennessee and North Alabama Kroger stores, organizations such as the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee pick up food two to three times per week, much of which is frozen for food safety purposes. Food that cannot be donated is composted at each store.

Chris Whitney says that when he moved to Franklin more than 14 years ago to start a church, “The only thing I knew about food was that I liked to eat it.” Things change. Whitney fought  cancer and changed his diet as a result, and during that time he learned a lot about food.

That led Whitney and his wife Elaine to start One Generation Away, a mobile food pantry that collects excess food from grocery stores and donates it to families in need. The nonprofit boxes up the donations and meets clients with a truck and grocery cart in various parking lots in Davidson and Williamson counties, and takes twice-monthly trips to Columbia. Volunteers help those in need fill their cart and then take it to their cars and load for them, talking as they walk. Prepared meals, produce and other food that can no longer be sold but is still healthy and edible comes from Costco, Publix, Whole Foods, Aldi and others.

“The message that is the hardest to get out about food waste is so simple: Food rescue permeates so much of our society,” Whitney says. “If you are not going to eat something, give it to someone else, compost it or give it to a farmer. The faces of the hungry are not who you think they are.”

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