Local groups work to reduce, redistribute, and "rescue" food from loss and landfills
At 7am on a chilly Wednesday, Jennifer James stands on the loading dock behind the Arboretum-area Trader Joe's. She watches as clerks wheel 16 boxes full of food from the back room to a waiting pickup truck. Inside are baskets of strawberries. Muffins. Pre-packaged salads. Hot dog buns, bread, and tortillas. All of it is older than its sell-by date, but not expired. That means James' two fellow volunteers can haul it to their food pantry at nearby Covenant Methodist Church and distribute it that evening. "This is probably about 400 pounds," James says, surveying the packed truck bed, "which is a light day. Since today wasn't much, I'm guessing there will be more tomorrow."
James, who has volunteered with Keep Austin Fed since October 2013, was right: Weighed at the church, the food totaled 442 pounds. She added the numbers to her records, which indicate that Keep Austin Fed rescues about 40,000 pounds of food every single month.
Rescued from what? The landfill. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that roughly 40% of food in the U.S. goes to waste. That statistic is an estimate that includes waste throughout the life span of food – from bruised tomatoes left to rot in the field, to ricotta past its sell-by date at the grocery store, to lasagna forgotten at the back of the fridge. Much of it ends up in landfills; EPA numbers show that about a third of what fills municipal landfills is organic material, like food scraps and yard trimmings, and half of that amount is food waste. Austin's numbers may not parallel the national statistics exactly, Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert told the Zero Waste Advisory Commission last week, but they're a good baseline.
The average American wastes about $644 worth of food annually, according to a 2011 article in the International Journal on Food System Dynamics. But money isn't only leaking out of the kitchen. It takes water to produce food, and energy to truck it to stores. Hauling trashed food to the landfill expends still more energy.
Worse, food in the landfill doesn't break down and turn into soil. Because such materials are covered with dirt each day and are cut off from oxygen, they break down anaerobically, creating gases, including methane. Analyses by the EPA reflect that methane has at least 20 times the impact on climate change as equal amounts of carbon dioxide, and that landfills contribute about a fifth of the methane emissions created by human activity. Some landfills, including the Waste Management site in Northeast Austin, capture methane and turn it into electricity. Others flare it away.
"It's a missed opportunity on so many levels," says Brandi Clark Burton, the founder of Austin EcoNetwork, announced to become a senior policy advisor with the Mayor's Better Austin Foundation, and a major force behind Austin's food waste-prevention efforts. "We could have fed people, we could have fed animals, we could have built soil – why would we put it in the landfill, the worst possible place? There are so many other things we could do, so we've got to build the infrastructure to make those accessible."
Burton's list of alternatives to landfilling – people, animals, soil – is based on the EPA's Food Recovery Hierarchy, an inverted pyramid that lists, in descending order of desirability, where surplus food should go. ("Soil" means composting.) The EPA guidelines also include, at the top, source reduction – preventing the waste through advance planning – and, farther down, industrial uses, such as biofuels. The Food Recovery Hierarchy is included as a guideline in Austin's Universal Recycling Ordinance, the city policy affecting businesses and apartment and condo buildings. Large food-service businesses will be required, starting in October 2016, to divert organic material from the landfill. For many, this will mean implementing a compost program, but food rescue efforts can be included in a business' annual diversion plan, a document explaining how it will comply with city rules. For now, efforts to reduce food waste are largely voluntary and motivated by environmental or social concerns. This story addresses the two first layers of the hierarchy: source reduction and feeding hungry people.
The Food Shift
In the fall of 2011, Burton, then on the Sustainable Food Policy Board, initiated the creation of a Food Surplus & Salvage Working Group. Members of that group, as well as a community effort called EcoCampaigns, researched the problem of food waste and options for local solutions. One outcome was a City Council proclamation that named 2013 the Year of Food Waste Prevention and Recovery.
Another outcome was a mentoring relationship between the Austin volunteers and the Oakland-based food waste prevention group, Food Shift. Members of Food Shift Austin, particularly Burton and Janis Bookout, drafted the city's food donation guidelines, which spell out how food handlers can safely convey extra resources to the needy. Food Shift Austin and the Zero Waste Network also worked to secure a pledge by government and industry to reduce food waste in accordance with the Food Recovery Hierarchy. Called the Emerging Solutions Project Charter, it was signed on Sept. 18, 2014, by then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell, the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, the Austin Hotel & Lodging Association, and Keep Austin Fed, among others. It marked a milestone in an EPA-funded community building effort to find ways restaurants and hotels can reduce loss – of both food and money. The EPA grant was written by Burton and Thomas Vinson of the Zero Waste Network, an Austin-based international organization dedicated to reducing waste at its source. The Zero Waste Network works with businesses to prevent waste in a way that saves them money.
"They pay for a material to come in the door, and then they pay to throw it away," Vinson says. If food is being thrown out because of over-ordering, "that's a sign of multiple inefficiencies. They're unloading it, they're putting it on the shelf, they're taking it off the shelf, they're spending hours and hours dealing with things that make them no profit."
As administrators of the EPA grant, Vinson, his colleague Morgan Whitney, and project manager Bookout have convened conversations among local food service professionals to identify projects for reducing food waste and saving businesses money. One project involves Stinson's Bistro, where the chef is developing partnerships with other neighborhood restaurants to share their surpluses. A second project involves the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on the UT-Austin campus, which currently recycles or composts 60% of its waste and is looking for ways to increase that to 75%.
"This isn't about recycling," Vinson says. "If you can get ahead of the game and reduce at the source, that's always the best way."
UT has done that in its two all-you-care-to-eat cafeterias by eliminating trays, so people are less susceptible to taking food they won't eat. A 2008 "plate waste" study determined that about 112 tons of edible food was being left on diners' plates each year. Removing trays from the dining halls cut the waste in half. Hunter Mangrum, sustainability coordinator for the Division of Housing & Food Service, says the cafeterias also try to repurpose unserved food for the next day's menu and donate excess to a soup kitchen.
On a larger scale, Burton would like to see zero-waste strategies included in management training at culinary and hotel schools, and in the process of food handler certification. "When we build requirements into places where you're asking for resources, or going for training, and the guidelines say 'this is the standard,' then people do it because it's required," she says, citing the example of environmental improvements resulting from green building codes.
Half Is More
Local nonprofit Halfsies and its partner restaurants also focus on the "front end," eliminating waste before it even gets onto the plate. At participating businesses, diners choose menu items that can be scaled down to a half-portion. The customer pays full price, and part of the bill goes to a charity that fights hunger. It's an option suitable for light eaters, travelers, and people who are dining out before heading to the theatre or somewhere else without a fridge. Founder Rachel Smith came up with the idea several years ago when she traveled for work and often found herself without a way to store leftovers. She tried to order smaller portions but was told it wasn't an option. "I thought it doesn't make sense to have so many people who are hungry and don't have enough to eat, while I'm wasting food because the portions are so big," she says. "On one side there's excess, and on the other there's this great lack."
The project kicked off in Austin in October with two partner restaurants – Russian House (Downtown), and Cedro, near Lakeline Mall. Smith says she and her team – it's an all-volunteer project at this point – would like to expand into more dining rooms, particularly in chain restaurants. "The donation comes out of the difference in the food cost that's not served to the customer," which actually helps restaurants save on supplies, she says. Theoretically, participation in Halfsies could eventually allow a restaurant to adjust its supply orders downward.
Partnering with Halfsies was instinctive for Moscow-born Varda Tamoulianis, co-owner of Russian House. "Food waste was absolutely prohibited in my family, because we didn't have so much food on the table," she says. "We've gone through some hard economical situations in our country. When I came here I was like, 'Oh my gosh, everything's so huge' – but that's what people expect, coming to a restaurant."
The Russian House menu has a laminated insert describing the Halfsies initiative and indicating which dishes can be halved: for instance, golubtsy (one cabbage roll instead of two) and borscht (the regular portion is pretty big). When the program kicked off last fall, patrons were excited, Tamoulianis says, but participation has slowed; she estimates a few dozen people have gone halfsies. She's searching for a quicker way to communicate the information to customers, particularly those who are dining at Russian House for the first time and aren't familiar with the portion sizes.
If a surplus of food can't be avoided, the EPA says the next best thing is to get it to hungry people. Of the 31 million pounds of food the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas distributed last year, just over half were rescued from wholesalers, farms, and 130 retailers. Much of it is food whose sell-by date is about to pass, but that's still perfectly good. "Just because a company can't sell a food item doesn't mean that it's bad and should be thrown away," says food sourcing supervisor Bethany Carney. "I let people know that if they ever have a pallet of food that's mislabeled, or something is wrong with the coding on the packaging, if it's not OK for them to distribute but it's OK to eat, give us a call."
Keep Austin Fed, an all-volunteer group, does similar work on a smaller scale. Unlike the food bank, it doesn't have a storage facility, so food is transferred directly from donors to shelters and food pantries. The group's 20 suppliers include both Trader Joe's locations, Snap Kitchen, and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. But, operations director Joseph de Leon says, it's a drop in the bucket. "In a year's time, 20 donors have given us the equivalent of 500,000 meals, but multiply that by the remainder of the food providers in town, and there's still a huge volume of food going to the landfill," he says. "At a certain point it seems like we're going to run out of places to take the food – after we stock every shelter and food pantry out there, I bet there will still be food. Where does that go?"
One of the most common donations is bread. Artisan bread. Loaves of white bread. Baguettes. Pastries. Donuts. Tortillas. Keep Austin Fed can't place all the bread that comes its way. De Leon says that, in the past, volunteers have arrived at a food pantry with a big delivery of bread only to find that the charity already has bags and bags of it on the shelf.
"We have a huge bread problem," he says. "It's ironic, because bread is that icon of sharing – breaking bread with a friend – and hunger, and fellowship. It's actually our logo, a slice of bread with a heart in it. But the reality is that there is so much being produced at bakeries and grocery stores, I know it gets thrown away more than anything else we pick up." Keep Austin Fed briefly partnered with a large grocery store that offered the group eight shopping carts of bread. De Leon thought that was the weekly surplus – then later realized that the store pulled that much off the shelves each day.
Because Keep Austin Fed volunteers take food directly from donors to recipients, there's no way for them to predict exactly what they'll be bringing, or whether it will constitute complete meals. De Leon says the group once received a donation of 300 pounds of French cheese left over from an event during SXSW and took it to shelters. "A lot of the residents knew what it was and were appreciative, but I saw looks on other faces like, 'So you bring me 20 pounds of cheese – where's the bread?'"
Reducing waste can fly in the face of American preferences for abundance and choice, on the bread aisle or elsewhere. "When you're in the grocery store, you want to see the shelves fully stocked, and you want to have a good variety to choose from," the food bank's Carney says, adding that such practices mean her workplace receives a full truckload of bread several times a week.
Sometimes the abundance is for logistical reasons: Ted Hibler, general manager of the AT&T Conference Center, says the hotel serves a breakfast buffet that offers guests convenience and variety they wouldn't get with à la carte ordering. "We have to overproduce, because on a buffet you can't just have enough food for that one person," he says. What's left over "is perfectly viable, and if someone could take it away and give it to someone else, and we weren't in a litigious situation, I'd be happy to do that."
Serve-yourself buffet and banquet food is one of a few categories of food that can't be donated, because the public has been able to touch it. But most potential donations are covered by the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, a 1996 federal law that protects donors from legal liability if they donate "apparently wholesome" food in good faith (Texas has had a similar law on the books since 1981). "Often the first question a donor asks is, 'What's the liability if someone gets sick?'" de Leon says. "Once that's explained, there's usually no reason they can't donate."
Reducing food waste is one way Austin can inch closer to its goal of diverting 50% of materials from landfills by year's end. The most recent numbers show the city hovering at 39% diversion.
"Obviously there's still work to do, and we aren't capturing every ounce of food that's being thrown away, but the community has pulled together around the idea of food rescue," Carney says. "I don't know that it was something people talked about much a few years ago, but now they think it's important: Good food shouldn't be going to waste."